Resources for Identifying the Plants
of Nova Scotia

Posted at May 3, 2012
Updated May 10, 2017.

These notes were prepared initially by David Patriquin for session six in the Native Plant Talk Series.

Please send comments & corrections to

Dicentra cucullaria
(Dutchman's breeches)


1. Classification of Land Plants: The Basics

2. Popular Guides to the Flora of Northeastern North America

3. Popular Guides to the Flora of Nova Scotia / Maritime Provinces

4. Floras

5. Lists

6. Other Helpful Guides

7. Digital Herbaria

8. Some Plant Families to Know

9. Local Habitats & Vegetation

10. Native Plant Gardening

11. Clubs, Short Courses & Workshops

1. Classification of Land Plants: The Basics

The major groupings (taxa) are
  • Non-vascular Plants - Hornworts, Liverworts & Mosses (Bryophytes)
  • Lower Vascular Plants (seedless) - Club Mosses, Horsetails & Ferns (Pteridophytes)
  • Higher Vascular Plants: with seeds
    • Vascular with naked seeds - Gymnosperms (yews, conifers)
    • Vascular with enclosed seeds - Angiosperms (the "Flowering Plants")
Angiosperms: two major groups (classes) are
  • Monocots (leaves with parallel veins, flowering parts almost always in 3s)
  • Dicots (net-veined leaves, flowerings parts commonly in 4s & 5s)
Within each of these major groupings, plant species are classified into
Family - Genus - Species
Native Plant
Rhododendron canadense
Family names end in "acae", e.g. Asteraceae. A species is described by a scientific or "Latin" name, with two parts. The first is the name for the genus, the second is the epiphet for the particular species, e.g. Rhododendron canadense . Species names are usually italicized.

There can be many species in a genus, but each species is unique, e.g. there are 100s of species in the genus Rhododendron worldwide, but there is only one Rhododendron canadense. Common (vernacular) names may NOT be unique, e.g. in Newfoundland "partridge berry" refers to Vaccinium vitis-idaea, while in N.S. it refers to Mitchella repens. A half dozen or more species in the genus Gaylussacia may be described or loosely identifed as "huckleberry".

2. Popular Guides to the Flora of
    Northeastern North America

Asterisked titles are still in print. Several are available at Bookmark on Spring Garden Road in Halifax. Other out-of-print items can often be obtained from used book sellers.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide*
by Lawrence Newcombe, illustrated by Gordon Morrison. Little, Brown & Co., 1989. 490 pages.
A Nova Scotia Wild Flora Society favourite, it covers 1,375 wildflowers, flowering shrubs and vines of northeastern and north-central North America. Written for popular use but going beyond a stricty visual guide, it employs line drawings in combination with a simple key based on "the most easily seen features that make each species unique, features that the untrained eye can distinguish".

A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (Peterson Field Guide series)*
by Roger Tory Peterson & Margaret McKenny. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968. 448 pages.
Grouped by color and by plant characteristics, 1,293 species in 84 families are described and illustrated. Mostly herbaceous species (not trees shrubs, ferns grasses, sedges).

Flora of NS
Kalmia angustifolia
(sheep laurel)
Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast*
by Michael Wojtech. Universty Press of New England. 2011. The first guide making use of bark as the primary tool for tree ID.

Bogs & fens, A guide to the peatland plants of the northeastern United States and adjacent Canada*
by Ronald B. Davis. University Press of new England, 2016. Comprehensive. Excellent photos.

Grasses: An Identification Guide
by Lauren Brown, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1992.
"How to identify 135 of the most common species of North American grasses, sedges, and rushes, with their economic and ecological importance." Line drawings.

Sedges of Maine: A Field Guide to Cyperaceae*
by Matt Arsenault et al., University of Maine Press, 2013.
Photos, keys, 712 pages.

A Field Guide to the Ferns of Northeastern and North-central North America (Peterson Field Guide series)*
by Boughton Cabb, illustrated by Laura Louise Foster. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1963. 281 pages.
Line drawings and descriptions.

Oustanding Mosses and Liverworts of Pennsylvania & Nearby States*
by Susan Munch. Published by the author (, 2006. 89 pages.
Photographs and descriptions of common species or genera.

Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians*
by Karl McKnight et al. Princeton University Press, 2013. Comprehensive field guide, 391 pages, with colour photos.

Mosses, liverworts and hornworts: A field guide to common bryophytes of the northeast*
by Ralph Pope. 2016. Comstock Publishing (Cornell University)

Common Lichens of Northeastern North America*
by Troy McMullin and Frances Anderson (2014). New York Botanical Gardens Press.
"Designed to be a user-friendly reference for non-specialists, Common Lichens of Northeastern North America is a light and easy-to-use field guide that covers the rich lichen flora of northeastern North America."

