Help me identify (non-experts welcome)

There’s been some talk about how to distribute the task of identification in iNaturalist to a larger group. I suspect that a lot of potential identifiers out there don’t know where to even begin. So this thread is intended to provide some information on specific taxa that will be easy for anyone to pick up and begin identifying. It will also provide a mechanism to track those who are interested in identifying. (That way, the usual identifiers will know who these people are and can step back and help guide them a little more.)

For experts (or knowledgeable non-experts) who want help cleaning up / maintaining taxa, please add a “Help me identify [XXX]” post that explains how others can help. A general request/tutorial for identification should follow these general guidelines:

  1. only taxa that can be easily identified by non-experts given a little guidance
  2. guidance that consists of no more than 5 traits to look out for and no more than 3 commonly confused taxa
  3. guidance on when a genus level taxon can be marked as “as good as it can be”, if applicable
  4. guidance on geography, if appropriate
  5. maybe a little blurb or links to info about the taxon to tell people why it’s important
  6. a specific time frame for an initial cleanup
  7. a quick poll (that identifies responders) to track who’s going to help with the initial clean up
  8. a second quick poll (that identifies responders) to track who is willing to adopt the taxon by subscribing to it to monitor/maintain it over time

For potential identifiers, if you see taxa that looks interesting, just indicate your interest in the appropriate quick poll, and start identifying over at iNaturalist.

Useful info for potential identifiers:

  1. Here’s an article on identifying observations in iNaturalist:
  2. Here’s a video tutorial for the Identify page:
  3. On on the right side of the website homepage (, there’s a Subscription section, with buttons to “Subscribe to a Taxon” and to “Subscribe to a Place”. “Subscribe to a Place” also allows you to subscribe to a taxon within a place.

If you have any ideas for taxa that you think would be good candidates for identification by non-experts or taxa that you would like help to figure out how to identify, this might be a good thread for discussing those kinds of things, too.


UPDATE: There’s been a taxon swap in iNaturalist. So everything that refers to Dracopis below should now refer to Rudbeckia sect. Dracopis instead, and everything that refers to D. amplexicaulis below should now refer to Rudbeckia amplexicaulis instead.

Help me identify Dracopis.

Dracopis is a monotypic genus in the aster/sunflower family (Asteraceae). Monotypic means that there is only one species in the genus – in this case, Dracopis amplexicaulis (Clasping Coneflower). Dracopis amplexicaulis is a charismatic flowering plant native in the United States from Central Texas east to Alabama and north to Kansas, flowering in the spring. It’s a great plant for native prairies/meadows and sunny gardens.

Taxon page:
Identify page:
Explore page:

Identification tasks:

  1. Confirm ID on species-level Dracopis amplexicaulis observations. Here is a typical example: It has:
    a. alternating, clasping leaves (the bases of the leaves partially wrap around the stem).
    b. infloresences with a central cone-like structure (receptacle) that is usually greenish early on and becoming more purplish over time, with disc florets that are purple at the base and yellow at the tips
    c. (usually) 6-10 “petals” (ray florets) that are mostly yellow, with some red/purple at the base (near the cone)
    d. hairless (glabrous) green parts (if you see hairs, see Rudbeckia below)
    e. stature up about 1m tall (though some plants can be much smaller), with branched or simple stems
  2. Take genus-level observations down to species level. (Remember, the genus contains only D. amplexicaulis.)
  3. Kick out misidentified plants. Here are a couple commonly misidentified as Dracopis:
    a. Rudbeckia (ex. The leaves are not clasping. The most commonly confused plant is probably R. hirta, which will have very hairy green parts (vs hairless green parts in D. amplexicaulis). The cones of Rudbeckias tend to start off shorter and usually appear less green than those of Dracopis.
    b. Ratibida (ex. The leaves a very different (divided and not clasping) and cones are a little different (usually skinnier/longer, whiter).
  4. As with other flowering plants, it will be helpful to also mark the “flowering” under the Plant Phenology Annotations, if the plant is flowering.
  5. (extra points) Head over to Rudbeckia ( or, and kick over any plants that look like Dracopis.

I’m planning to do a cleanup of the taxon 2019-05-05T05:00:00Z2019-05-06T05:00:00Z. I’ve already kicked out a lot of the misidentifications, but I could use help with confirming IDs. If you’re interested in helping me do this inital cleanup of the taxon, vote in the quick poll below:

  • yes, I want to help
  • no, I can’t help

0 voters

If you’re interested interested in subscribing to the taxon and helping to maintain it over time, vote in the quick poll below:

  • yes, I want to help
  • no, I can’t help

0 voters

Feel free to message me or post here if you have questions.

