NEWEST and largest list: Newcomb's Guide scientific name updates. Please Contribute!


Although nearly half a century old, Newcomb’s excellent wildflower guide is still in print and still in use. Over the decades since 1977—or rather since 1950, as I’ll explain—the classification and naming of plants keeps changing at what seems an ever-accelerating pace. I know of two existing attempts to compile a list of changes to the scientific names in Newcomb’s. Steve Young created one in 2007–10; the other, though undated, can’t be much newer. It’s time for another one, and this time, linked to the iNaturalist database.


Newcomb’s guidebook is something like a beginner-friendly, geographically-restricted abridgement of Gray’s Manual of Botany, 8th edition, edited by M. L. Fernald in 1950. Newcomb created his rightly-famous key system and with it, organized species selected from Gray’s, writing simplified, much-less-technical descriptions. Whenever Fernald described multiple varieties of a species, Newcomb wrote his description so that it could cover all of them (all that were relevant to his chosen geographic area, that is), but without explicitly saying that that’s what he was doing. He declined to make any changes or updates, however minor, to the material in Gray’s. It may seem perverse of him to ignore a quarter century of progress, but this decision has the great advantage that Gray’s now serves as a technical companion to Newcomb’s. If anyone should find the species information in the latter too selective or too vague, they can seek out the detailed version, which in turn can be a bridge to more modern literature.

That’s what I did in the present project. A certain amount of guesswork was needed, in a few cases, in order to figure out which of Fernald’s varieties Newcomb had included. I then researched how taxonomic opinions have shifted since 1950. Though there are a number of names altered simply to adhere to the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature, or to correct an error, or to be consistent with a new identification of a type specimen, in most cases changes of names reflect splitting or merging of genera, elevation of varieties to species or the reverse, or the entire abandonment of distinction between certain species. New understanding of relationships shifted a few species from one genus to another, such as when the former Armoracia aquatica was found to be more closely related to Rorippa sylvestris than to Armoracia rusticana. There are even a few complicated instances of species boundaries being redrawn in new places that expand in one respect and contract in another (for example, the revised understanding of Euphorbia maculata, which you can research for yourself if you want your head to ache). Alan Weakley’s Flora of the Southeastern United States was immensely helpful since he has provided a detailed account of synonyms for all his taxa, and only a minority of Newcomb’s species are too northern to be included in his work.


In my opinion, in order to be a true update to Newcomb’s work, a list of name changes should follow the same principles of simplification as the original author did: he made almost no reference to infraspecific taxa, and neither should the update list; he omitted species that he thought too obscure or too difficult to identify, and the update list shouldn’t introduce any that he would have preferred to omit. I’ve found that it’s impossible to follow these idealized principles entirely, but they provide useful guidelines. Do you agree?

Without regrets, I can partly abandon the principle of never mentioning subtaxa, and it’s not too difficult to decide when they are absolutely needed. One instance is when two of Newcomb’s species have been reduced to varieties or subspecies but are too distinct to be easily combined into a single guidebook entry, as with Antennaria howellii ssp. canadensis and ssp. neodioica (these two subspecies can be described tidily, but A. howellii as a whole only by a suite of partially-concurring characters) or Solidago uliginosa var. uliginosa and var. peracuta (there is an eye-catching difference between them that places them on separate pages in Newcomb’s). Another is cases like that of Newcomb’s Silphium trifoliatus; although what Fernald called Silphium asteriscus is found within the guide’s region, Newcomb didn’t choose to mention it, so that now, when those two species have become S. asteriscus var. trifoliatus and var. asteriscus, the description in the guide conspicuously refers to only the first variety, excluding the second which lacks leaves in whorls of 3.

The other principle, which becomes an issue every time one of Newcomb’s species is subdivided, is a tricky one. Just what, exactly, is too obscure to be mentioned? I don’t trust my own judgment. Yes, I don’t see a problem with not mentioning Rumex maritimus which, according to FNA and BONAP, has only been observed as a “casual alien” at a couple of locations in Massachusetts and New Jersey. But I’m genuinely uncertain about Oenothera biennis ; O. biennis is far commoner than the species split from it, O. villosa and O. nutans , but is it enough commoner? I also don’t know what to say in cases where neither part of a subdivided species is rare, but they’re extremely difficult for a casual observer to tell apart: see, for example, Humulus lupulus .

I’d like to draw attention to the confusion surrounding Thymus serpyllum , where I’m pretty certain that the text, adapted from Fernald, describes a different species than the one depicted in the illustration, drawn from a New England plant. And when you read my epic-length comment on Atriplex patula , you’ll see why after two days of research, I wanted to throw up my hands and tell updaters, “Just cross out this entry in your Newcomb’s because it needs to be completely rewritten.”

I’ve colored some lines in the document PINK; those are ones that leave me with uncertainty or a serious dilemma.


With that, I toss the ball to you, field guide fans of iNat. Please read, comment on and contribute to my research document, and tell me what sort of update list you would like to have. A link to Google Docs is provided above (if you can’t or won’t use Google Docs, what file sharing method do you prefer?) I hope the columns are sufficiently self-explanatory. GREY cells in the table represent material added for context but not present in Newcomb’s.


To folks who’ve expressed an interest in Newcomb’s or in field guides: @reuvenm @lukearmstrong @charlie @mikefitz @cotinis @brentturcotte @kevinfaccenda @lamagswag @maractwin @wdvanhem


…I strongly disagree, and that’s why field guides, in my opinion, are kind of a waste of time these days. New aliens, recent segregates, commonly-planted “waifs”…these actually make up a HUGE number of plants that beginners are very likely to encounter in “the wild”. Their glaring omission is why I turned to learning plant ID from Floras, monographs, other papers, and their keys. You just never know what’s being glossed over in a “field guide”, and that stuff that’s being glossed over? That’s usually the good stuff! That’s where all the dang evolution is happening!

