I can safely say that my Alaska Wildflower Guide has been one of the most rewarding projects that I’ve been working on. It’s almost mid-September, and there aren’t many flowers to find or identify anymore, so I’m officially calling it the end of my 2021 wildflower season. I want to share some details of what goes into writing these posts, the resources I use, frustrations I’ve had with identification, plans for the future, and what it’s like researching and writing on biology-related topics with my background in physics.
Wrapping up the 2021 Wildflower Season
I currently have write-ups for 61 flowers and another 38 photographed and identified, mostly from this year. There are a handful of flowers that I don’t have a positive ID for yet. Depending on how much information I can find on each, it takes 4-24 hours to research and write up each flower, so I have plenty to work on over the fall and winter. So far, the guide includes 734 wildflower photos. I have big plans to expand this guide. Once I have write-ups on the new flowers from this year, I should have about 100 total. I hope to double that over the next year. My ultimate goal is to publish a print copy of an Alaska Wildflower Guide within three years.
Every post starts with a hike. That’s my favorite part. I tend to hike slowly, always looking for new places to explore. That tendency lends itself well to finding wildflowers. Whenever I find something new, or a flower that I need better identifying photos for, I’ll stop for a while to take pictures. Especially in early June, this leads to some short hikes taking incredibly long times.
Once I’m back home, I take up editing wildflower photos with all the others, with the addition that I need to make a proper ID before tagging and uploading the photos. This is where the process can become most frustrating. The most popular field guide for Alaska wildflowers is Verna Pratt’s Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers. She has a few hundred flowers included, but unfortunately, there are 1500 species in Alaska, so it’s missing quite a few. There are a few other decent online guides and photo ID guides, but that can bring very mixed results in accuracy.
That lack of accuracy is definitely concerning in online information. It’s amazing how many flowers are misidentified online from multiple sources. Once one becomes the dominant web page, others start to reference it. This seems to go for print guides as well, so just because it’s in a book doesn’t mean it’s right.
Luckily, Pratt’s book seems to be pretty accurate. Most errors in it tend to be in the scientific naming, but they may have been accurate at the time of writing. Proper classification and taxonomy are the next hurdles to overcome. I’m going to blame the botanists. There definitely seems to be some vanity in the field, at least the ones that “discover” new species of wildflowers. It seems that every minor variation in a plant will at some point get someone to call it a new species, often naming it after themselves. It might succeed in getting classified for a few years (or decades) before someone comes along and determines that it isn’t variable enough, or the chromosome number is the same as another labeled species, and then the name becomes unaccepted. Although, in the meantime, there were probably multiple descriptions and guides written about it that never get updated with the most current up-to-date info.
This has led me to strictly use the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) for the accepted names of my posts. They are in partnership with most US government organizations, the Catalogue of Life, and numerous Canadian and Mexican agencies, and the database is updated frequently. This means my posts (at the time of their writing) should agree with the most up-to-date information elsewhere. However, there are other organizations that catalog species and they are not all in agreement.
Once I’ve determined the proper name, it’s time to get accurate descriptions of the plants. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hours into this process and found that the plant I’m trying to research is not the right one. It’s easy to get misled by other guides and descriptions. My primary resource for (accurate) scientific description is Flora of North America (through eFloras.org). It’s phenomenal and highly accurate, although lacking photo IDs and laymen descriptions. Without a background in biology, I typically have to look up many words in each description. How many words are there for saying a plant has hairy fibers on them? At least 10. Don’t get me started on leaf shapes. It’s really fun when I can’t even find a definition for a word. Here I’m trying to match every description feature of the flower with the elements I can identify from the photos. This can often reveal if I’m looking at a subspecies or similar species.
Finding accurate uses for plants is nearly impossible online. There are so many holistic and natural remedy websites that provide information with absolutely zero references. And they all reference each other, but still no citations. Sadly, even a few otherwise accurate plant databases seem to include these medicinal and food uses. For historical usage, I frequently rely on the Native American Ethnobotany Database (naeb.brit.org). There’s a spattering of books on edible plants such as Alaska’s Wild Plants and Alaska’s Wilderness Medicines. As frustrating as this process can be, I’m simultaneously learning a ton. It’s led down a lot of rabbit holes of study on chemical compounds, alkaloid toxins, and into health journals that I didn’t necessarily sign up for when starting this project. I’ve learned about a lot of ways that plants can kill you.
The two databases that I most heavily rely on for finding the distribution of a plant are the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and NatureServe Explorer. The former includes all the individual instances, sometimes with plant photos. The latter only covers North America but also includes information on status in each state or province.
Not Always as Planned – Other Difficulties
There’s often frustration in the field as well.
Occasionally I go out looking for a particular flower. I’ve seen numerous sources talking about how Primrose Ridge in Denali National Park is one of the few places in the Alaska Interior where you can find the rare Chukchi primrose flower. So I specifically hiked out to the area this summer, up and over Mt. Margaret from the Savage Canyon Trail and then a few miles along the ridge.
There were thousands of primrose flowers in the marshy tundra. It was definitely the densest population I’ve ever seen of them. However, they weren’t Chukchi primrose. They were arctic primrose. All of them. The differences are subtle, but the tell-tale sign was that the stems all had a substance that looks like a white powder, something that the Chukchi primrose lacks completely. There were some other more subtle differences, like a slight notch in the flower petal.
This nudged me to do some research on Chukchi primrose in the interior. Every photo I found of the flower in the interior, including in the GBIF database had the tell-tale white farina and notched petals. I feel fairly confident that it doesn’t exist in the Alaska interior and it is solely a coastal species. In most other ways the flowers look identical.
Believe it or not, the wind is a real thing, especially in alpine environments. I have thousands of blurry flower photos as a result. The motion itself is not usually the problem, it’s pretty easy to use super-fast shutter speeds. Rather, the issue is the shallow depth of field when photographing flowers close up. Once focused on a flower, the motion of only a centimeter is enough to totally blow the focus. In windy conditions, I need to use a burst of sometimes 10s of photos just to get one in-focus shot.
Yellow Flowers are a Pain in the Neck
As it turns out, camera sensors are very sensitive to yellow wavelengths of light. So much so that it’s almost impossible to get good identifying photos of yellow flowers that aren’t grossly oversaturated or severely underexposed. Of course, this makes identification even more difficult to identify yellow flowers since the details are often very washed out in photos online and in print.
This fall and winter I’ll be working on creating better search functionality for my online guide. I’d like for people to be able to find flowers by a few simple, common search terms. I’m also working on info about flower families with the ability to browse by family. I’m also realizing it would be enormously helpful (to me as well) for some good references for terminology. I’d be very curious to know what others would find useful here. If you’ve managed to just read a 1500 word article about writing about wildflowers, you might have some valuable input here and I would love to hear it! Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).