About the plant entries

Plant entries will contain some or all of the following:

A photograph (or more than one)

Usually a close-up of the flower. Also includes other parts of the plant when possible, such as leaves, unopened buds, and fruits or seedpods since these features can help with identification.

Common Name

A “plain English” name of the plant. When there is more than one, I chose the one that seems to be the most frequently used. When this was not clear I picked my favorite.

Botanical Name

Also known as the “Latin” or “Scientific” name, this is usually a two-word designation in which the first word is the genus and the second is the specific epithet. The genus is always capitalized, but the specific epithet never is. This two word system is called “binomial nomenclature” (which is Latin and can be translated as “two-named name-calling”). Properly, the botanical name is italicized and I have done so here. Example: “Chylismia claviformis.” Sometimes, the botanical name will have a third part, which designates a variety or subspecies, abbreviated as “var.” or “subsp.” Examples: Purshia tridentata var. glandulosa, Salsola kali subsp. tragus. (The difference between “variety” and “subspecies” is an issue of debate among botanists, and the choice to use one rather than the other can be as simple as the preference of the individual who did the naming, but I have dutifully used whichever appears in the literature.)

The contemporary function of botanical names: Binomial nomenclature was invented by Carl Linnaeus in the mid 1700’s, and for this contribution he is considered to be the father of modern botany. Linnaeus employed “phenetics,” which is classification primarily by morphology, that is, by similarity of appearance. So, plants whose flowers resembled one another were placed in the same family, genus, etc. Linnaeus’ focus was on identifying plants, not on ascribing their biological relationships to each other. After Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, botanists began trying to classify plants based on their presumed evolutionary relationship, regardless of appearance. In the 1960’s, this approach came to be known as “phylogenetic systematics,” which relies on “cladistics,” a methodology that organizes plants by their place in a hypothetical evolutionary tree. Since the 1990’s, analysis of DNA has been at the forefront of cladistics, which has led to many reclassifications. As a result, the amount of disagreement among published texts – especially between newer versus older – is ever-mounting and can be confusing, especially to the novice. On this website, I attempt to bridge this gap by including older botanical names. (See “Other Botanical Names,” below.) However, with the frequency that names change, it will probably not take long for this text to be out-of-date.

Pronouncing botanical names correctly: Don’t worry about it. Botanical names are all Latinized, and Latin is a dead language. We don’t know how it was pronounced correctly and never will unless someone invents a time machine. Some people have put out guides on how English speakers should pronounce the names, but these guides are only applying the inconsistency of English to Latin, which makes no sense and leaves you with no option except to memorize their pronunciations. The approach I use personally is to pretend the names are Italian or Spanish (which makes some sense since those languages are both descended from Latin) and follow their basic rules of pronunciation. This at least provides me with a consistent approach and has the added benefit of making many of the names sound pretty.

Also Known As

Plants often have more than one common name and I have listed as many as I could find. I have left out common names that are racially derogatory and have left it to others to record that history.

Other Botanical Names

Different resources sometimes use different botanical names for the same plant. An older book might use a name that has since been changed. Sometimes, more than one name was applied to the same plant before it was standardized. Knowing the other botanical names that plants have gone by will be helpful if you choose to research a plant in other sources.

Family Name

In taxonomy, every genus is categorized into a “family.” Plants in the same family share characteristics that are usually obvious in the anatomy of the flower. Plant identification can be much easier once you get to know these familial traits. Families have official (botanical) names and common names (sometimes several). On this website, I list a common name first and the botanical name in parenthesis afterwards. Example: “Primrose (Onagraceae).”

As noted under “Botanical Name,” above, much reclassification has happened since the 1990’s due to DNA analysis. In some cases, entire plant families have been reclassified out of existence, with their genera moved to other families. On this website, I have not tried to be “cutting edge” regarding family classifications and have purposefully used some of the older ones in the main plant entries because they are still more common in the bulk of existing literature.

Bloom Period

What months of the year the plant typically flowers. This information was drawn from calflora.org.