They’re like children’s dictionaries - they have all the entries children already know and none of the entries they need to know, in the misguided name of “ease of use”. But it’s not easy to use if the plant in front of you isn’t in the guide.


I’d like to check how specific you are being here. Do you mean all “field guides” or just the ones for plants? I ask because field guides to insects, notably Jeff Skevington’s FGFFNNA and Chris Alice Kratzer’s The Social Wasps of North America, are generally extensive and I consider them a very good use of time, for a multitude of reasons.

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restricted to plants, restricted to “classic” guides, restricted esp. to “beginner” guides or other pseudo-pedagogical guides that purposely gloss over most entities


Unfortunately I gave away my copy of Newcomb’s when I moved out of the Eastern US so I can’t really contribute to this.

That’s not fair. My Peterson wildflower guides introduced me to hundreds of species that I didn’t already know.

Oh, that’s a very interesting document. We used Newcomb a lot when we were new to Ohio and all the outdated names were an issue when we finally tried to start learning scientific names!

Haha, in our case we knew a total of 0 flowers already, so that was not an issue. And I disagree that having just such a small selection of flowers is not useful - when we first became interested in flowers we always carried Newcomb with us and we could identify 99% of all flowers we found (Newcomb has a lot of non-native flowers as well). And it was way more fun than using id-apps (didn’t really know about inat yet) to id at that point, we would only use that as a last resort when none of the paths in the key led to anything. And yeah, it meant any of the 40 or so species of violets we kept finding was mapped to one of the 5 species in Newcomb, but as complete beginners accurate violet id would have been overwhelming anyway.

“Small selection of flowers” is just a slight exaggeration… I can be more exact, because I have been combing sources to compile a list of pretty much every wild forb and shrub found in the 200 square miles surrounding my Central New York home, including quite a few questionably-naturalized adventives. There are 1355 plants on that list to date. Of these, about 970 (allowing for a few uncertain, inexact matches) are found in Newcomb’s. That isn’t great, of course, given that a couple dozen very widespread weeds are missing. I think your 99% of common plants may have been more like 98%. However, for an example of a genus where Newcomb’s is seriously lacking, Viola wasn’t the right one to pick: there are ~28 species of violet in this region (including 4 that are exceedingly rare here); Newcomb’s key would correctly identify 24 of them.

i think you’re kind of missing the point. Field guides like Newcolms aren’t for someone doing a comprehensive vegetation plot in a Carex meadow, they are made for casual to intermediate users. That’s why field guides exist for most people and people like you (and sometimes me) can use those other resources.

They aren’t for children, they are for the 95% of humans on the planet who aren’t specialists in those taxa.


in terms of Newcolm’s i don’t use it much any more but used to, and often give it to people who are setting out to learn the plants. It 's really useful in that it’s different, and so people with different brain types who aren’t great at dichotomous keys can still use it. I’d advocate for not trying to add in all the new ridiculous taxonomy of the last decade, because i’m not sure it’s going to work with all those splits (but neither will anything else i guess)

Your floras, monographs, and keys – unless they are the paper describing the segregate – also aren’t going to have those.

OK folks, check this out!


Three-quarters of a completed list, with explanations for the entries that need explanation. @charlie, does this seem like something you might recommend as a supplement when you recommend the book to people?

I would really like some of the experts to look over the parts where I wrote how to distinguish between species that were separated out, and check whether I got things right.

It’s been so long since I opened Newcomb’s that I’d completely forgotten just how antiquated the taxonomy is.

Can I ask…what’s the purpose of your list? There are so many taxonomic resources online, including iNat, that one needs only to look up a Newcomb’s name using a basic search engine to find the current taxonomy.

I think a crosswalk is good for sure, except the way iNat has gone with taxonomy it will be obsolete soon, it’s probably already obsolete, half those names were probably already changed again. So maybe it’s not worthwhile.

Not so, actually! In dozens of cases, Newcomb’s name potentially corresponds to several recent ones due to splits and merges or errors that haves since been corrected. I spent three weeks carefully reading Gray’s and researching updates. It didn’t take any longer than that because Alan Weakley already did a huge amount of the work of sorting out the synonymy of Gray’s, I’ll bet he’d tell you it’s a headache sometimes.

I think it is absolutely useful to have a bridge from Newcomb’s to iNat. I occasionally look at my old paper field notes from Newcomb’s, and the book is still in print and still being recommended. I learned from it back in the 80s and 90s and, even if I’ve gone beyond, I use that knowledge as a foundation to organize new things I learn.

Yes, I wish there was some way to link the list to iNat dynamically to keep up with future changes.

At least, I would like to see all this synonymy added as alternate names: a surprising amount of it isn’t there.

or, and hear me out here, iNat could just have some reasonable limit to taxonomy changes and not constantly change them based on questionable science.

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You may have a point: it does seem that an awful lot of changes are made based on single studies rather than comprehensive review of multiple lines of evidence.

But at least some curators do seem to be asking for a higher level of evidence for changes that would result in merging and loss of specificity in observations. I wish that more people had applied caution to the merging of Morella pensylvanica and Morella caroliniensis a few decades ago; everything written about those species between then and the recent decision to separate them again became really hard to interpret.

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In my experience, inat merging is almost unheard of, at least within plants. It’s splitter rule here, unfortunately

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