Other links:
BONAP range map:
FNA detailed description:

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This is very cool @pisum. As someone who is totally unfamiliar with this species but wants to help - two things I’d find useful would be:

  1. a visual representation of your characters. I put this together when trying to learn the information in your notes. For me, there’s no substitute for someone pointing out these characters visually (let me know if I got anything wrong here)
  2. a better handle on distribution. I took the liberty of making an Atlas for this species. Atlases can be useful for calling out observations that are way out of range

This was an interesting exercise for me to think about the most efficient way for helping someone with no experience in a species like me get up to speed to the point that they can help ID.

Curious what others think about how to best convey this information


Since the flower characters (ie yellow ray petals with red bases, yellow tipped disk flowers in a cone like structure) seem shared by quite a few Rudbeckia, I was mostly going on the clasping leaves, non-hairy stem characters. But I ran into @pisum’s comments on a few (ie that suggest there could be other species ie Rudbeckia maxima with these clasping leaves, non-hairy stem characters.

I think this is the challenge we need to overcome in these conversations about training beginners to become experts capable of IDing. If this was a group I was familiar with, I’d probably be aware of Rudbeckia maxima and have amore complete sense of whats Rudbeckia amplexicaulis and whats not.

But in my noob-position, I have to be aware that IDing using a narrow understanding of a few characters without good context on the group, I might be causing more harm than good.

It would be fantastic to have some way of conveying information about all the possible things it could be confused with (I’m not sure if this is the entire genus Rudbeckia or what) and having tools - whether they be distribution based or character based to separate each alternative species.

Last thing that comes to mind is something @dkavanaugh told me which really resonates with me: even though we explain to people how to ID with characters, we as individuals recognize species more like we recognize friends (ie facial recognition). eg I don’t recognize my friends based on the number of freckles on their ears, I just recognize them by gestalt and then if someone forced me to ‘prove’ it I’d probably resort to some explanation that involves freckle placement. We’re in a similar situation with identifying species. Once we’re familiar with a species, we recognize them mostly by gestalt. But to teach and learn we have to figure out a way to communicate information until people are familiar enough for gestalt to kick in. Clearly characters are important here, but how best to convey all the sufficient information as efficiently as possible?


ok… good feedback. it makes sense that visual representations are probably easier to digest. so i’ll try that for the next installment. (i was trying to avoid it since i’m not working with a mouse, but i guess there’s just no substitute for doing it the right way.)

regarding R. maxima, yes, that was another shortcut that i took in this case. my thinking there was that i didn’t want to add another thing to think about if people would probably be unlikely to encounter it. the “up to 1m tall” characteristic was intended to cover the bases on R. maxima, which is typically much bigger. but maybe it’s better to more explicitly cover even unlikely cases in something like this? i’m not sure.

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I can guess you selected Dracopis because it’s monotypic, and has relatively few, hopefully obvious, features that cinch the ID. Correct? Was there any other reasoning?

i selected Dracopis because:

  1. it is a relatively charismatic plant.
  2. it is in Asteraceae, a family where a lot of observations are stuck at family (the top family in iNat in this respect).
  3. it has a relatively well-defined range (not too large).
  4. it is relatively easy to recognize by looking at a small number of traits
  5. it has relatively few common plants that can be mistaken for it (partly due to its well-defined range)
  6. identifying it is a good introduction / gateway to identifying other plants in the subtribe Rudbeckiinae, which has a few very commonly observed plants like Rudbeckia hirta.
  7. it gets maybe 2-5 observations a week when in season and when there’s not a bioblitz or something like that going on. so it’s not an overwhelming commitment from a maintenance perspective. and there were about 700 total observations in iNat. so not insignificant, but not a huge commitment from an initial cleanup perspective either. (here are the top species in Asteraceae for comparison:
  8. before the iNat taxonomy was changed to reflect Rudbeckia amplexicaulis instead of Dracopis amplexicaulis, there were a significant number of IDs at the genus level. so i pulled in records based on genus rather than species to do that additional small cleanup. i didn’t explicitly choose Dracopis because it was monotypic.
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Help me distinguish Romneya–Fried Egg Flowers

Genus Romneya (ROM-nee-uh) in family Papaveraceae (Pah-pah-ver-AY-see-ay, the poppy family) contains only two species. Known as Matilija (in Spanish, mah-teel-EE-ha, although I hear English-speakers say mah-TIL-i-ha) poppies or Fried Egg Flowers, these large, sweet-smelling flowers consist of six crinkled, white, crape-paper-like petals surrounding a pom-pom center of deep golden stamens. A single petal can be 10 cm (4 in) long. They are the largest flowers in the poppy family, and the largest flower native to California. The state legislature of California nominated Romneya as one of the possibilities for state flower, but ultimately awarded the title to Eschscholzia cailifornica.

