Writing an (accurate) wildflower guide is a pain in the …

White flower of either the Alaska Mountain Avens or the Mountain Avens, two separate, but very similar species.
The white flowers of Dryas octopetala. Or is it?

Sigh. Maybe this post is more of a rant. I apologize. However, it might have some valuable insight into the trustworthiness of my work on my wildflower guide and its accuracy compared to other informational guides out there.

When I started working on this guide, it was mostly a fun side project. Now it’s a full-on focus. I will attempt to self-publish my first edition Alaska Wildflower Guide next winter or spring. That means I’m spending a lot of time properly identifying flowers from photos and writing scientifically accurate descriptions that make sense to people who are not botanists or scientists.

After a couple of years on this project, my workflow has become more streamlined, more detailed, better sourced, and more accurate. As I’ve finally found my format for the online guide, I’ve been slowly revisiting, updating, and adding to my earlier entries.

And almost every time, there’s something wrong. Often, it’s just something small, like a leaf shape, or maybe the number of stamens, but sometimes, every once in a while, it’s something big. Like a complete misidentification of the flower.

But here’s the thing. It’s not necessarily my fault because the misidentifications are everywhere.

This is the case I came across today while updating my page on Dryas octopetala, or the eightpetal mountain avens. It’s very possible that all the plants and photos I used to write that post are actually a different species, Dryas alaskensis. It turns out that this is a prime example, not only of why there are inaccuracies in my guide but why so much data from other sources is also wrong and often conflicting.

My go-to field guide that I use to start identifying most of my flowers is the popular guide by Verna Pratt, Alaskan Wildflowers (Amazon). Shortly before the time of her first publication, D. alaskensis was listed as a subspecies of D. octopetala (Dryas octopetala ssp. alaskensis), so it wouldn’t have been considered much of an issue.

Dryas alaskensis was first described as a subspecies of Dryas octopetala in 1937 by Per Axel Rydberg, a Swedish-American botanist. It was later recognized as a distinct species by several taxonomists in the 1970s and 1980s, including Arthur Cronquist and Reidar Elven, based on morphological, ecological, and genetic differences from Dryas octopetala.

According to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), Dryas alaskensis was formally recognized as a distinct species in 1988, and this classification has been widely accepted by the botanical community since then. However, it always takes others longer to catch up. It’s understandable why this is the case. There are just so many species out there, and so many of them are re-designated every year. So, many sources remain with the old designation, and other sources cite those sources; the result is the old designations never quite go away.

So, why is this such a pain in the ass for me? Well, the difference between these species is minuscule. I’m not a botanist, so it’s honestly a little difficult for me to even understand why these are listed as a separate species (besides maybe the different number of chromosomes). But, when I’m looking at these plants, or the photos of them, I can’t count the chromosomes. The physical descriptions are almost identical.

The only physical differences are that Dryas alaskensis tends to be slightly larger with narrower leaves. It’s difficult to judge the size from photos, so the only way I can tell the difference in the pictures is if I had a good view of the leaves (which I don’t have in all my photos). Adding to my frustration is the fact that many sources state the exact opposite, saying that D. alaskensis is the smaller plant (it isn’t).

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Some sources say that D. alaskensis is the only species in the interior and Arctic, and D. octopetala is the only species on the coast. Neither of those statements is true, but it might be true that those are the dominant species in those regions.

comparison of Dryas octopetala, mountain avens, and Dryas alaskensis, Alaska Mountain Avens. The only major difference is the leaf shape, with the D. octopetala taking a more oblong shape and D. alaskensis taking a narrower shape.
The only major difference I spot between the two species is leaf shape and the depth of the serrated margins – note that the images are not to scale (the Dryas alaskensis is actually larger by about 5 cm). Images were taken from the Arctos Collaborative Collection – Herbarium University of Alaska Museum of the North Database. Both samples came from the White Mountain National Recreation Area in the Alaska interior.

I believe that 99% of people out there (totally made-up statistic) would not recognize a difference in these plants if viewing them in the field. Maybe more people would if the two plants were side-by-side and you asked them to look at the leaf shape.

Ok. Long story short. I meant to update my page on Dryas octopetala today. These updates normally take about an hour. Well, I’ve spent 5 hours on the update (not including writing this rant). Not only that but now this is going to take me the better part of the week to sort out and write guide posts for all three similar Dryas species. Oh yeah, I didn’t mention the entire leaf mountain avens (Dryas integrifolia), which is also only distinguished by leaf shape. These flowers are everywhere in the Fairbanks area, especially up in the hills. So this summer, I’ll try to greatly expand my photo collection of the various species.

What has me thinking now is how I will present these different species (and similar cases with other flowers) in a written guide with limited images. Online, this is much easier; I have limitless space to add as much information on each species. But in a field guide, can I really afford to have three separate listings for nearly identical flower species, ones where you would never be able to tell the difference from the tiny printed photos in a book?

Later this month, I plan on rolling out some sample formats for how my pages will be set up, and I’ll probably ask my readers what they like best. I’m now realizing that I also have to try some sample formats for how I’ll arrange such sets of similar species. Just another unforeseeable snag in my timeline.

The main reason it was important to me to write this post is that it shows the amount of research and thought that I’m putting into this guide. I’m not just slapping some copy-and-paste words on a few photos without diligently researching what I’m doing first. I’m not ashamed to admit that I make mistakes, and I’m quick to correct these mistakes when they are identified. And good grief, botanists, and biologists are a pain in the ass when it comes to taxonomy and nomenclature! (I apologize to botanists and biologists out there. And don’t worry; I’ve also been called a pain in the ass).

For other similar frustrations (that are sometimes humorous), read my “Note on Genus and Scientific Name” on my common fireweed post or “What’s in a Name” regarding western arctic shootingstar.

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