Helpful resources for identifying wildflowers

July 31, 2018
Richard Olmstead
A man bends over to examine plants along the shore with water in the background.

Collecting wildflowers during a foray on San Juan Island. 
Photo: Burke Museum

I’ve had numerous people reach out to me with photos and the simple question, “What is this flower I saw on a hike last weekend?” It is good to know that so many people are out enjoying the summer and looking at our abundance of plants in the Pacific Northwest.

I’ve compiled some of the resources we have developed at the University of Washington (UW) Burke Museum Herbarium in hopes that they will be helpful this wildflower season.

1. Washington Wildflowers App

A grouping of purple flowers growing

Flowering Alpine Aster.
Photo: Donovan Tracy

The Washington Wildflowers app (iOS or Android) will serve your purposes best when on a hike in the mountains. With more than 1000 species of our most common and showy wildflowers, including photo illustrations, range maps, and descriptions, the app is resident on your phone, so no cell signal is needed. The app enables you to search using easily recognizable features to assist in identifying unknown species.

Washington Wildflowers has more information than a day pack full of heavy wildflower guides. If you are travelling around the Northwest this summer, be sure to also check out the Oregon Wildflowers and Idaho Wildflowers apps.

2. Plants of Washington

Flowering bitteroot plants (Lewisia rediviva) done a soft pink color

Bitteroot flower (Lewisia rediviva).
Photo: J. Reilly

For more comprehensive coverage, the Plants of Washington online image collection contains over 63,000 images of plants and lichens of Washington. Most species have multiple images, in many cases including photos of details needed to distinguish the species from others and range maps that can lead you into the specimen records for each species. The webpage also includes a “random access identification key” to assist in identifying unknown species.

This resource has been built by many individuals contributing photos; if you like wildflower photography and want to contribute your photos, we would be happy to have them! The image collection is accessible anywhere you have wifi or cell signal, although a desktop computer delivers the best experience.  

3. Alpine Wildflowers of Mt. Rainier

Photograph of wildflowers in bloom with Mt. Rainier in the background

Wildflowers in bloom at Mt. Rainier.
Photo: Donovan Tracy

If you are planning a visit to the alpine zone of any of our three National Parks, look for our Alpine Wildflowers of Mt. Rainier (or North Cascades, or Olympic Mountains) at the visitor center or select bookstores. These are lightweight, printed on waterproof, tear-resistant paper, and will survive being unfolded, folded, and jammed into your pack many times.  

4. Flora of the Pacific Northwest

A woman illustrates a flower while referencing an image on an iPad

Illustrations in the process of being drawn for the revision of the Flora of the Pacific Northwest.
Photo: Andrew Waits

And last, although it will not be available for this year’s botanizing, the long-awaited second edition of Hitchcock & Cronquist's Flora of the Pacific Northwest (ed. by David Giblin, Ben Legler, Peter Zika, and Dick Olmstead) will soon be published by UW Press and is now available for pre-order. Learn more about the revision of the Flora of the Pacific Northwest in this video.

Enjoy the summer wildflowers. Before you know it, they will be gone and you’ll have another long winter to plan your hikes for next year.

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Dick Olmstead is the curator of the UW Burke Museum Herbarium and a professor of botany with the UW Department of Biology

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