A Romneya coulteri bloom

A Romneya trichocalyx bloom

Romneya are large shrubs, up to 2.5 m (8 ft) tall, restricted in native range to southern California and northern Baja California. Small range, combined with the unique, memorable flowers, easily recognized by casual observer and AI alike, mean nearly all observations on iNaturalist labeled “Romneya” are correct to genus. Observations of the plant north of Santa Barbara county are cultivated (see maps in Jepson links below). The plant is cultivated all the way up to the top of Washington State, but difficult to obtain and grow outside the west coast, so observations elsewhere are definitively misidentified. Incorrectly labeled plants are most often white garden peonies, and sometimes white-flowered species of Argemone (a different poppy genus, with very prickly leaves, resembling those of thistles.)

The tricky part is splitting Romneya observations into the two species: Romneya coulteri, and Romneya trichocalyx. For definitive ID, the observation must include an in-focus and fairly close-up shot of an unopened flower bud, to see whether or not the outside of the bud is hairy. The buds of R. coulteri are always completely smooth/not hairy. The buds of R. trichocalyx are always hairy. In fact, the Latin name trichocalyx means “hairy bud,” from trichomes (botanical term for hairs) + calyx (the collection of green, leaf-like appendages enclosing a flower bud, also known as sepals.) When I change the ID on an iNat Romneya observation, I briefly explain this smooth bud/hairy bud distinction.

UPDATE: today I realized it may be possible for some people to confuse the seed pods for unopened flower buds, since the shape is a bit similar. Please look carefully, because the seed pods are hairy in both species!

No hairs on Romneya coulteri. This is also the wide-leaf form, as discussed below.

Hairs on Romneya trichocalyx. Don’t be distracted by the narrow leaves of this plant; see discussion below.

Wait, is that it? Just one characteristic, either hairy or not hairy flower buds?! Yes, that’s it. Or at least, the presence or absence of hairs on the flower buds is the only hardline rule and the easiest to capture in photos. There are other differences that vary a little more, and don’t make as good pictures, including:

  • (NEW EDIT) Small hairs on the pedicle (flower stem where it meets the base of the petals), or on the leaves/bracts just under the flower. If you can see those in the image, then it’s R. trichocalyx.
  • Flower bud shape: R. coulteri buds are often “beaked,” or strongly pointed on top, while R. trichocalyx flowers are often rounded/weakly pointed. This can be helpful for photos which are not in perfect focus, but I am not yet certain it is accurate in 100% of cases. I’ve seen some hairy buds that are pretty darn pointed on top.
  • Petal and leaf size: R. coulteri petals and leaves are on average a little larger than those of R. trichocalyx, but given the amount of variation and overlap, I don’t find this helpful even when I have the plant in person, never mind in photos!
  • Seed: R. coulteri seeds are dark brown and papillate (bumpy.) R. trichocalyx seeds are light brown and smooth. This is useful in person, but I haven’t seen anyone photograph the seeds for an iNat observation.
  • Dubious distinction of leaf shape: Some people will tell you R. coulteri leaves have wide lobes, whereas R. trichocalyx leaves have skinny lobes, giving their leaves an overall look that is much more feathery and finely divided. I don’t find this true. While I have seen feathery, finely divided leaves on R. trichocalyx in cultivation (my photos were taken on cultivated plants,) I almost never see them on wild plants. I think leaf shape naturally varies, and perhaps someone even selected the finer leaves for R. trichocalyx plants available for cultivation. I could understand if a nursery worker wanted an easy way to tell unblooming plants apart.

Wide lobe leaf form

Narrow lobe leaf form

So what if the iNat observation is a nice headshot of a big white flower, and nothing else? If there aren’t any buds, or if the distance or focus of the buds is not adequate to see their hairs, genus Romneya might be as good as the ID can get. Lucky camera angle may allow you to see bristles on the pedicle and/or bracts, but often not. The flowers bloom April-June, so the next few weeks are a great time for observation clean-up. If you would like to help with clean-up, vote below:

  • Yes, I want to help clean-up this genus.
  • No, I am not interested.

0 voters

If you would like to subscribe to maintain the taxa over time, vote below:

  • Yes, I want to maintain the genus over time.
  • No, I am not interested.

0 voters

I would love to hear your questions or feedback. I do not consider myself a Romneya expert; for example I have no idea whether it is possible for the two species to hybridize, or whether some taxonomists might consider the two species to be one species, given their extreme similarity. What do you think? I do propagate/grow native plants for a living, so if anyone has cultivation questions about Romneya or other species, ask away (perhaps not on this thread, in effort to stick to topic.)

