identifying plants

Identifying a Mystery Plant

A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues came back from a walk and said he had seen a plant new to him.  Could I identify it?  He described it as small and ground-hugging, with tiny, star-shaped orange flowers.  Sort of a pinky-orange, he said.  Salmon-coloured, in fact.

I was not only stumped but curious.  I tend to notice plants, and this one didn’t match anything I had seen in the area.  On my next break, I went out to see it for myself.  The plant’s growth habit reminded me of chickweed, but was neater and more restrained.  And the flowers were indeed pinky-orange.  On close inspection I could see that they had purple and yellow centres.  It didn’t take me long to conclude that this was a plant entirely new to me.

But it wasn’t growing in a remote jungle or an inaccessible mountain meadow, and I wasn’t plant explorer.  Any plant growing in a weedy island between a sidewalk and a paved road had to be common and probably a weed.

Surprisingly, the Internet was of limited help, at least in response to my googling of phrases such as “plant with tiny orange flowers,” or “plant that looks like chickweed but with orange flowers.”  If I’d had a camera, I could have taken a picture and posted it to one of any number of sites frequented by botanical whizzes who enjoy identifying plants.

At home that evening, I dug out a useful book — Plants of Coastal British Columbia Including Washington, Oregon & Alaska by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon.  It covers both native plants of the region and imports from elsewhere, and is profusely illustrated.  The book is organized by types of plants (trees, shrubs, herbaceous, aquatic) and botanical families.  I started near the back, with a section called “Other Families,” because I didn’t think this plant belonged to any of the others listed (although I was prepared to work my way through them if necessary)  Paging through, looking at the pictures, I saw a flower that looked a lot like the ones on the mystery plant, except that it was yellow, not orange.  It belonged to Bog St. John’s Wort (Hypericum anagalloides).  Most unlikely, but in the “notes” section below the description of this plant was the following:  “Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) resembles H. anagalloides, but it is an introduced annual from an unrelated family… Its flowers are salmon-coloured, borne on long, thin, curved stalks, and they are 10-17 mm wide.”  Bingo!  I googled the Latin name and found a wealth of information and pictures that confirmed the identification.

Here is a picture from Wikimedia Commons.

Anagallis arvensis is indeed a weedy species, despite its romantic common name, referring to the fictitious hero of a play set in the French Revolution.  And to me, who had never seen it before, it seemed novel and exotic.  Interestingly, another of its common names is “red chickweed.”  So I was on the right track from the start, except that I thought it orange, not red.  There is also a blue-flowered form, which I would love to see, being a sucker for anything with blue flowers.

This little episode tells me that a “plant identification for dummies” tool, whether printed or online, needs to have lots of pictures and be organized by flower colour.  The identification keys used by botanists are way too intimidating, bristling with unfamiliar terminology and requiring detailed knowledge of plant anatomy.  Most people zero in on flowers before any other feature.  If this plant had not been in bloom, my colleague would likely have never noticed it.

In this case, however, a bit of persistence and some serendipity did the trick.