Key for Violets?

I am key-challenged. No. That’s not accurate. I am key-totally-clueless-added-to-incapable.

I do mostly plants, dabbling elsewhere, but mostly plants. And I’m not a professional, so many of the ID approaches that are intuitive for trained pros make little sense to me. I’m not too proud to say that I LOVE ID sites that let me choose number of petals, and color, and opposite/alternate leaves, etc. Buuut… nothing in iNat is tagged that way, so I’m SOL.

I’ve tried to use keys. Really. But when the third question is “Annual or Perennial” - I mean, really? If I knew that, I probably wouldn’t need the key!!! OK. End rant.

My kind of key takes a group of plants, say, violets occurring in Michigan, or maybe in the Midwest. The first thing it does is look across all the plants and pull out the ones that can be identified on the basis of a single characteristic. Like the really deeply “cut” leaves of a birdfoot violet. Nothing else like 'em. MichiganFlora, bless their little green hearts, have a key for violets in Michigan. You have to go through 16 (16!) levels before landing on birdfoot violet, and they never ask about the leaves! OK. I lied. I wasn’t finished ranting.

So once all the single-characteristic species have been sorted out, then pull out the ones that can be identified based on 2 characteristics. And so on.

At some point it will become unworkable - combinations of 4 characteristics, or really subtle differences, will suggest a natural place to stop. Mostly, probably, when it becomes too irritating to continue. What’s left over either has to be handled using a different method, or (my favorite approach) left at the genus level.

And it does assume that one is able to recognize that the plant belongs to whatever group the key describes. Still, I think this would be wildly more useful and less frustrating than most of the keys I’ve ever encountered!

So. To my question. Does anyone know of anything like this? And most particularly, for violets in Michigan?


i don’t know about Michigan specifically, but if i know genus and county/parish, i often start with a trip to BONAP to narrow down possible species: (USDA also has county maps, but i don’t think they have an easy way to display all species in a genus at county level at the same time like BONAP does.)

then if i don’t have a key to start off with (or if i need a second option), usually, i’ll see if the Flora of North America (FNA) guide is available online at efloras.og (which for Viola it is): FNA tends to be very detailed and technical, which can be good or bad, depending on your level of familiarity with the terms.

if FNA isn’t available, or if it’s hard to use, then i would start doing image searches based on the narrowed down list of species in the region according to BONAP. or if you know of a good source in the area, you could go there. i’m not super familiar with resources in the area, but even in Texas, i sometimes use the species descriptions from Illinois Wildflowers ( and a little further away from Michigan, Missouri Botanic Garden’s plant finder is sometimes helpful:

oh… and of course you could always do a search in Naturalist for the county and genus and see what the popular species there are (i don’t know which county you’re in, but here’s state level:


it may be too far away from you to be useful but i use the GoBotany keys a lot:
they are from Flora of Nova Anglicae by Haines, except that all the jargon words have links with IDs and there are tons of photos. I’ma very visual person so i find that super helpful. Viola in particular can be tricky though, as it mentions in the huge paragraph at the start of that key.

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I think you would really enjoy Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. It is in many ways quite similar to what you want. After getting really familiar with Newcomb’s, I found the transition to using Michigan Flora and GoBotany instead pretty smooth.

The trade-off is that it is not comprehensive. The keys are a lot easier to use because they don’t include many uncommon or rare species.

If you want comprehensive, I don’t think you can really do any better than the Michigan Flora key. The first ten species (up to V. lanceolata) are pretty easy to identify, and could be treated in the way you describe. And indeed, I find the key is pretty easy to go through up to couplet 12 (#2 looks scary, but the first option only leads to two introduced species that look VERY different. #9 looks scary, but all you need to do is look for the really distinctive and easy-to-see curved style in V. odorata). But all the basal-leaved white or blue species are genuinely hard to identify. Even Birdfoot Violet seems to be very similar to V. pedatifida, although not a species I’m familiar with.

One tip I find really helpful when using Michigan Flora or similar keys. If you have a hard time with some couplet, take a look at the species on either option. Often you can see that one or the other is not found in your area, or is in a different habitat, or looks totally different.


i agree, Newcolm is great except for those oddities and rarities that aren’t in there. I’ve been doing botany here for a long time and I still use Newcolms.

@reuvenm I actually have a copy of Newcomb’s, and it was one of the ones that I never got anywhere close to whatever I was looking at, but it was a number of years ago. Perhaps I should give it another try - I have learned so much just in my few months here on iNat that I might find it less intimidating :-) Thanks for the hints!

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