Lichens of the North Woods*
by Joe Walewski. Kolath+Stensaas, 2007. 152 pages.
Photographs and descriptions for 111 species.

Identifying lichens of Nova Scotia. A reference guidebook.
Prepared by Irwin M. Brodo, Robert Cameron, Heather Andrachuk, and Brian Craig
Available as a PDF document at "The suite of lichens in this manual was selected for the purposes of the provincial study. They were chosen based on their tolerance of air pollution, from intolerant to moderate to tolerant. The study focused on lichens found on the following maple trees: Red maple ( Acer rubrum ) Sugar maple ( A. saccharum ) Silver maple ( A. saccharinum ) Norway maple ( A. norvegicum )"

Pond Life*
by George Reid, illustrated by Sally Kaicher and Tom Dolan, Golden Press, 1967. 160 pages.
Coloured drawings and descriptions of plants and animals of North American ponds and lakes. Pages 20-73 cover algae, mosses and liverworts, vascular plants.

Audubon App Guides
The Audubon Society offers online guides to birds, butterflies, fishes, insects & spiders, mammals, mushrooms, reptiles and amphibians, seashells, seashore creatures, trees, wildlfowers. They are available as apps for mobile devices for $9-14$ or thereabouts.

Go Botany (New England Wild Flower Society)
A large portion of our flora is shared with New England. Go Botany is a section on the website of the New England Wild Flower Society that offers a Simple ID Key to 1,200 common native and naturalized New England plants and Advanced ID Tools for experieneced botanists. These are online tools that require a user to be connected to the internet. Thanks to Donna Crossland for suggesting this one.

3. Popular Guides to the Flora of
    Nova Scotia/Maritime Provinces

Summer Key to the Woody Plants of Nova Scotia
by A.E. Roland and D.A. Benson. Nova Scotia Dept of Lands and Forests, 1955. 42 pages.
Keys, line drawings.

Flora of NS
Chamaedaphne calyculata
Identification of Nova Scotian Woody Plants in Winter
by James F. Donly. Nova Scotia Dept. of Lands and Forests, 1960. 56 pages.
Keys, line drawings.

Winter Key to Woody Plants of Maine
by C.S. Campbell, F. Hyland & M.L.F. Campbell, University of Maine Press,Orono Maine. 1975.
Not quite our area but it presents most of our species. Keys and many line-drawings. 52 pages text & 63 plates.

Trees of Nova Scotia, A guide to native and exotic species*
by Gary L. Saunders, illustrated by Elizabeth Owen. Nimbus Publishing & Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, 1970. 102 pages.
Line drawings and descriptions.

Trees & Shrubs of the Maritimes*
by Todd Boland.Boulder Publications (Newfoundland), 2012. 234 pages.
This introductory guide covers 240 native and introduced species, grouped by habitat. The book is illustrated with color photographs and is flexibound with a water resistant cover, making it suitable for field use.

Interactive Guide to common native trees of Nova Scotia
This interactive guide produced by N.S. Natural Resources includes most of the Acadian Forest's commercial tree species (PDF) See DNR page

Weeds of the Woods: Small Trees & Shrubs of the Eastern Forest*
by Glen Blouin. Nimbus Publishing, 2004.
Photographs and descriptions.

Shrubs of Nova Scotia. A guide to native shrubs, small trees and woody vines.
by Raymond R. Fielding. Nimbus Publishing & the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, 1998. 170 pages.
Line drawings, descriptions and keys for 115 species of shrubs "one is most likely to encounter in Nova Scotia".

Native Orchids of Nova Scotia. A Field Guide
by Carl Munden. Iniversity College of Cape Breton Press Inc., 1999. 96 pages.
Photographs, distribution maps, descriptions.

In Forest and Field
by John Erskine with illustrations by Jane McNeil, W.B. Schofield. Nova Scotia Museum, 1976. 52 pages.
A collection of illustrated essays: Under the forest, Bogs and their plants, Along the Dikes (with saltmasrh species), An introduction to Nova Scotia mosses, Common lichens, Plaster rock (gypsum flora).

Spring Wildflowers*
by Albert E. Roland and A. Randall Olson. The Nova Scotia Museum, 1993. 138 pages.
Lines drawings and descriptions set out in three sections - early spring, mid-spring and late spring and by plant type.

Common Wild Flowers & Plants of Nova Scotia*
by Diane LaRue. Nimbus, 2004. 164 pages.
Photographs and descriptions of common wildflowers, shrubs, grasses and grass-like plants, ferns, lichens and bryophytes with focus on roadside plants.

Seashores of the Maritimes*
by Merritt Gibson, illustrations by Twila Robar-DeCoste. Nimbus, 2003. 346 pages.
Line drawings and descriptions of plants and animals. Pages 251-339 cover flowering plants (many of the saltmarsh and dune species) and seaweeds.

