Category Archives: Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide

Newcomb’s for Beginners: White Clover

Building on last week's posts (see Newcomb's for Beginners: Intro and Common Dandelion), I'll key out another well-known plant.

Photo of White Clover flower

This wildflower has numerous irregular flowers (code 1--) arranged in dense clusters.

Photo of White Clover leaves

This is a wildflower with alternate leaves (code 13-) that are each divided into three parts (code 134).  In the Locator Key, under Group #134, we find three choices: Leaflets 3..., Leaflets 4..., or Leaves deeply cleft...? Our plant has leaves with three leaflets. Are the flowers yellow? Nope. Is the middle leaflet stalk-less (or nearly so) or distinctly stalked? Looks nearly stalk-less to me. Okay, our plant should be on page 60.

The first listing on that page is Clovers (Trifolium), and the first line of the description matches our plant. Of the four choices within the group, only White Clover (T. repens) fits. Our plant is actually illustrated on a different page of the guide, as sometimes the plant appears to have only basal leaves (code 124). So in our case, at least two paths lead to White Clover.

Newcomb’s for Beginners: Common Dandelion

Note: If you missed yesterday's Intro, you'll want to check that out first.

Especially when learning how to use Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, I recommend practicing the method with plants that you already know. Using Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) as our first example, let's see how efficiently we confirm the plant's identity.

The flower is radially symmetrical and has 7 or more regular parts (code 7--). This is not a shrub or vine, but rather a wildflower with basal leaves only (code 72-). Finally, the leaves are divided (code 724).

Taking our code to the Locator Key, we find that we are close to naming our plant. The key asks if the flowers of our plant are Yellow (yes), or White, Pink, or Blue (no). Since the flowers are yellow, we have one more question: are the leaves 2 or more times longer than wide, or are the leaves about as wide as long?

Photo of Common Dandelion leaf

Choosing the former, we are sent to page 362 of the guide, which contains various members of the Composite or Aster family.

The written descriptions are such that on any given page, each species can be separated by the first line of text alone. The first line of Dandelions (Taraxacum) matches, and the guide goes on to describe two types: Common and Red-seeded. Consulting the illustrations, the leaves of our plant appear to solidly match with Common DandelionNot too tricky, right?

By engaging in a simple process of elimination, we've determined the identity of a mystery (or in this case, well-known) plant (and we've learned that there is a Red-seeded Dandelion -- who knew?).  Once you can identify known plants reliably with this guide, you can then use it (in conjunction with other guides or knowledgeable teachers) to figure out unfamiliar plants.  In the coming weeks, I'll post more examples of this powerful method of plant identification.

Newcomb’s for Beginners: Intro

For many beginning botanizers, plant identification involves flipping pages in a field guide until finding a drawing or photo that matches the plant in question. Many guides organize plants by color in an attempt to aid this page-turning search. But there are other methods.

A systematic and minimally technical approach, and one that encourages users to get to know plants more closely is Newcomb's Wildflower Guide. The book's system relies on answering a few questions and consulting a locator key to narrow a mystery plant down to just a handful of plants on a given page (or two). From there, positive identification can often be had by reading the written descriptions and consulting the drawings. And, because Newcomb's covers herbaceous plants, shrubs, and vines, including both native and introduced, I find this guide to be a handy first stop.*

Some people find the Newcomb's Method to be a bit intimidating, but as I'll demonstrate in future posts, this method, once practiced, is quick and simple.

Once you've found a flowering plant that you'd like to identify, here's how the guide works. First, categorize the flower – is it irregularly shaped, radially symmetrical, or are the flowering parts indistinguishable? If symmetrical, how many regular parts?  Notice that we aren't concerned with color at this point.

Irregular = 1
2 Regular Parts = 2
3 (4,5,6,7 or more) Regular Parts = 3 (4,5,6,7)
Parts indistinguishable = 8

Next, determine the plant type – are you looking at a wildflower, woody shrub, or vine? If a wildflower, does it have no apparent leaves, basal leaves only, alternately arranged leaves, or leaves arranged in pairs or whorls?

Wildflowers with... apparent leaves = 1
...basal leaves only = 2
...alternate leaves = 3
...opposite or whorled leaves = 4
Shrubs = 5
Vines = 6

Finally, we need to describe the leaves. If there are leaves, are they entire, toothed, lobed, or divided?

No apparent leaves = 1
Leaves entire = 2
Leaves toothed or lobed = 3
Leaves divided = 4

If you're brand new to botany, explanations and illustrations of the above mentioned terms are provided in the first few pages of the guide (along with the inside covers).

Armed with the 3-digit code, you can now consult the book's Locator Key to narrow down your search. Tomorrow, using the following plant, I'll show you how this method works from start to finish.

Photo of Common Dandelion

*For plants that Newcomb's doesn't cover, there are more comprehensive (though more technical) references, like Flora Novae Angliae by Arthur Haines. But for most laypeople in Northeastern and North-Central North American, Lawrence Newcomb's ingenious guide is perfectly suitable.