Finally, A Practical Guide for Roadside Wildflower Viewing

If you’re a fan of wildflowers, I’m sure you’ve noticed the same thing I have – all the field guides out there have one massive flaw. They’re designed for people who are slowly ambling about in prairies and other natural areas with nothing better to do than stop and stare closely at the minute details of flowers.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with kneeling down and staring closely at wildflowers. I mean, we should all be so lucky to have the free time and – apparently – lack of responsibility to spend our days wandering around in fields of blossoms. I’m sure at least some people who do that are perfectly nice, and probably not at all dangerous.

Detailed close-up photos like this one are of no use in identifying wildflowers seen from the window of a moving vehicle.

But what about the silent majority who prefer to experience wildflowers the way General Motors intended – by whizzing past them in a fast, comfortable automobile? How are nature-loving-from-a-distance drivers supposed to learn the names and habits of the wildflowers as they speed blissfully past them at 65 (85?) miles per hour?

Well, at long last, I have bravely stepped into the void to create the wildflower guide that has been missing for as long as field guides and automobiles have awkwardly co-existed on this earth. Today, I am introducing my new book, “A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers At Full Speed“. This free, self-published eBook is available right now at THIS LINK.

The wildflowers in the book are arranged by both color and blooming date (within color classes), just as you’ll see in other field guides. However, in this guide, the flowers appear as they actually look when you see them from the road. This much more realistic portrayal of wildflowers will prevent the frustration that comes from staring bleakly at field guide photos that bear little resemblance to what you see out your car window.

Here’s an actual photo from the Field Guide. Black-eyed Susans are a common roadside wildflower. They can often be distinguished from upright yellow coneflowers because the darker brown/black streaks are embedded within the broader yellow streaks in black-eyed Susans, whereas those dark streaks are usually above the yellow in upright yellow coneflowers.

I’m not asking for any monetary compensation for this book. It is offered as a free service to all drivers hungering for a way to learn more about wildflowers without having to stop and walk around like some kind of animal. In the event that you find this field guide useful, you can compensate me by donating toward your favorite conservation organization. There are numerous great organizations to choose from, including a very nice one that kind of rhymes with ‘Duh, may sure gun fervency’.

(Yeah? You try rhyming it!)

Another image from the field guide, showing wild bergamot, aka bee balm. Note the pale green smears amongst the pink, which are characteristic of this species. The limited width of the pink streaks also helps separate this species from similar flowers such as shell-leaf penstemon, though the two also bloom during different seasons.

The current iteration of the book includes many of the most common wildflowers seen in Nebraska and nearby states, but I hope to expand both the number of flower species and the book’s geographic relevance in future editions. In the meantime, I have attempted to apply for a copyright of this book’s concept, but I apparently called the wrong number because I all I could hear was hysterical laughter as I tried to explain my plan. I’ll keep trying. In the meantime, please don’t steal the idea.

Oh, and YOU’RE WELCOME.

Disclaimer: This book should never be used while actually driving. Always use a designated passenger to look up flowers. I mean, they’re going to be staring at their phone anyway – they might as well do something useful for you at the same time.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

104 thoughts on “Finally, A Practical Guide for Roadside Wildflower Viewing

  1. Ummmm…brilliant doesn’t even begin to describe this book! I fired it off to several of my botanist friends who instantly scoffed and scorned, but later came back to agree that it was a missing link in the plant ID community. Well played, Chris!

    • Yeah, it won’t be for everyone, but I’m glad you enjoyed it (and that you pestered your botanist friends with it!!) Botanists are some of my favorite people, but they can also fun to tweak…

      • Oh, how I wish you had waited for April 1 to post this!!

        But actually, it’s amazing how much I could get the ‘gist’ of a flower by the color, hue, and saturation and how dense the flowers were by looking at the blurs. Nice!

  2. Perfect! It will also be helpful to those of use who’s eyesight ain’t what it used to be! LOL! Keep up the good work.

  3. I appreciate all of this! Way to fill a critical missing link. However, I think “fun fervency” might be more apt ;) #natureconservancy #committedtofun #committed2fun

  4. This is genius! I am tempted to adopt your concept for a full speed visual discernment of stream flow discharge guide. But I would need your permission of course. Thanks Chris, the world is better because of your talents.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Beth. And you don’t need my permission – my copyright has not yet been approved!! ; )
      I think a full speed guide to stream flow discharge sounds like a great idea.

