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Cabeza Prieta Natural History Association
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Coffee Pot Mountain

Plant Identification Page - Tips

Life Form

Tree Woody plants usually with a single trunk and considerably taller than a person. Desert trees generally range from 7 to 30 feet in height. Under certain conditions, trees may have more than one trunk. For these purposes, tall succulents are not considered to be trees.
Shrub Woody multi-stemmed plants that do not die back to the base except under conditions of extreme stress. These may range in height from less than a foot to 10 or 15 feet. Plants with extremely long narrow leaves (2 to 4 feet) all apparently coming from at or near ground level are included here.
Cactus Succulent plants essentially without leaves (leaves may occur but they are inconspicuous and ephemera)l. Species are usually but not always spiny. Spines are attached in groups to stems at points called areoles. Sizes range from a few inches high to 50 feet. Tall cacti are not considered to be trees.
Herbaceous non-grass Non-woody plants that enter dormancy by dying back to the base. These may be plants that repeatedly emerge from the base year after year (perennials), grow one year, flower the next and then die (biennials), or emerge from seed, grow and flower all in one year (annuals).
Grass Non-woody plants with relatively long, narrow leaves and inconspicuous flowers. This choice includes some plants not in the grass family such as sedges and rushes.
Succulent Plants with fleshy, thick narrow leaves often apparently not coming from an obvious stem or coming from a very short stem. One species in this area has leaves attached to tall stems. Leaves of species in this group in this area narrow gradually toward the tips. Tips are armed with spines.

Leaf Arrangement

Opposite leaf Two leaves emerging from the stem opposite from each other.
Alternate leaf Only one leaf emerging from a point on the stem.
Fascicled leaf Three or more leaves emerging from a point on the stem or at the end of the stem. With the plants in the desert, these usually are spoon-shaped and without petioles.
Whorled   Three or more leaves encircling a point on the stem rather than coming from a single point. Arrangement hard to tell or basal: Oftentimes, in reality, these leaves are alternate or opposite, but are jammed so close together that their arrangement is impossible to determine.

Leaf Format

Simple   These leaves consist of a single blade attached to the main stem with or without a petiole. The blades may be thin or fleshy, toothed or not, lobed or not, and smooth or not.
Pinnate leaf (Single pinnate or pinnately compound). Leaves consisting of a single series of pairs of obvious leaflets attached along the length of a stem called the rachis. The lower part of the stem would be considered a petiole. This leaf type not to be confused with a pinnately lobed (pinnatifid) simple leaf where the lobes are not completely separated before reaching the rachis.
Bipinnate leaf
(Twice pinnate or bipinnately compound). Leaves consisting of series of pairs of completely separated leaflets attached to narrow stems (rachilla) which in turn are attached to a central stem (rachis) emerging from branches on the plant. In some species, the rachis of the leaf is so short as to make it seem like there are two pinnate leaves coming out of one point on the branch.
Bifoliolate leaf Leaves consisting of two leaflets attached to a rachis.
Palmate   Leaves consisting of three or more completely separated leaflets coming out of the end of a rachis.

Leaf edge
(Not to be confused with leaf outline.)

Smooth Edges of the leaf blades have no teeth or other irregularities. This choice refers to the leaf blades in simple leaves or leaflet blades in compound leaves, but not to the whole leaf in the case of compound leaves. Leaf blades with lobes but not teeth are considered smooth.
Not smooth (toothed, rough, etc.) Some kind of teeth or roughness always present.

Leaf surface

Smooth Leaf blade surface completely hairless, non-rough, non-sticky.
Rough Leaf blade surface rough from very short stiff hairs or rough scales.
Hairy Leaf blade at least partially covered with hairs. These hairs may be so fine and short as to be invisible without a magnifier but which give the leaf an overall grayish appearance. Velvety leaves also come under this choice.
Scaly Leaf surface covered with flat scales visible with a magnifier.
Sticky Leaf surface covered with glandular hairs.

Overall leaf shape
If the leaf is compound, leaf shape refers to the leaflet and not to the outline of the leaf as a whole.

