I absolutely love sketching and painting flowers. With the possible exception of birds, I have a desire to study and sketch flowers and trees more than anything else in nature. Maybe I am greatly attracted to these plants because both give such joy yet ask so little in return.
Sketching should help one better understand the world, and having a better understanding of the world will help one to be a better sketcher. That being said, it helps to know a bit about plant morphology when sketching flowers. Flowers follow a few typical leaf, stem, and bud patterns, so once learned, it makes it easy to quickly identify the plant’s basic shape and capture it when sketching.
Field notes are also extremely helpful— and something I desperately need to get better at taking. Asking questions is a great way to observe and take notes. If you don't know the answer, it's absolutely fine! Sketching and nature study is all about the wondering. You can always jot down the question so you can look up the answer later.
Sketches and field notes are also important because it’s good practice to leave wildflowers in the wild. After all, the last thing I want to do when studying nature is cause harm.* And photographs can’t tell the whole story like what a flower smelled like, what type of soil it was growing in or the forest canopy above it, how the underside of the petal felt, or how many bees and insects were attracted to the flower.
A flower or plant’s identification can often be derived from several key factors like leaf and flower attachment and shape, size of the plant, petal shape and number, and sun conditions. In addition, it helps to have a basic understanding of simple flower biology.
Flowering plants (angiosperms) are split into two types: monocots and dicots. Dicots usually have petals of four or five (or multiples of like 8 or 10) and leaf veins that form a net pattern. Monocots have petals of three (or multiples of like 6 or 9) and leaf veins that form a parallel pattern (e.g. a blade of grass). Of course, like all things that man tries to biologically categorize, there are exceptions. However, recognizing which category a plant belongs can greatly aid study, and many field guides include this in the identification keys.
Other good things to note or ask:
Date and time (Most flowers only bloom during certain times of the year, and some only open their buds in the morning or evening.)
Location: city; state; area or region like coastal plain, prairie, etc
What stage is the flower (budding, fully open, bolting, etc)?
How does the flower smell?
Is the stem and/or leaf hairy or smooth?
Are the veins of the leaf darker or lighter than the leaf? What about the underside of the leaf?
Any pollinators (bees, hummingbirds, wasps, ants, etc) around the flower?
Type of soil the plant is growing in?
I often journal a quote or poem that comes to mind, a Bible verse, or any personal moments or memories attached to the flower, location, etc.
I usually focus solely on observation in the field and don’t bother with identification until I get home. In my experience, most of the autogenerated online ID keys don’t work very well so it’s best to do your own research.
As always, the best field and identification guides are the ones that focus on your region. To see if there are online flower ID resources for your area, type into a search bar “wildflower guide _______” and in the blank add your area like Ohio or Southwest. If you also add “PDF” to the end of the search, you may find resources available for download.
I have a handful of books I use for flower and plant identification. [Affiliate links, so thanks!] One of my favorites is actually a foraging book by Samuel Thayer called Nature's Garden. Though this book doesn't focus on flowers, Thayer shares in-depth explanations on identification that are useful when observing all plants.
Since we currently reside on the southeastern Atlantic coast, the two best books I have found for my area are Coastal Plants by Irene Stuckey and Lisa Gould, and Living Beaches by Blair and Dawn Witherington. These two books are full of detailed photos and descriptions and are my go-to resources for the southeastern coastal plains.
Note: Since I wrote this article, we moved to the Blue Ridge mountains! Below are a few of my favorite ID books and online resources, and depending upon where you live, you may also find them useful.
Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians My absolute favorite wildflower field guide because it’s so easy to use! You don’t need to be a biologist or botanist to enjoy and use this guide, yet it’s still full of great descriptions, interesting information, and loads of colorful photos. I really like the tidbits on similar species.
Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast This beautiful book features more than 1,200 species organized by color, and since the guide encompasses a large region (10 states), it’s also great for travel. Along with color photos and descriptions, the range map next to each plant is extremely useful and can help narrow down the search.
Wildflowers of the Carolinas I have three books in this field guide series and all are very easy to understand and use, and I highly recommend this book for beginners. Flower species are organized by color and each page spread contains one full-page photo along with a full description.
Flower Finder This handy little pocket-sized book is perfect for field study. Be sure to read the short introduction so you’ll know how to use the book, and then simply follow the identification keys (in other words, answer the questions) to discover the species that you’ve found. I also highly recommend the Winter Tree Finder that’s in the same series.
Wildflowers of North Carolina Roadsides This free PDF booklet (follow the link to download) was published by the N.C. Department of Transportation to help travelers identify roadside wildflowers. The booklet is also offered in printed format at many of the state’s welcome and travel centers and may be useful for other states. If you live in N.C., be sure to check out the North Carolina Native Plant Society’s website for information, events, free downloads, and more. You can find more native plant societies across the U.S. here.
USDA Plants Database Though I’m not sure how often this site is updated, this vast online resource has much information about U.S. plants and wildflowers. You can view images and data on plants, discover your hardiness/planting zone, download a specific state’s plant list, and more.
Celebrating Wildflowers Hosted by the USDA Forest Service, this area of their site is specific to wildflowers and is updated regularly. It offers wonderful information on wildflower species and their pollinators. You can also search for wildflower viewing areas close to you.
Flower & Plant Study Guide Printable
To help you identify some of the basic leaf and bud patterns when field sketching and nature journaling, I put together a flower study guide printable that’s available for download. This PDF printable includes visual references and key questions to ask when observing, studying, and identifying plants. For a handy on-the-go reference, just print, trim, and tuck into a sketchbook or journal. To learn more, click the button below.
Warning: Unfortunately, I have found my information and resources republished on a lot of malicious websites. I care about your creative journey as well as your safety, so I share loads of information for free here at Scratchmade Journal. I do not grant permission for commercial use, so if you download or view my content on any other website, you may expose your computer (and yourself) to viruses, malware, or worse. If you absolutely can’t afford the small fee I charge for some of my guides, please reach out to me.