Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 6, Issue 1 - May, 2013


Wildflowers of the Mountain West: Methodology of Writing a Field Guide for the Masses

Gunnell, J., Extension Associate Professor, Utah State University
Anderson, R.M., Curator of Plant Introductions, Utah State University Botanical Center
Goodspeed, J.L., Extension Associate Professor, Utah State University



Creating a balance between an academic text and a handbook that is useful and interesting to the general public is a difficult undertaking when writing a field guide. Wildflowers of the Mountain West, was investigated at a very technical, taxonomical level by Utah State University Extension horticulturists over a three year period.  However, it was then compiled and presented to the public as an easy to follow, non-technical publication for those without horticultural training. The method used by the authors to bridge the gap between academia and hobbyists can be applied to publications across a variety of different disciplines.


Extension’s role in disseminating usable information for the general public has a deep history in the United States (Seevers, et. al., 1997).  However, taking technical research-based information and translating it into understandable and useful information for the public is not without its challenges.

Historically, plant taxonomists have produced technical monographs and other texts for the purpose of defining and classifying different plant species. Traditionally, they have done this by grouping plant species by similar morphological differences. In these publications, plants are organized according to their common familial characteristics and/or are listed alphabetically by the plants’ Latin or scientific name (Cronquist et. al., 1986, Flora of North America, 1993). These books can be large and cumbersome and are written at a level that makes it extremely difficult for the novice to understand.  Discovering the void between technical written information and understandable language for the hobby horticulturist was the first impetus in writing Wildflowers of the Mountain West


There have been many field guides written regarding wildflowers. Some emphasize artistic photography while others utilize technical taxonomic keys and line drawings. Regional atlas’ and online herbaria records contain locations and/or maps regarding where certain wildflowers can be found. However, there was not a field guide in the Mountain West region which had to this point brought all of these elements together in a comprehensive manner. 

During the summer of 2009, while leading a group of students in a Native Flora of Utah Introductory Course, the authors witnessed firsthand the disconnect that exists between highly technical texts and the ability of individual students to identify wildflowers. The technicality of the texts being used was difficult for the students to follow.  Other books, written by hobbyists with little to no training, were lacking many the dominant species endemic to the region, or had flower species incorrectly identified.

It was in this live case study, where the authors observed how the novice attempted to locate information in their textbooks.  This observation provided the essential structure of how Wildflowers of the Mountain West would be organized: exactly how one would look for information if you knew nothing about the subject.


Analyzing how hobbyists searched for information led the authors to write the field guide working through the following stages of development:

1. Defining the geographic area the field guide would cover.

2. Developing the research process to collect all the necessary information on an academic level.

3. Organize and disseminate the information in a way that is understandable for people without technical training through the following tools:

a. Photography

b. Design and Organization

c. Maps and Keys

Geographic Area

By selecting a book that details specimen from a specific region, the reader by default reduces the amount of irrelevant information they must sift through to locate and accurately identify samples.

The Mountain West, located between the Front Range of Colorado and the east slope of California’s Sierra Nevada, is home to one of North America’s most topographically elevated and floristically biodiverse regions (Albee et. al. 1988, Billings, 1978, Cronquist, 1978).  This area provided the plant variety needed in a field guide, but also had a population base large enough to make it relevant for publishing (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Map of Mountain West.


The authors, through physical and internet-based herbaria vouchers, along with regional atlas’, researched the most common wildflower species from six adjoining states; Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon.  Herbaria data provided needed information with regard to plant collection sites, dates of associated bloom time, as well as elevation at which the wildflower species could be observed.  During this collection process, the data was entered into an excel spreadsheet where it could then be sorted. The ability to sort data was essential in determining locations to visit, along with approximate timing in order to have the best success in finding and photographing each of the wildflower species in bloom. After thoroughly researching the available academic data, it was time to collect the visual information that would allow the novice horticulturalist to successfully navigate the field guide. 


Each of the 400 plus photographs found in Wildflowers of the Mountain West were taken by the authors. There was a conscious decision to use technical photographs rather than artistic photography.  Photographs were taken of the flowers, the unique characteristics of the foliage, and the natural habitat.  To acquire the technical photography needed, excursions to all six states were taken during the spring and summers of 2010 and 2011. Countless hiking trails were trekked, multiple mountain ranges traversed and five national parks were visited in search of 130 of the most commonly encountered wildflower species.  In all, over 16,000 miles were logged on the excursions.

Design and Organization

The decision to create a small, spiral bound book was determined after using other texts during field research (by watching others fumble through various books).  The design of Wildflowers of the Mountain West makes it easy to put in a backpack and to use in windy mountain conditions.

In addition, the study of novice horticulturalists on a flower finding expedition also gave clarity on how the book should be organized. Observation showed that beginners usually start looking for species using the plant’s most identifying feature:  color. This became the first distinguishing category of how the book would be structured. However, the authors felt it was important to keep the categorization taxonomically correct. The resolution was, after the obvious distinction of color, to organize the flower species alphabetically by their scientific and common names.

The physical descriptions of each species were written with a duel utilization of both common and academic language in mind. Common terms utilized in the body of the text are accompanied by taxonomical nomenclature within parenthesis. This organization makes the information scientifically accurate for the academic yet allows the novice to locate and read the information with ease (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Page use descriptions.

 Locator Maps and The Quick Key

Knowing the geographic location where a particular flower can be found is always a useful tool in a field guide. In order to communicate all the location information, a map of the Mountain West region was created; with emphasis given to the county lines in each of the six adjoining states. Through herbaria research as well as personal observation, location data was entered into these maps for each wildflower species. These locator maps give the reader a quick, colorful, graphic illustration of the general distribution and location of each wildflower species throughout the Mountain West.

The Quick Key designed for this publication is much like a normal dichotomous key which operates like a funnel; beginning with many choices and through a process of eliminating one of the two available choices, the reader ends up with a single possibility or species (Figure 3).  The key was developed during the writing process when each of the three authors used a different method in determining the identity of a wildflower.  With this key, someone with little to no taxonomic training can start with the color of a flower and narrow down the possibilities by describing the arrangement of the flowers or a quick identifying plant feature.  This process of elimination is another venue to help to lessen confusion and frustration for the novice.  

Figure 3. Example of the Quick Key.


Wildflowers of the Mountain West uses a multi-faceted approach in presenting technical information in a non-technical yet taxonomically correct method.  This blending of academic and common information makes it a useful tool for education in extension. The presentation of the information became the defining feature of the book; blending photography, locator maps, and the duel use of common and scientific terminology. The ease in which the student can find and understand information makes it an effective educational tool, and has also provided a medium in transferring accurate information to wildflower enthusiasts in the region. With a $5,000 grant from Utah State University Extension Administration, the book was published by USU Press in September 2012.

Literature Cited

Albee, B. (1988). Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah. Salt Lake City: Utah Museum of Natural History.

Billings, W.D. (1978). Alpine Phytogeography Across the Great Basin. June 21, 2011,

Cronquist, A. (1978). The Biota of the Intermountain Region in Geohistorical Context. October 9, 2011,

Cronquist, A., Holmgren, A., Holmgren, N., Reveal, J., & Holmgren, P. (1986). Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West. New York: Hafner.

Flora of North America Editorial Committee. (1993). Flora of North America North of Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seevers, B., Graham, D., Gamon, J., & Conklin, N. (1997). Education through cooperative Extension. Albany: Delmar Publishers.