Oval leaf
Leaf (or leaflet) outline mostly rounded. Includes egg-shaped, oval, elliptical, circular. It is usually too hard to differentiate between these so they are lumped together.
Triangular leaf
Angular rather than rounded leaves (or leaflets) shaped like a triangle. This can grade into oval.
Lance shaped leaf Angular leaf (or leaflet) blades shaped like an arrowhead. This can be confused with triangular and may require more searches using different choices.
Linear (very narrow) leaf Leaf (or leaflet) blades still narrower than lance-shaped. Once again, this may require more than one try with different choices.
Spoon shaped leaf Leaves gradually widening from the base to the tip. These may be flat or thick and fleshy.
Very narrow and long   Blades much narrower than linear and longer than one or two inches.
Very narrow and short   Very narrow leaves less than 2 inches long.
Grasslike   Grasslike leaves less usually much less than 2 feet long.
Very long grasslike   Grasslike leaves usually much longer than two feet.
Heart-shaped leaf  

Leaf outline

Lobed Indentations in the leaf blade that do not go all the way to the central vein. These are found on simple leaves or leaflets of compound leaves.
Not lobed The edge does not have large indentations but may be toothed.

Spines are relatively small and short modified leaves which may be straight or curved, i.e. cacti have spines. Thorns are stiff sharp-pointed branches, i.e. hawthorn.


Flower color

Red includes brick red, crimson, scarlet
Orange Orange may grade into red. If choosing this color does not give desired results, try red.
Lavender Light violet. May grade into blue or violet or even purple. You may have to try different choices.
Pink or purple Purple is red with some blue in it.
Blue or violet Violet is mostly blue with a little red mixed in.
White includes off-white
Greenish Usually small, inconspicuous flowers without petals.

Flower noticeability


Flower type

Like a daisy, sunflower or dandelion : Composite flowers with showy ray petals.
Rayless composite Composites but without the showy ray petals.
Irregular, non-tubular Flowers with petals of different shapes. Petals not united into a tube, or if so, this is not obvious.
Irregular, tubular Flowers with different shaped petals obviously united into a tube.
Regular, tubular Flowers with similar shaped petals united into a tube.
Saucer-shaped Petals at least mostly similar and not appearing to be united. Flowers may seem relatively flat or bowl-shaped.
Other Includes most flowers without petals and/or with unusual structures.

Flower petal number

obviously 5  
obviously 4  
obviously 6 or 3  
indeterminate or hard to tell or none Irregular flowers will normally fall in this category although sometimes it may be easy to count petals. All composite plants fall in this category.

Cactus shape

Continuous tall column  
Continuous short column  
Tree-shaped with pads  
Tree-shaped with cylindrical joints  
Sprawling pads  
Sprawling with cylindrical joints  

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The Plant Key Word Search function returns a list of all plants that have the search word, phrase, or string, in their database record. The search function is not case sensitive.

No logic is used in searches. Only exact matches will be found. Most database entries use singular, rather than plural, terms. For example, if you want a list of all shrubs, use the search string "shrub".

Flower color searches are usually better served by using the Plant Identification page. Using the Plant Key Word Search page to generate a list of plants with white flowers, by using the search string "white", will return a list of plants with white flowers and plants with "white" in their common name, such as "White-stem milkweed" and "Whitethorn acacia", both of which have yellow flowers.

Scientific Name Searches - Be careful of spelling. Consider omitting sub-specie notation, then select the plant of interest from the resulting list. The plant database designation for sub-specie is, " ssp. ". If you use " subsp. ", or forget the ".", the plant will not be found. Another option is to use the Plant List page which lists all plants by scientific name.

Common Name Searches - Many plants have more than one common name. The Plant Key Word Search page is a good tool to find plants by common name, as opposed to the Plant List page(c) which lists all plants by common name. Consider using a portion of the common name when common usage spelling variations may limit the search result. For example, a search for "Marigold" will bring up links to, "Desert Marigold" and "Woolly desert-marigold". You can then click through to the appropriate plant page.

Life Form Searches - Remember that "less" is better than "more" and use the singular form of the word. A search for "shrub" will return a list that includes "low shrub", "medium shrub", "tall shrub" and "subshrub."

