The San Diego County Plant Atlas project is a collections-based project. The collecting volunteers, known as "Parabotanists", collect specimens of plants which are retained in the museum's herbarium. With the creation of the California Academy of Science's project, iNaturalist, where participants submit photographs of plants and animals, a new tool was added to our ability to define the distribution of plant species throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties as well as the Baja peninsula.

If you are an iNaturalist participant and would like to contribute your plant photos from our three regions of interest, we encourage you to join one or all of our three projects on iNaturalist. Photographs submitted within those projects will be examined by our curator of Botany, Dr. Jon Rebman, who will try to identify the plant. We ask that you set your iNaturalist options to include private coordinates so we can accurately know the location of the plant you photographed. And to optimize the likelihood of being able to identify species from photographs submitted to iNaturalist, we offer these tips about photographing plants.

General Guidelines: Keep in mind that these guidelines are intended to optimize identification, but we want you to submit plant observations to iNaturalist and the San Diego County Plant Atlas Project even if you are unable to follow the guidelines.

1. Try to obtain photographs of the plant as a whole, showing scale if possible by including a recognizable object in the photo. (e.g., for a large tree, have a person stand next to the tree; for a small plant, hold the leaves or flower so that your fingers are in the photo; or you can place a ruler or other scale in the photo.)

2. Take close-up photographs of leaves (both upper and lower surfaces), flowers (straight-on and side views), and fruits.

3. In most cases, it is helpful to photograph both flowers and fruits. While there are some plants that do not bear fruits and flowers at the same time, try to photograph both if possible. A botanist often needs reproductive parts of the plant in order to positively identify it. Including all representative parts of the plant makes it more likely that the species can be determined without having a specimen in hand.
   a. “Fruit” is a collective term used to describe the different types of mature ovaries that flowering plants can have. The fruit contains the seeds, and some examples are: berry (grape), nut (acorn), capsule (poppy), pod (pea, bean), drupe (plum, cherry), bur (cocklebur, teasel), caryopsis (grass grain), and achene (dandelion or sunflower seeds). With some plants, characteristics of the seeds are used to determine the species.
   b. If the plant does not have both flowers and fruit, and fruit/seeds are required for a positive identification, then your observation may not be identified as to species. In some cases, a higher level of identification may be possible, such as the family or genus of the plant.

4. Try to have the sun at your back to provide the best light for your photos.

5. Before touching any plant, be sure you know how to recognize and avoid poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) and other plants that may irritate your skin, such as those in the Nettle Family (Urticaceae).

What exactly should I photograph? Depending on the plant family, different plant parts may be essential to establish the identity of a photographed plant. With some plants, required features may not be easily photographed in the field (e.g., tiny hairs on the lower side of leaves, bulbs or roots). Below are some tips to help you understand what you should photograph, depending upon which plant family your observation belongs to. If you do not know what family the plant you observe belongs to, follow the general guidelines above.


Ferns – (Bracken, Wood Fern, Polypody, Brake Families) – these will look mostly vegetative; need to see sori/indusium (yellow or brown dots) found on back of fronds (leaves), so take photos of both sides of fronds. The farina color on the underside of the blade for Pentagramma species is essential.
Conifers – (Cypress, Pine Families) – Pine, Cypress, Juniper – take a photo of the female cones showing the shape of the scales and a photo that shows how many needles are in each bundle.
Ephedraceae – (Ephedra Family) – Ephedra - photograph fruits (stalked, small and brown) at nodes (where leaves join stem) and stem nodes to see how many leaves are present.
Equisetaceae – (Horsetail Family) – Horsetail, Scouring-Rush – photograph fruiting stems which have small cone-like structures (strobili) on tips, plus the base of the plant to see the teeth and coloration at basal nodes.


