Native Plant Identification - May 26, 2010
Jeff Schalau, Associate Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County

Hikers, photographers, equestrians, birders, hunters, boaters, swimmers, fishermen (and fisherwomen), cyclists, and campers come to the Verde Valley to experience its natural beauty. Distinctive geologic features are a significant part of this attraction. The geologic features have scenic beauty, but also direct the subsurface flow of water to springs and creeks and cause moist air masses to rapidly cool increasing the probability for precipitation. The varied geological features also contribute to a range of soil properties which lead to a wide array of plant communities which support diverse wildlife populations.

Plant communities in the Verde Valley include semi-desert grassland, interior chaparral, pinyon/juniper woodland, montane coniferous forest, and riparian areas. Where plant communities border each other, we do not see a distinct line, but often see a combination of both communities which is called an ecotone. For example, semi-desert grasslands in the Verde Valley can have a significant shrub component and where soils differ the shrub component often are of different species.

Most people are not thinking in terms of plant communities – they see a unique native plant and want to know what it is. Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener volunteers regularly answer plant identification questions in our offices, but it can take time because of individual plant identification skills vary. Books can also be useful in native plant identification, but most people prefer pictures and there are no comprehensive Arizona plant picture books. That being said, I am pleased to announce the launch of a new on-line native plant identification website called Yavapai County Native & Naturalized Plants. The URL for the site is

The Yavapai County Native & Naturalized Plants website contains multiple photos and descriptions of over 150 native and naturalized plants - including 76 grasses (often the most perplexing plants to amateur botanists). The real value of this website is in its searchability and elegant design. For example, it can be searched by plant name (common and scientific), growth form (e.g. tree, shrub, grass, etc.), by plant community, or by individual plant characteristics. More plants will be added to it over time. It is truly one of the best local, web-based plant identification resources I have ever seen.

In addition to the above listed attributes, each plant description includes synonyms (previously used scientific pant names), various common names, and plant family. There are multiple photos of each plant showing distinctive features at various times of year. This may be a leaf, flower, bark, overall appearance, or, in the case of grasses, vegetative attributes that are distinctive for that species. Each photo also provides a general location and credits the photographer.

To use the website, say you encountered a native shrub in the pinyon/juniper woodland and wanted to identify it. You could start by searching the plant list under shrubs or the plant community under pinyon/juniper woodland and look for something that looks like your plant. Still, you don’t find your plant. Well, then you try the search function for “Woody Plants, Succulents, and Cacti”. Remembering it had spiny-edged, compound leaves and was in the pinyon/juniper woodland, you select these attributes from the menus and the only plant that is in the search results is the Fremont mahonia (Mahonia fremontii). Well, this may be the correct plant, or it might be very close. There is a close relative of Fremont mahonia called red berry mahonia (Mahonia haematocarpa) which still needs to be added to the database.

The Yavapai County Native & Naturalized Plants project was headed up by Yavapai County Master Gardener, Sue Smith. Sue is a top-notch web database designer who also happens to have a deep passion for native plants and education. Sue and a group of Yavapai County Master Gardeners have worked on this project for almost three years before it was made public last week. University of Arizona V Bar V Ranch Research Specialist, John Kava, and Sedona area botanist Max Licher also provided their expertise to this project. This website is a real gem and I encourage you to utilize it!

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: June 21, 2010
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