Sonoran Desert Plant Life Forms
annual forb
annual grass
low arborescent cactus
low columnar cactus
low shrub
medium arborescent cactus
medium columnar cactus
medium shrub
medium tree
non-woody vine
pad cactus
parasite on trees
parasitic forb
perennial forb
perennial grass
perennial vine
perennial viny forb
pincushion cactus
short pincushion cactus
small shrub
small tree
spherical cactus
spike moss
sprawling cactus
sprawling pad cactus
straggly shrub
tall arborescent cactus
tall columnar cactus
tall shrub
woody vine

Habitat Searches - Here are the habitat terms used in the database.

Sonoran Desert Plant Habitats
bajada washes
disturbed areas
in water
moist areas
near water
rocky slopes
rocky southerly slopes
saline areas
saline seeps
saline valley bottoms
sand dunes
sand flats and dunes
sandy areas
valley bottoms
valley washes
volcanic areas

Plant Family Searches - Here are the plant family names used in the database.

Sonoran Desert Plant Families
Acanthaceae (acanthus family)
Agavaceae (agave family)
Amaranthaceae (amaranth family)
Anacardiaceae (cashew family)
Apiaceae (carrot family)
Aristolochiaceae (birthwort family)
Asclepiadaceae (milkweed family)
Asteraceae (sunflower family)
Bignoniaceae (bignonia family)
Boraginaceae (borage family)
Brassicaceae (mustard family)
Burseraceae (torch-wood family)
Buxaceae (box family)
Cactaceae (cactus family)
Campanulaceae (bellflower family)
Capparaceae (caper family)
Caryophyllaceae (pink family)
Chenopodiaceae (goosefoot family)
Convolvulaceae (morning glory family)
Crassulaceae (orpine family)
Crossosomataceae (crossosoma family)
Cucurbitaceae (gourd family)
Cuscutaceae (dodder family)
Cyperaceae (sedge family)
Ephedraceae (ephedra family)
Euphorbiaceae (spurge family)
Fabaceae (bean family), Caesalpinioideae (senna subfamily)
Fabaceae (bean family), Papilionoideae subfamily
Fouquieriaceae (ocotillo family)
Geraniaceae (geranium family)
Hydrophyllaceae (waterleaf family)
Krameriaceae (ratany family)
Lamiaceae (mint family)
Liliaceae (lily family)
Loasaceae (stick leaf family)
Malpighiaceae (malpighia family)
Malvaceae (mallow family)
Martyniaceae (devil's claw family)
Nolinaceae (beargrass family)
Nyctaginaceae (4-o'clock family)
Oleaceae (olive family)
Onagraceae (evening primrose family)
Orobanchaceae (broomrape family)
Papaveraceae (poppy family)
Plantaginaceae (plantain family)
Poaceae (grass family)
Polemoniaceae (phlox family)
Polygonaceae (buckwheat family)
Portulacaceae (purslane family)
Pteridaceae (brake family)
Ranunculaceae (ranunculus family)
Resedaceae (mignonette family)
Rhamnaceae (buckthorn family)
Rubiaceae (madder family)
Rutaceae (citrus family)
Sapindaceae (soapberry family)
Scrophulariaceae (figwort family)
Selaginellaceae (spike-moss family)
Simaroubaceae (quassia family)
Solanaceae (nightshade family)
Sterculiaceae (cacao family)
Tamaricaceae (tamarisk family)
Ulmaceae (elm family)
Urticaceae (nettle family)
Verbenaceae (verbena family)
Viscaceae (mistletoe family)
Zygophyllaceae (caltrop family)

Plant Occurrence - Here are the plant occurrence terms used in the database.

Sonoran Desert Plant Occurrence

Flower Color - These color names are used in the database.

Flower Color Names
brick red
dark red
dark violet
deep red
no flowers

Flower Season - These month names and seasonal terms are used in the database.

Flower Season Terms
All year
mostly spring
year long

Miscellaneous Terms - These terms appear in various fields of the database.

Miscellaneous Terms
introduced invasive parasite parasitic

Return to the Plant Key Word Search Page.



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