  5. 5/5 Stars.
    TNC Nebraska’s resident blogger-ecologist Chris Helzer has done it again with “Roadside Wildflowers at Full Speed!” Following his essential guide to Central US prairie ecology and management, Helzer’s “Full Speed” is an excellent addition to everyone’s dashboard, glove compartment, or that awkward gap between the front seat and the armrest/storage box. Essential reading for every passenger on I-70 or I-80, and every backroad in between – should be available at every Love’s, Flying J, or Pilot station! Full of brilliant, “high-speed” photography and truly useful information, it is among the rare naturalist guides that is near-authoritative in the field but attractive enough to sit on a coffee table – except it would be the coffee table in your car…

    Truly – a great idea and well-executed. Clever and accurate, a great reflection of Helzer’s style. Thank you for sharing, Chris! It works! I especially love the “similar species (at full speed)” descriptions, such as this one for Rattlesnake Master: “Anything tall and white”. HIGHLY RECOMMEND!

    • Mr. Blankenship. I very much appreciate your detailed and positive review of my recent book. We serious authors are always dependent upon reviewers, both to massage our egos and to drive sales, and you’ve done both here. Thank you.
      (Also, you apparently took the time to read through the whole thing, which is both crazy and gratifying, since I had to WRITE the whole thing to make the schtick work…)

  6. At first I thought my computer was out of focus then I figured out all the pictures were supposed to be blurred – hence the reason for the book I guess. An interesting attempt at plant humor but not very useful for anything more than a few laughs, which is something useful I guess.

  7. I can hardly stop laughing long enough to email you how absolutely hysterical this is. I should also take this time to thank you for your wonderful blog and the great delight I get every week from reading it, not to mention all that I have learned.

  8. I love this! My husband always drives when we are in the car together, so I’m often gazing out the windows at whatever is flying by. I will bring the book for our next trip west (from New York State) which will be in August!

  9. Perfect companion to my (unpublished) “Botanizing at 65 MPH.” Volume II is also unpublished al- though frequently referred to “What Was That?”

  10. Honestly this is perfect. And it shows me that I actually do know the essence of many plants without having to see them close up. I loved this! Brilliant.

  11. Printed and stored in my center console, ready for our next road trip! Thanks for this highly useful guide. The text is even more brilliantly helpful than the photos. Such a good laugh on what is a gloomy day here.

  12. Just another fine example of your creativity as a naturalist, as a photographer, as a writer, and as a humorist! Funny, yes, but there’s more to your pix than meets the eye. I’m sure I’m not the only passenger in a zooming vehicle to get frustrated trying to figure out what those different masses of color are that I’m seeing for hundreds of miles. There’s a lot of learning that occurs during those trips. As always, Chris, thank you for sharing.
    You might enjoy this quote: “No matter how slow (or fast) the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.” (author unknown)

  13. Chris, you have taken my long cherished idea and run with it! My title would have been “Botany at 100 KM an hour”! I have learned that it does take special skill to ID plants as you hurtle by in a steel death machine and wanted to share the skill that I have developed but you beat me to it; of course I can still the Australia version!

  14. My long-suffering husband still tells people of the time we were driving a Wisconsin interstate at 65 or 70 mph and I said “Gentian!!”. I mean, what else is that color at that time of year??? Lol.

  15. Cannot tell you how many times I have been a passenger in a car that whizzes by wildflowers along the roadside and I want them to stop so badly…cannot tell you how many days I have driven country roads at minimum speed, stopping often to observe and photograph wildflowers…my passion for certain…so I enjoyed your fun new guide because I can relate to it so much!!!

  16. I love this! What a fun idea.

    And also some truly beautiful, dreamy images. I’d frame that a huge print of the dame’s rocket and hang it in my living room. Actually, are those on Vault? I really wouldn’t mind hanging that one up in my office. I love the Impressionist feel to it.

    Jenny Trucano Muller
    Director of Finance and Operations
    The Nature Conservancy in Kansas
    785 329 5748
    nature.org/kansas
    Facebook
    [cid:image001.png@01D5CAE2.BAEB4C60]

  17. You should talk to the guy who wrote “Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America”, Matt Kracht. It’s along the same lines. People will buy your funny book if you let them :)

  18. Is there somewhere I can sign up for an update of this if you do a version for any other areas? I’m planning a big road trip soon and I’m SUPER bringing this but I don’t know if I’ll be going near Kansas :]

  19. Dear Chris,
    I work for the Botanical Garden of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic. I came across you Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers At Full Speed, and I was very impressed with the inspired and innovative concept. I think this kind of book is essential for today’s amateur enthusiasts and scientists as well. Unfortunately, I live in a backwards country where not many people speak English, so your book is of no use here (despite the fact that many of the roadside wildflowers included in the book can be found in Czech Republic too). Therefore I’d like to ask you whether I could translate your ground-breaking book into Czech. If you were interested, let me know what would be the conditions of our cooperation (I propose a proper attribution, link to your original text and keeping the same terms of use).
    Lastly, let me tell you I view your book as a tiny first step in the right direction, which will lead to something much bigger. Just think of the applications in other fields, like zoology, mycology or microbiology. The city guides for architecture lovers could benefit from your concept as well. And I believe one day there could be field guides even for civilized people traveling by plane.

