Identifying Plants

Here are some hints to help you identify plant species

Larkspur (Buttercup Family) 2672

Larkspur (Buttercup Family) 2672

Understanding the characteristics of the different plant families is a great help in identifying an unknown flower and locating the correct family or species page. This is one of the reasons why this website is organized by family.

For positive identification it is important to pay attention to the overall plant structure, the type of leaf, and the ecology of the place where the wildflower is found, as these are important identifiers for plant families and species.


Important Flower Characteristics

Salmonberry (Rose Family) 0770

Salmonberry (Rose Family) 0770

Most wildflowers are herbaceous, but there are many flowering trees, shrubs, and vines including: Barberry, Bittersweet, Buckthorn, Currant (Gooseberry), Dogwood, Heather, Honeysuckle, Hydrangea, Maple, and many members of the Rose Family.

Most wildflowers are radially symmetrical, i.e. their petals are alike and spread out from the center.  The number of petals differs among the plant families. (Sometimes an individual flower will have an extra petal or be missing a petal so it is important to make sure you are looking at a typical example.) The families below have petals that are alike.


Alpine Twinpod (8124)

Alpine Twinpod  (Mustard Family) 8124

  • With 3 or 6 petals: Lily, and some Buttercup, Buckwheat and Iris.
  • With 4 petals: Evening Primrose, Gentian, Madder, Mustard, and Poppy.
  • With 5 petals: Borage, Buckbean, Buttercup, Flax, Geranium, Heather, Mallow, Pink, Phlox, Primrose, Purslane, Rose, Sedum, Waterleaf, Woodsorrel, most Saxifrage, Poppy and Buttercup, and a few Aster.
  • With 6 or more petals: Aster (has many petals), Cactus, some Buttercup, some Rose, Primrose and Purslane.
Bird's Beak Lousewort (9314)

Bird’s Beak Lousewort (Figwort Family) 9314




Some flowers are almost radially symmetrical, i.e. their petals are not quite identical: Violet, some Figwort, one Saxifrage.

The flowers in some families have very unusual shapes. These and the “almost radially symmetrical” ones above are bilaterally symmetrical,  i.e they can be divided into two identical halves:  Bleeding Heart,  Figwort, Mint, Orchid., and Pea, some Buttercup, Iris, Primrose, and one Saxifrage.

Waterleaf (Waterlead Family) 5422

Waterleaf (Waterlead Family) 5422

The flowers in some families have other special features:

  • No petals: False Bugbane in Buttercup Family (Note: sometimes the petals on small flowers are reflexed back and therefore the flowers appear to have no petals), Red-elderberry, False Solomon’s Seal
  • Many petals: Aster
  • Many protruding stamens: Buckwheat, Mint, Valerian, Stonecrop, Waterleaf
  • Tubular or bell-shaped flowers: Bladderwort, Borage, Broomrape, Gentian, Harebell, Heather, Honeysuckle, Valerian, some Figwort, LilyMint, Pink, Phlox
  • Clusters of small flowers:  Aster (dandelion-like, daisy-like, and others), Buckthorn, Buckwheat, Barberry, Birthwort, Carrot, Dogbane, Valerian, also some Pea, Buttercup, Rose,  Saxifrage,  LilyFigwort, Borage, Heather, Sea-pink, Mint, Stonecrop, and one Dogwood
  • Clusters of small flowers in umbels (umbrella-like): Carrot and Buckwheat
  • Have no green leaves or stems: Some Heather and Orchid.
Wild GInger (Birthwort Family) 2821

Wild Ginger (Birthwort Family) 282


Some unusual flowers belong to very small plant families (click on the name to go directly to their species page):  Cascara, Devil’s Club, Ground Cone, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Inside-out Flower, Jewelweed, Milkweed, Skunk Cabbage, Stinging Nettle, and Wild Ginger. See also the section above with “families with unusual shapes”.