Acanthaceae – (Acanthus Family) – Chuparosa – flower or fruits
Aceraceae – (Maple Family) – Maple, Box-Elder - fruits or flower
Aizoaceae – (Fig-Marigold Family) – Carpobrotus, Iceplant, Sea-Fig - flower, flower color very important, if no flowers, may not be able to determine species.
Amaranthaceae – (Amaranth Family) – Amaranth, Pigweed – closeup of fruits
Anacardiaceae – (Sumac or Cashew Family) – Sumac, Lemonade Berry, Pepper Tree, Poison-Oak – fruits or flower
Apiaceae – (Carrot Family) – Sanicle, Lomatium, Hemlock - fruits essential; if present, flower color is important
Apocynaceae – (Dogbane, incl. Asclepias or Milkweed Family) – Milkweed, Oleander, Periwinkle – flowers and fruits, especially closeup of flower structure
Araliaceae – (Ginseng Family) – Ivy – fruits or flower
Asteraceae – (Composite Family) – Our largest family, includes Daisies, Baccharis, Ragweed, Ambrosia, Thistle, Goldenbush, Tarplant, Filago, Matchweed, Sunflower, Cudweed, Artichoke – flower and fruits if present. Take a side view of flower to show the “involucre” – the structure between the flower and the stem. A close-up photo of fruit is essential for the genus Stephanomeria.
Berberidaceae – (Barberry Family) – Barberry – fruits
Betulaceae – (Birch Family) – Alder – fruits or flower
Bignoniaceae – (Bignonia Family) – Catalpa, Desert Willow, Jacaranda - flower
Boraginaceae – (Borage Family) – Fiddleneck, Cryptantha, Popcorn Flower – flowers and mature fruits (found below the flowers on a coiled cyme). The sculpturing and number of the nutlets is especially important in Cryptantha, Pectocarya, Plagiobothrys.
Brassicaceae – (Mustard Family) – Mustard, Rocket, Cress, Peppergrass, Wallflower, Stock, Fringepod – flowers and mature fruits (below flowers at top of plant); leaves at the base of the plant should also be photographed.
Cactaceae – (Cactus Family) Opuntia & Cylindropuntia – Cholla, Prickly-Pear - photograph pads and spines, flowers (must have), and fruits if present. Ferocactus – Barrel - closeup of areole (spine cluster) Mammillaria – Fish-Hook - flowers and closeup of areole (spine cluster) Echinocactus & Bergerocactus – Hedgehog, Mound – flowers and/or fruits
Campanulaceae – (Bellflower Family) – Bluecup, Threadplant, Lobelia - flowers and fruits
Caprifoliaceae – (Honeysuckle Family) – flowers and/or fruits
Caryophyllaceae – (Pink Family) – Chickweed, Catchfly, Sand-Spurry - flowers
Chenopodiaceae – (Goosefoot Family) – Tumbleweed, Goosefoot, Saltbush – closeup of fruits
Cistaceae – (Rock-Rose Family) – Rush-Rose, Rock-Rose - flowers and/or fruits
Cleomaceae – (Spiderflower Family) – Bladderpod – flowers and shape of mature fruits
Convolvulaceae – (Morning-Glory, Dodder Family) Convolvulus – Morning-Glory, Bindweed – flowers and fruits, Calystegia - leaf shape, and side view of flowers showing outer bracts Cuscuta – Dodder – orange colored parasite, photograph with flowers (tiny & white); include part of host plant in the photo; Note name of the host plant (if known).
Cornaceae – (Dogwood Family) – flowers and/or fruits
Crassulaceae – (Stonecrop Family) – flowers and basal leaf shape Dudleya – leaves and flower stalk; note number of leaves in whole rosette and diameter of plant in description
Cucurbitaceae – (Gourd Family) – Melon, Wild Cucumber - flower or fruits
Ericaceae – (Heath Family) – Manzanita – fruits. Arctostaphylos – photograph base of the shrub/tree to show the burl (woody outgrowth at base of trunk)
Euphorbiaceae – (Spurge Family) – Doveweed, Croton, Castor Bean - closeup of stem nodes showing stipules, fruits and flowers, including a closeup of the cyathium (tiny flower-like structures containing male & female flowers and often with appendages and glands present)
Fabaceae – (Legume Family) – Clover, Vetch, Locoweed, Broom, Pea, Lupine Acacia – fruits, Astragalus – flowers & fruits, Lathyrus – flowers, Acmispon, Hosackia, Lotus - fruits, Lupinus – flower, Trifolium – flower and bracts of the lower, outside of flower clusters, Vicia - flower and fruits
Fagaceae – ( Oak Family) – fruits (acorns) essential, upper and lower surface of leaves
Fouqueriaceae – (Ocotillo Family) – flowers
Garryaceae – (Silk Tassel Family) – flower or fruits; upper and lower surface of leaves (determining hairs on underside)
