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.
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.
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.
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.