Form (which includes life cycle)

The life cycle of a plant is Perennial (multi-year lifespan), Annual (up to one year lifespan) or Biennial (two-year lifespan). “Herb” = “herbaceous,” which means the above-ground parts are tender, as in not woody, and in the case of a perennial, die back every year. “Shrub” is woody and non-herbaceous.  (See Glossary for other definitions.) In the case of cacti, the shape and height are described here.


Where the plant is generally found. Examples: sandy washes, rocky slopes, gravelly soils. If you are trying to identify a plant you found on a rocky mountainside, but the description says it is found in sandy washes, you might need to keep looking.

Leaf Description

Both shape and arrangement of the leaves are nearly always included. Examples of shape: ovate, pinnate, linear. (See Illustrations of Leaf Shapes.) Examples of arrangement: Opposite, alternate, bunched. (See Glossary for definitions.) In the case of cacti, the spines are described.

Translation of Botanical Name

Rare for a field guide, this website provides translations of every botanical name included. Knowing these meanings can help when trying to remember the botanical names. For those who are interested in digging deeper, I have provided this guide: Common Latin & Greek root words in the botanical names.

When part of the botanical name is a person’s name, a brief biographical note is provided. Winona LaDuke, the Native American activist, has commented more than once about how ridiculous it is that Europeans named things after people who never saw them in the first place, replacing Native American names that actually described the thing. The California Fan Palm, for example, is called, “Washingtonia filifera.” It is named after George Washington, first President of the U.S.A., who had exactly nothing to do with this genus. He’s got the quarter, the one dollar bill and an obelisk already; we should give this genus a better name. Naming a species for the person who “discovered” it or who “first described” it is no less ridiculous. Names ought to inform us of the inherent qualities of the thing named, such as Eriastrum densifolium, “densely-leaved woolly star” (Blue Mantle), Psorothamnus spinosus, “spiny, scabby shrub” (the Smoke Tree), or Cryptantha micrantha, “tiny-flowered hidden flower” (Red-Rooted Forget-Me-Not). If I ever become the Dictator of Binomial Nomenclature, the first thing I will do is order the excision of all people-based names. End of rant.


Details not covered above or below are included here. Includes “gee-whiz facts.”

Native American Uses

The Native Americans were the first humans to interact with these plants and they had relationships with them for centuries and millennia before the European Invasion. During this time, they discovered a plethora of uses for many of them, for food, medicine, crafts, construction and ceremony. I drew this information from everywhere I could find it, but primarily from Daniel E. Moerman’s massive “Native American Ethnobotany,” the single most comprehensive book on the subject. Amazingly, the entirety of the book is available as a searchable database online.

Though most of the uses here are no longer practiced, I believe it is still important to know about them. Europeans, historically and presently, have generally viewed the desert as lifeless. (Indeed, the roots of this perspective in European culture go back at least as far as the Greeks, whose word for “desert” – “eremo” – also meant “lonely”.) But for the Native Americans who lived there, the environment was brimming with vitality and provided enough for them to live full, healthy, happy lives. Contemporary people could learn from this example, especially since so few would describe their own lives with the same adjectives. Another lesson: Native Americans were able to live in their environments for thousands of years without destroying them.

In choosing what tribal name to use, I tried to ascertain what is currently used by the tribe itself in its own presentation to the rest of the world. In some cases, this is different than the name they call themselves in their own language.

One caveat I must add: Native Americans did not share everything they knew or did with with Europeans (and still don’t), so these listings are sure to be incomplete. Also, Native Americans have also lied to Europeans (and still do) for amusement, out of spite, or to protect themselves, so some of the information herein is undoubtedly incorrect. For the truly interested reader, the best way to learn more is by interacting with Native Americans who still have knowledge of these subjects.

Animal Associations

Here I list animals, including insects, that interact with the plant, and a description of the relationship. This is not, by any means, the end-all, be-all of every animal association that the plant has; just the ones that I found explicitly stated in reference materials or observed myself. Some relationships were easier to investigate than others. For example, butterfly larvae often eat from only one species of plant or a small number of species and butterfly observers are reliable for recording and publicizing such information. On the other hand, you can find innumerable references to the fact that the majority of the Jackrabbit’s diet is plant foliage, but almost no particular examples are ever given.