For most of us, a wildflower is merely a patch of color, until we try to give it a name. Only then do we look closely at the flower, at its petals, leaves, stem, and at the overall arrangement of the plant. Then unexpected beauty can be seen in the hitherto unnoticed details; the fringed lower petal of a mint, the profusion of stamens in a St. Johnswort, the furry throat of a violet, the papery "Japanese lantern" seed container of a ground cherry.

Wild flowers, like all living things, have both common and Latin names. The common names may vary from place to place. For instance, wood-sorrel was known to me as "sour grass" as a boy, but most reference books make no mention of this alternate name. Many wild flowers have several common names. Bee balm is another name for Oswego tea, marsh chickweed is also known as bog starwort, and so forth. But every species, whether flower or fish, mammal or bird has two Latin names, the same all over the world.

The names depend on our universally used system of classification. The basic unit is the species. A species is made up of all organisms that can breed and produce fertile offspring. Individuals from some closely related species can reproduce, but the offspring are always sterile. For instance, the issue of a horse and a donkey is the always sterile mule. Closely related species are grouped, somewhat arbitrarily, into a genus, and related genera into a family. The first Latin name indicated the genus, the second the species. Thus, spearmint is Mentha spicata, Mentha being the genus and spicata indicating the species. Peppermint, a closely related species, is also in Mint family and in the the Mentha genus, but its species name is piperita. Bee balm, Monarda didyma, a less closely related member of the Mint family is in the Monarda genus, as is its close relative Wild bergamot, Monarda fistulosa.

Without some system, identification of an unknown wildflower is difficult and usually entails leafing through a guidebook, looking for a picture that resembles the flower in question. Guide books are often organized by color; all yellow flowers appearing together in one section, all white ones in another, and so on for red, blue and green flowers. Some guides are further divided by number of petals in a given colored flower. Here a somewhat different approach is taken. With a little experience it is often possible to place an unidentified flower in a specific family, or in one of two or three families. This aids identification considerably, but if family members are scattered in different color sections the task involves much reference to an index and then scanning several scattered pages. Why not put all family members together, and provide a system for guessing which family a given flower might belong to? One could then turn to that family and look over a page, or a few pages, in search of a matching picture, and then read the species description to confirm the identification.