From midspring until late fall, hundreds of varieties of New Mexico wildflowers pop up in grasslands, along roadsides, in woodlands and even in well-tended gardens. Some are easy to identify, like the desert globemallow with its spiky stems and deep apricot-orange flowers that have few look-alikes. But others, looking similar to other varieties, may not be so easy, causing confusion among even the savviest gardeners. If you happen upon a little yellow wildflower with a daisy-shaped head jutting out of a sidewalk, learning that flower’s correct name may take some digging. It sure did for me.
The good news is there are several ways to help identify plants found both in gardens and the wild, including native plant books or reference guides, online websites and more recently, smartphone apps. Flowering Plants of New Mexico, a book by Robert DeWitt Ivey, is a highly consulted reference book with five editions that many botanists and plant experts still use. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has a comprehensive website, wildflower.org.
However, the best website I have found for plants native to the state is Wildflowers of New Mexico, wildflowersnm.com, which lists plants by species, family and common name, and it even offers a search by color. It is important that while researching, you check the grow range, elevation, similar species and counties listed at the bottom, as it can be easy to confuse certain species without knowing the full description of the plant.
There’s also an app for that. PlantSnap is a plant identification smartphone app with more than 600,000 plants in the database that allows you to take a picture and get an instant result.
For flora within our state, the New Mexico Wildflowers app (for Android and iPhone) includes 3,410 species of plants, with 2,080 being wildflowers. This app does not search by photo. Instead, the user is given options to identify by plant type, color, petals, size, leaf arrangement and habitat. Several of the images are limited to a single part of the plant and cannot be enlarged. Still, it is a good place to start and easy to navigate.
While the above resources can tentatively help you make identifications, they cannot replace the expertise and training of professional horticulturists and botanists. When in doubt, take a plant sample or photo to a local nursery. If you live in Santa Fe, Newman’s, Payne’s, Agua Fría Nursery, Waterwise Gardening and Plants of the Southwest all have trained staff members who can help. You may also contact the Santa Fe Master Gardeners association using its Ask a Master Gardener feature at sfemg.org. Personally, I have used all of these resources and recommend combining them to best determine a plant’s identity.
So, about that yellow wildflower growing in a most unexpected place, it’s a plant I have seen for years but never gave much thought to until I saw it in various locations in one day. Spotted first at the dog park near the edge of a broken fence, then tumbling out of a small crack in a sidewalk at a friend’s house and finally, showing off dozens of blooms in a neighbor’s native garden. I figured it was about time to find out the name of this ubiquitous wildflower.
I guessed it was a perennial in the Asteraceae family (also known as the “aster,” “daisy” or “sunflower” family) based on its flower petals and shape. What I found interesting is how it thrives in both disturbed areas as well as planned gardens. After searching on several sites and using the New Mexico Wildflowers app, I decided it was more than likely Heterotheca villosa, also known as hairy golden aster or hairy false goldenaster. Its description on the Wildflowers of New Mexico website matched the habitat, physical description, growth cycle, drought tolerance, soil preference and elevation, as well as the facts that it grows wild and is also used in native, border and rock gardens and is abundant in Santa Fe. Still, to be sure, I consulted with David Salman at Waterwise Gardening. He confirmed the plant was Heterotheca villosa. It was a good lesson: When in doubt, always consult the experts. But have fun with the apps — like me, you might get lucky.