References/useful links:

Genus Romneya

Key to Romneya

R. coulteri

R. trichocalyx

Genus Romneya

R. coulteri

R. trichocalyx


very nice post! I tried it out here

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FYI… for potential identifiers of Monarda near the Texas/Oklahoma border, there’s this:

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@pisum thanks again!

New tip on the Romneya: you also confirm species by looking for hairs on the pedicle, or the part of the stem which connects to the bottom of the flower. I didn’t mention this before because you usually can’t see it at all in photos, but I did find one savvy person today who took a close-up specifically of that feature

Also, it’s super fun to see @pisum and @eknuth up there as top identifiers of Romneya now. Thanks guys!

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The gestalt thing is very important. As a Noctuid moth person, I’ve learned to recognize the inherent variety of many species. I remember in the early 80’s a fellow I was working for sent a bunch of beaten up moths to (what it was then) the Canadian Biosystematics Institute. When he asked how they knew x from y, the person said ‘It just looks like it’. But tha only works for some moths - many moths have a huge variation in phenotype (see Euxoa ochrogaster, This type of knowledge can only be obtained through experience. I don’t know how it is with plants or other life forms.
My approach to this has been to say that these are highly variable moths, give a few essential characteristics, then add a reference if they want to pursue it.
My concern with this thread is that we seem to be reinventing keys which are already published. I know that taxonomically things change, but I assume for most groups there are online sources of information.
I’ve been beavering away at the backlog of Noctuid moths, but I’m not very fast. Unless I really know the species, it takes 15 - 20 minutes to be sure of an id. I strive for a good confirmation id, and often that takes time.

the intent of the thread isn’t really to reinvent keys. the primary thing is to highlight taxa that non-experts would have a relatively good chance of identifying correctly, given a minimal set of instructions. we’re reinventing keys only to the extent that we’re pinpointing the specific things that really make a plant distinctive or providing additional easier-to-understand pictures or non-technical descriptions to complement existing keys – to make it as accessible as possible for non-experts.


Yes! I feel that for the botanical layperson on iNaturalist, plant keys lack three things:

  1. Pictues. If you are lucky, your key might have line drawings, but probably not for every plant. I get that keys were made to be carried around in printed form, and so many images isn’t practical for large books, but there’s a reason why casual plant enthusiasts depend on photo illustrated field guides rather than keys. Luckily iNat itself often solves this problem–the species photo pages are really great. I also heavily use the images on Calflora, since there you can display all the members of a genus on one page, three photos each. I don’t know where else people outside California can photos more reliable than Google images.
  2. Easy language. Botanical jargon is super useful, but also overwhelming. I remember my mom looking at my Jepson manual (the book of keys and taxa descriptions most used for plants in California) and commenting, “This isn’t in English.” I want people to discover new and hopefully facinating plant details without realizing I’m slowly teaching them botanical jargon!
  3. All keys assume you physically have the specimen in front of you. I bet this point comes up endlessly on iNat, but: identifying from photos is a whole different game. Definitely some species just can’t be IDed from general snapshots, but at least we on this thread have some sense of what useful info is or isn’t in the average observation photo.

All right. This seems to be a thread about plants, so if you want, I’ll remove my comment.

it’s not intended to be limited to just plants, but plants do make up a large portion of observations that need ID. so i wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of what we discuss here will be plants. but if anyone wants to cover other things – spiders, fungi, etc. – i think those contributions would always be welcome, even if it starts as just throwing around some ideas for good species for non-experts, rather than a full write-up.

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I’d love to hear about moths, or whatever you like! I personally am limited to talking about plants because that’s all I know.

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I’d like to apologize to all above for my rater snarky last response. In my original post I was trying to reinforce the notion of gestalt, and how it is very important to moth ID (except for the advanced techniques like genetic dissection etc to establish species). I overreacted to the initial response, and regret doing that. Again, sorry.


Your point was a valid one, Ian… I think duplication of keys raises the chances of confusion. I more see this idea as a a situation where someone has identified an area that can be cleaned up, has done the research to establish what is involved in differentiating them, and is “summarising” to the rest of the community so that anyone interested can help with the implementation (cleanup and future monitoring) of those observations. It may involve keys or it may involve helping the helper to gain the gestalt. Particularly when the submitter is highly skilled at researching such cleanup processes, this gives them the opportunity to train up others and pass the future maintenance on to them, essentially freeing them up to research and develop another area, and so on.

We kind of have this happening in New Zealand with spiders and moths. For example, we have Cor Vink and Phil Sirvid that we look to for expertise, and they share with us character and gestalt clues and online resources, and then we can do the bulk identifying, tagging them in whenever we strike difficult or new ones. With this topics method, it is more specific in scope and caters to experts that don’t yet have a group of helpers established.