Gentianaceae – (Gentian Family) – Canchalagua, Centaury - flowers and basal leaves
Geraniaceae – (Geranium Family) – Storksbill, Geranium – fruits, flowers, and lower leaves
Grossulariaceae – (Gooseberry Family) – Currant – flowers, fruits and presence or absence of spines on stems
Hydrophyllaceae – ( Waterleaf Family) – Phacelia, Eucrypta, Baby Blue Eyes, Bluebells, Yerba Santa – flowers, Phacelia needs fruits
Lamiaceae – (Mint Family) – Sage, Monardella, Woolly Bluecurls - flowers
Loasaceae – ( Loasa Family) – Stick-Leaf, Blazing Star – fruits and closeup of mature seeds
Lythraceae – ( Loosestrife Family) flowers, closeup of fruits, growth habit
Malvaceae – (Mallow Family) – Hollyhock, Mallow, Checkerbloom – flowers and mature fruits. Malacothamnus -- closeup side view of flower and stem (showing calyx, bracts, & hairs)
Montiaceae – (Purslane Family) – Red Maids, Miner’s-Lettuce, Montia, - flowers and fruits
Myrtaceae – (Myrtle Family) – Gum, Bottlebrush, Eucalyptus – flowers and fruits Eucalyptus – leaves, trunk shot, flower buds with caps attached and mature fruits
Nyctaginaceae – (Four O’Clock Family) – Wishbone Plant, Ringstem, Sand Verbena – flowers, fruits Abronia (Sand Verbena) – flower color, fruits Boerhavia (Spiderlings) – flower arrangement, closeup of fruits, lower part of stem
Oleaceae – (Olive Family) – Ash, Privet - fruits
Onagraceae – (Evening-Primrose Family) – Sun-Cup, Clarkia, California Fuschia, Willow-Herb, Evening Primrose - flowers and fruits essential
Orobanchaceae – (Broom-Rape Family) – Paintbrush, Bird’s Beak - flowers
Oxalidaceae – (Oxalis Family) – Sorrel - flowers
Paeoniaceae – ( Peony Family) – flower or fruits
Papaveraceae – (Poppy Family) – Matilija Poppy, Cream Cups, Golden Ear-Drops - flowers and fruits
Phrymaceae – (Hopseed Family) – Monkey Flower – flowers
Plantaginaceae – (Plantain Family) – Snapdragon, Chinese Houses, Toadflax, Penstemon, Plantain, Speedwell – flowers, fruits, and basal leaves Penstemon – flowers, leaves
Platanaceae – (Sycamore Family) – fruits
Plumbaginaceae – (Leadwort Family) – Marsh Rosemary, Statice - flowers
Polemoniaceae – (Phlox Family) – Gilia, Woolly-Star, Navarretia - flowers
Polygonaceae – (Buckwheat Family) – Spineflower, Buckwheat, Willow Weed, Dock - flowers and basal leaves (for annual plants); flowers (shrubs), closeup of leaves and adjacent stems for varieties of Eriogonum fasciculatum
Primulaceae – (Primrose Family) – Shooting Star – flowers
Ranunculaceae – (Buttercup Family) Columbine, Larkspur, Meadow Rue – flowers, fruits
Resedaceae – (Mignonette Family) – Oligomeris, Reseda - fruits
Rhamnaceae – (Buckthorn Family) – Wild Lilac, Redberry, Coffeeberry - flowers and/or fruits Ceanothus (Wild Lilac) – fruits, closeup of lower leaf surface and stem nodes
Rosaceae – (Rose Family) – Chamise, Mountain-Mahogany, Cotoneaster, Toyon, Horkelia, Cinquefoil, Cherry, Berry, Plum – flowers and/or fruits Rosa – flowers, especially side view showing sepals and prickles on stems
Rubiaceae – (Coffee Family) – Galium, Bedstraw – fruits, stem node with leaves attached
Rutaceae – (Citrus Family) – Coast Spice Bush - fruits or flowers
Salicaceae – (Willow Family) – Cottonwood, Willow, Poplar – fruits, closeup of flower catkins, both sides of leaves
Saxifragaceae – (Saxifrage Family) – Heuchera, Woodland Star, Alumroot - flowers Jepsonia - leaves or flowers
Scrophulariaceae – (Figwort Family) – Bee Plant, Mullein - flowers
Solanaceae – (Nightshade Family) – Jimson Weed, Desert Thorn, Tomato Tobacco, Nightshade – flowers especially with a scale next to anthers for white flowered species and/or fruits
Tamaricaceae – (Tamarisk Family) – Tamarisk, Salt-Cedar – flowers, arrangement of flowering spikes on stems
Ulmaceae – (Elm Family) – Elm – fruitsand closeup of leaves
Urticaceae – (Nettle Family) – Nettle, Pellitory, Urtica - fruits
Verbenaceae – (Vervain Family) – Lantana, Vervain, Phyla – flower Verbena- flower and fruits
Violaceae – (Violet Family) – Violet – flower, basal leaves
Viscaceae – (Mistletoe Family) – Mistletoe - parasite; flowers or fruits and host plant (if known, note name of host plant in description)
Vitaceae – (Grape Family) – Grape - flowers
Zygophyllaceae – (Caltrop Family) – Fagonia, Creosote Bush - flower and/or fruits