    Yours faithfully,
    Anna Procházková

  20. This is so great. You are so great! Thank you for having believed in your idea ’til realization. Wish you all the best!

  21. Hey Chris,
    Mercy here at the NDOT. This is great. If you want to get together to talk about our pollinator program and our involvement in Monarch conservation in the state as a follow up to this, I think it would be amazing. I mean most of those flowers are proof of our efforts.

  22. Please, please, puhlease do trees next. There are so few in Custer County where I grew up. I live in Omaha now, and it’s so hard to find cottonwoods to remind me of home.

  23. Hilarious. And much needed down here in north central Arkansas Ozarks, too, tho’ we pretty much have the same flowers listed. Sharing with my Master Naturalist chapter.

  24. A senior plant taxonomist who was looking over my shoulder while I was perusing this post said “Is that Asclepias tuberosa?” And it WAS. Just showing how useful this field guide may be to those who have to ID blurry photographs all the time.

  25. Omg. That’s awesome! I have joked for some time now with my colleagues when we carpool together and I see some plant I am able to recognize that is growing in a weird non-prairie spot. I point it out in time for everyone to just miss it! Haha! Or someone will say.. “or was it such and such?” Botany at 60 miles per hour. Lol!

  26. I have now seen your fabulous book shared in at least three Facebook groups. An instant classic! I won’t be surprised to see it on the New York Times Bestsellers list by the weekend.

  27. I never read books and never leave comments on blogs but you have granted my secret desire and made my life complete. I now need not wonder of beauty I see out my window, or bother on reading anything further. To my untrained and lazy eye, the book covered Australian wildflowers as well. Was that intentional?

    Many thanks and huzzah!

  28. I wish I’d had a copy of your guide with me on October 17, 2016. That particular day, I was puddling down I-49 in Missouri, on my way to the Diamond Grove prairie. When I saw the pretty red and blue lights behind me, I knew I hadn’t been speeding, and it wasn’t speeding that was on the good officer’s mind. I’d been reported by another driver for going 50 in a 70 mph zone, not to mention occasionally drifting toward the inside lane, and he was curious.

    Once he’d figured out I wasn’t talking on the phone, texting, drunk, or in the midst of a medical emergency, he asked if there was a reason I was driving so slowly. Figuring honesty was the best policy, I said, “Well, I’m on my way down to Diamond Grove prairie, but the flowers along the roadside here are just glorious, and I’ve been looking.”

    I wish I could describe the look on his face. He finally grinned, agreed that the flowers were pretty, and then let me go — with some advice to wait until I got to the prairie to look at the flowers.

    See? If I’d had your Practical Guide with me, I could have kept my speed up and avoided being stopped by the highway patrol!

  29. Pingback: Photos of the Week – January 17, 2020 | The Prairie Ecologist

  30. I work in a VERY windy place up in southwest Alberta (Canada). With our strong winds, this guide will be useful for us even when we aren’t driving. You’ll have to share your photography secrets for taking such clear images.

  31. I wouldn’t steal your idea but I believe we’ve thought of similar ideas at the same time.
    They say that’s how pure genius works in the world.
    You can copyright your book but I wonder about the idea. Tho’ I suppose if mine is just different enough…
    Anyway, it’s very clever.

  32. This is brilliant! I cannot tell you how many times I have grabbed the guidebook to look something up as it is whizzing by, only to immediately close it upon realizing the futility of trying. Perhaps now there is a chance! Thank you!

  33. Pingback: A Field Guide to Roadside Wildflowers At Full Speed – This isn't happiness

  34. Hey, I’ve really been enjoying your blog since I signed up after seeing you present at the conference in Madison last year. I hope to start some type of photo blog one day. I thought you might like to see that your guide was recently shared on a fun ecology focused facebook group. You’ve gotten some great feedback!https://www.facebook.com/groups/WildGreenMemesForEcologicalFiends/permalink/2562892943939940/ Thanks for sharing your love of nature.Kathy Lech

  35. Hello,
    about time someone produced a flora like this – congratulations!

    There was a professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin who classified plants by the maximum speed you could be driving at and still positively identify them…apparently it made for some rather hair-raising trips for his students. Perhaps in later editions you could introduce a similar concept into the guide.

    Excellent concept, excellent work.

    BrianO

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  46. I don’t look for wildflowers while driving fast in a big truck. I prefer to be the person who drives slow on a country road, stools over and takes a closeup. I guess I am just lazy and have nothing better. The person who wrote this did have to to provide us with modern art work. Can’t wait until spring.

  47. This is the BEST! I posted it on the forest’s Facebook page, and will probably need some in the office for this summer’s ATV crowd. Love, love, love it.

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