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...
...no 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.

2 thoughts on “Newcomb’s for Beginners: Intro”

  1. I would like to learn plants and flowers I come across. I’ve been wanting to get a field guide for plants. Maybe I’ll give this one a try .I only know a few of the most obvious plants that others have showed me like trillium.

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