Agavaceae – (Agave Family) – Hesperoyucca, Yucca, Agave - flowers or fruits
Alliaceae – (Onion Family) – Onion – flowers, fruits, bulbs if possible
Arecaceae – (Palm Family) – Palm – frond, fruits or flowers
Asparagaceae – (Asparagus Family) – Smilax, Asparagus - fruits
Cyperaceae – (Sedge Family) – Sedge, Carex, Bulrush – leaves and fruits
Iridaceae – (Iris Family) – Iris, Blue Flag, Blue-Eyed-Grass - leaves and flowers
Juncaceae – (Rush Family) – Rush, Juncus - fruits
Liliaceae – (Lily Family) – Calochortus, Mariposa Lily, Fritillaria, Chocolate Lily - leaves and flowers
Melanthiaceae – (Camas Family) – Zigadenus, Camas - leaves and flower
Nolinaceae – (Nolina Family) – Nolina, Bear-Grass - flowers or fruits
Orchidaceae – (Orchid Family) – Orchid, Coralroot, Rein Orchid – closeup of flowers
Poaceae – (Grass Family) – Grass - leaves and fruits
Themidaceae – (Brodiaea Family) – Goldenstar, Blue Dicks, Wild Hyacinth, Brodiaea - leaves and flowers
Typhaceae – (Cattail Family) – Cattail, Typha – leaves especially at base where clasping stem, and flowering/fruiting spikes

For more information about the San Diego County Plant Atlas, or the Flora of Baja, projects of the San Diego Natural History Museum, email us at, call us at 619.255.0298, or visit the web sites San Diego County Plant Atlas or Baja Flora