Category Archives: Plant Identification

Mapping Mule’s Ears

One common factor contributing to mistakes when people are identifying plants is the scarcity of user-friendly visual documentation (i.e., maps) showing where different species occur in the world. Sure, more than one species of a genus will often co-occur in the same general area, but maps can help you quickly narrow down the number of possibilities in a given area.

Another aid that’s commonly missing is an explanation of how one species differs from a small set of related or similar species, where they may occur near each other. Keys can provide the technical details for distinguishing one plant from all others in a genus-wide or family-wide context, often over a wide area, but may obscure the simple details that can distinguish “Species A” from “Species D” where just those two happen to occur together.

How nice it would be to have more maps of species distributions based on current data for collections and observations. Such maps, together with keys and notes on how to distinguish one species from others in the same area, could facilitate more accurate identifications—especially in genera with little to moderate overlap of species ranges.

Wyethia mollis

This could be a fun project to help pass a pandemic winter, yes?

To explore the idea a bit further, I looked for a genus of modest size in western North America, with at least one species in Mono County. There are many genera to choose from. I selected Wyethia, commonly known as Mule’s Ears (or Mule Ears or Mules Ears), a genus with 14 distinct and well-documented species scattered across the mountains, hills, and deserts of western North America. Hikers in the upper elevations and east side of the Sierra Nevada will know Woolly Mule’s Ears (Wyethia mollis) as one of the brightest and showiest sunflowers of the region.

Here, then, is Mule’s Ears: an Atlas and Guide, a free PDF on my Downloads page. Look it over and let me know if you find this approach and format useful (corrections and suggestions are always welcome).

A Note on Taxonomy
Traditionally, the 14 species of Mule’s Ears have been grouped all together in the genus Wyethia. (As of this date, the Jepson eFlora still treats all California species under Wyethia.) Currently, however, most sources recognize 3 separate genera in this group: Wyethia in a stricter sense (with 8 species), Agnorhiza (with 5 species), and Scabrethia (with 1 species). These are differentiated mostly by the shape, relative sizes, and distribution of leaves. Personally, I’m not always a fan of splitting genera by their sections, but in this case, I think it helps us recognize very visible differences within the group and makes the keys more manageable.

I downloaded location data (in CSV format) for herbarium collections of each species from the California Consortium of Herbaria (CCH), the Southwest Environmental Information Network (SEINet), the Intermountain Regional Herbarium Network, and the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria, along with crowd-sourced observation data from iNaturalist. These I imported to a base map of US states and counties, Canadian provinces, and Mexican states using QGIS (a free, open source GIS application).

For each species I exported a PDF dot map of collections and observations. These I placed into Adobe Illustrator, aligned with a clean base of only the state and county boundaries. I then traced the approximate boundaries of the occurrence clouds. In doing so, I did quick reality checks on occurrences that appeared inconsistent with overall distribution patterns or distributions reported in the literature. Many of these anomalies turned out to be obvious misidentifications or incorrect mapping of collection coordinates. Colors and patterns were used to differentiate species in the maps.

The final booklet, together with photographs licensed for non-commercial use by iNaturalist contributors (acknowledged in the booklet), was assembled in Adobe InDesign.

How to use this Booklet
1. Download the 16-page PDF from the DOWNLOADS PAGE. I suggest saving this into the library of the books app on your smart phone or tablet (e.g., Books on Apple devices) to keep it handy in the field. The pages are formatted as half-letter size (5.5 X 8.5 inches), so it’s fairly readable on your phone (if you’re near-sighted) or on your tablet.

2. You can also print this as a 16-page booklet from your computer using Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader (and probably other PDF apps). Tell the application to print all pages in Booklet format, both sides, left binding, and auto-rotate pages. Use letter-size (8.5 X 11) paper, and select your specific printer (not the generic “Any Printer”) and “US Letter” paper size in the printer dialog. This should result in the pages being filled and with centers properly aligned for folding. After printing, arrange as needed to make sure the page numbers are in proper sequence, fold the stack in the middle, and staple along the fold (a long-reach stapler works best for this).

3. Go forth and Botanize!

Copyright © Tim Messick 2021. All rights reserved.

iNaturalist in the Bodie Hills

Behr's Hairstreak butterfly on Spineless Horsebrush

Behr’s Hairstreak butterfly (Satyrium behrii) on Spineless Horsebrush (Tetradymia canescens)
at Masonic Mountain in the Bodie Hills

Botany in the time of Covid-19 is a mostly virtual endeavor, for now. My plans to spend more time in the Bodie Hills and Beyond this spring and summer are postponed. The counties and states I am so eager to visit (all a 3 to 6 hour drive from home) are discouraging tourism.

