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Theme: San Francisco Bay Area Wildflowers

Six Sure-Fire Wildflower Hikes

A Few More Wildflower Tips

Identifying the Mystery Plant

Wildflower and Plant Guides - Web and Electronic Resources

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Spring 2000

Theme: San Francisco Bay Area Wildflowers

Identifying the Mystery Plant
An Annotated Guide to Wildflower and Plant Guides for the Bay Area and Beyond

by Rich Allsop

Sometimes, during a hike in one of the local parks, book illustration I find myself kneeling beside an interesting plant, a colorful flower or unfamiliar tree, scribbling notes and drawing crude sketches in hopes of gathering enough information to identify it when I get home. I'm not successful very often; if I find anything in any of my books that resembles the mystery plant, it turns out to be a species that only grows in salt flats in Nevada.
      After one of these exercises in frustration, I find myself daydreaming about the ideal Bay Area plant guide, which would be:

  • complete, with color illustrations of every plant in the Bay Area (and not limited to annual flowers or trees)
  • organized for ease of use
  • detailed, with information about the animals that feed on the plant, the habitat it grows in, and other aspects of its natural history
  • Small enough to fit in a shirt pocket
  • Cheap enough to replace if it got lost or rained
There isn't any such book. A book that's cheap and compact isn't going to be complete; a book that's complete isn't going to be easy to use. The following is a list of books I've found useful and/or interesting, arranged in rough order of ascending price and descending usability.

Field Guides

Watts, Phoebe, Redwood Region Flower Finder, Nature Study Guild, Berkeley, 1979.
Watts, Tom, Pacific Coast Tree Finder, Nature Study Guild, Berkeley, 1973.
These two books are the ideal size and price for nature guides. They use an illustrated key system, a series of questions that, if you answer carefully, will lead you to the mystery plant. The tradeoff for the small size and (relative) ease of use is restricted coverage.

Sharsmith, Helen K., Spring Wildflowers of the San Francisco Bay Region, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1965.
This book comes with me on almost every day hike in the spring and summer. I haven't had much luck using the key, but the book has enough illustrations (including some in color), that I can generally find the flower in question by rummaging through the pages. The book is also useful for refreshing my memory every spring.

Niehaus, Theodore F., A Field Guide to Pacific States Wildflowers, The Peterson Field Guide Series, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1976.
I've probably identified more flowers with this book than all of the others put together. On the other hand, I've also spent more time crouching by the side of the trail, leafing desperately through this book, and slowly becoming more and more frustrated with my inability to find anything in its pages that remotely resembles the flower in front of me, than with any other field guide. I can't use the key; I have tried to key out flowers that I knew and wound up in the wrong plant family. The organization of flowers by color and number of petals works fairly well for me.

Sims, Lee, Shrubs of Henry W. Coe State Park, Pine Ridge Association, Morgan Hill, CA, 1988.
This is a pamphlet put together by volunteers at Coe State Park. This is a handy book: shrubs tend to slip between the cracks, not being annual wildflowers or trees. (I wish someone would put together an equivalent book for the Santa Cruz Mountains).

Story, Tracy I., and Robert L. Usinger, Sierra Nevada Natural History, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1963.
This book is useful on hikes in the East Bay hills, as well as the Sierra. It provides more detailed information about plants than the guides above, and it also covers wildlife, from bugs to bears

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Six Sure-Fire Wildflower Hikes
A Few More Flower Tips
Wildflower and Plant Guides - Web and Electronic Resources

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