Fortunately, there is iNaturalist. “iNat” is a citizen-science portal where bio-nerds, outdoor enthusiasts, curious beginners, and research pros can all post photos of things they’ve seen (ideally showing all the characters needed for accurate identification), mark their locations, provide other info, suggest an ID, or ask others for help in identifying observations. It’s a great place to find out what others are seeing in one’s places of interest, test one’s skill at identifying observations that “Need ID”, and learn to recognize unfamiliar species.

Trichodes ornatus on Perideridia

Ornate checkered beetle (Trichodes ornatus) on Bolander’s yampah (Perideridia bolanderi) near Masonic Mountain

Worldwide, as of today, there are more than 33 million observations in iNaturalist. A very modest 1,418 of those are mine (I strive for quality over quantity). Here are some stats for iNaruralist observations in the Bodie Hills, as of late March 2020:

iNaturalist stats in the Bodie Hills

View the observations and check the current numbers HERE.

I especially enjoy exploring the maps in iNaturalist. Here’s a map of the 1,962 observations listed above, with the orange outline being my boundary for the Bodie Hills:

Map of observations in the Bodie Hills

Most observations occur along well-traveled roads. Large gaps invite the curious explorer of public lands in between these areas:

A closer view of the map

Of the 1,962 observations to date, 554 observations (including 237 of plants and 266 of invertebrates) are still in need of IDs or confirmations to become “Research Grade.” Observations are designated “Research Grade” when 2 or more people agree on an identification at the level of species or below. Sometimes the original observer will “second” or “like” another person’s suggested ID by clicking the “Agree” button, but without having really learned and understood the basis for the ID, which means that the ID is effectively based on only one person’s informed opinion or educated guess—which is sometimes not correct.

Many species of vascular plants, vertebrates, and fungi commonly achieve “Research grade” because there are many avid and knowledgeable observers and—with good photos, reliable taxonomy, and reference materials—many are readily identifiable. Unfortunately, many nonvascular plants, invertebrates, and “lower” or very small organisms rarely achieve “Research grade” because they are harder to identify from photos, identification to species may be technically difficult, and references for identification may be largely buried or scattered through the scientific literature.

In spite of some limitations, iNaturalist is a great way to explore and learn about biodiversity any time, but especially when field visits are impractical — be that due to seasonal weather and road conditions, or global pandemics.

So, as we all practice “social distancing” and heed orders to stay near home, if your home is near a place where you can safely observe and photograph plants, animals, fungi or whatever, please share what you see on iNaturalist!

iNaturalist home page

iNaturalist home page banner (

Copyright © Tim Messick 2020. All rights reserved.

Plants of the Bodie Hills, 2020 Edition!

Plants of the Bodie Hills, 2020 edition

A new edition of Plants of the Bodie Hills, an Annotated Checklist is now available as a free PDF from the Downloads page. The 2020 edition includes a number of improvements:
• keys to species (and subspecies or variety) are provided for ALL genera that have more than one taxon in the Bodie Hills (keys to families and genera will come in future editions, maybe),
• several species have been added, based on recent field observations and herbarium data,
• lots of typos have been corrected.

One inconvenient result of all the added keys is that the document has grown from 64 pages last year to 92 pages this year. But you now have 3 options for how to use it: 1) load the PDF onto a mobile device, 2) print the PDF yourself, or 3) order a printed copy from MagCloud.

Using a mobile device. I’ve found the PDF to be quite readable on my iPhone 8+ (in the Books app), although it helps that I’m near-sighted. It’s even easier to read on an iPad, other tablet, or laptop. A phone or tablet is pretty easy to carry in the field, but you may want to secure it with a lanyard or wrist strap. (Personally, I like the ones from PodFob.)

Printing the PDF. You can print the PDF yourself or at a local print shop, but I highly recommend printing it 2-sided to conserve paper and reduce bulk and weight in the field. A comb or spiral binding, binder clip, or other binding will hold it together.

Ordering a print from MagCloud. I’ve made the PDF available for on-demand printing at MagCloud. I’ve ordered one of these myself, and found the print quality to be very good and the 2-staple binding to be adequate (though rough handling and folding could loosen some pages in the middle). Go to the document in the MagCloud Shop, click on the “Buy Print” button, fill out the “Join Us” section if you aren’t already a Magcloud customer, and complete the order. The price is $18.40 (as of March 2020); tax and shipping brings the cost to a little over $25. This is the base price of printing from MagCloud, with no additional mark-up for profit.

As always, your additions, corrections, comments, or questions are welcome.

Happy botanizing!

Beauty Peak from Dry Lakes Plateau

Beauty Peak from Dry Lakes Plateau

Phlox stansburyi

Phlox stansburyi


Copyright © Tim Messick 2020. All rights reserved.