Atlantic Coastal Plain Flora in Nova Scotia. Identification and Information Guide*
by Meghan Crwoley and Lindsey Beals, Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute, 2011. 91 pages.
Photographs, line drawings, descriptions.

4. Floras

"Floras" are comprehensive scientific treatises that list and provide descriptions for all native and naturalized species known to occur in the particular area when the work was published together with keys and, often, distribution maps. Generally, using the keys requires formal training and/or considerable experience. However, access to "The Flora" is desirable even if you use other sources for initial identification, e.g. to check a species distribution and habitat in N.S. or its flowering time. The organization overall is systematic, meaning that species are grouped according to their genetic relatedness.

Nova Scotia Plants* (PDF, available online)
by Marian C. Munro, Ruth E. Newell & Nicholas M. Hill (2014)
A fully revised flora available online in PDF format.
Go to
A review of the e-book prepared for Rural Delivery (July-August 2015) discusses its use by non-professionals.

Flora of NS
Roland's Flora of Nova Scotia, 3rd Ed.*
by A.E. Roland, M. Zinck and E. Owen. Nimbus & Nova Scotia Museum, 1988. 1297 pages
In two volumes, this is the last book-style flora for Nova Scotia.

The Flora of Nova Scotia, 2nd Ed.
A.E. Roland & E.C. Smith, E.C. 1969. The Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
This flora is a compilation of two issues of the Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science :
  • Roland, A.E. & Smith, E.C. (1963-1964). The Flora of Nova Scotia. Part I. The Pteridophytes, Gymnosperms and Monocotyledons. Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science, 26 (2), 3-238.

  • Roland, A.E. & Smith, E.C. (1969). The Flora of Nova Scotia. Part II. The Dicootyledons. Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science, 26 (4), 277-743.
The NSIS documents are available online.

Ferns and Fern Allies of Canada
Cody, W.J and Britton, D.M. (1989). Research Branch Agriculture Canada Publication 1829/E 1989. Out of print but available as a PDF

5. Lists

Up-to-date species lists for a region or particular area can be a big help in identification, e.g., by indicating which closely related species might occur within the area in question (so you can check whether a species you have identified is NOT another in the same genus).
  • Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre: Species Ranks
    "The Atlantic CDC maintains comprehensive lists of plant and animal species, with a rarity rank and legal status for each…Through the links you can access lists of species, including rare species, for each Atlantic province. Lists are organized by province and by taxonomic group. Newfoundland and Labrador are treated separately for ecological reasons." For N.S. there are close to 2000 native and naturalized species listed; approx. 38% are naturalized species.

bluebead lily
Clintonia borealis (bluebead lily)
in PPP
Search for or help to compile species lists for particular sites.

  • Here's a list for Point Pleasant Park (PPP): Doc format | PDF format | Web Page
    Currently 219 species are listed for PPP. It's a great place to learn the local forest flora, especially after Hurricane Juan.

  • Nova Scotia Environmental Assessments
    Environmental Assessments conducted from 2000 onward at sites throughout Nova Scotia are available online at this site. Typically, these documents include sections with fairly detailed maps, habitat descriptions, species lists.

6. Other Helpful Guides

Nova Scotia Dept. of Natural Resources: Forest Vegetation Types
This is a wonderful resource for learning about forest vegetation. It includes lists of common species in different forest vegetation types.

Nova Scotia Wild Flora Society website
In particular consult the Links for online resources.

7. Digital Herbaria

Photos taken with Point and Shoot, pocket type digital cameras and a few notes can usually provide all of the information needed to identify or confirm the field identification of a plant later on, at least when it is flowering. These cameras take excellent macro (closeup) shots. (See example.) Features to include in the photos/notes:
  • The habitat: note whether the subject is in the open or is shaded; soil is wet, moist or dry; rocky, peaty, sandy,loam, clay soil). Where is it geographically? What other species or groups (e.g. ferns) are present?
  • The habit: show a whole plant (note approximate height or insert a scale); note the plant habit type (shrub, gaminoid etc. see USDA Growth Habits & Codes
  • Flowers: closeups of an individual flower viewed from the top and bottom or side; include a scale (e.g., pencil).
  • Bidens cernua
    Bidens cernua
  • The inflorescence (an aggregate of two or more flowers): note arrangement of flowers and how the flowers arise from the plant - on a separate stem, terminally, in axils of leaves, on stems.
  • Fruit - cut open to reveal arrangement of seeds; include scale.
  • stems/pattern of branching
  • closeups of stem and junction of leaves with a stem: note arrangement of leaves (alternate, opposite, spiral), how leaf size changes with position on plant; basal rosettes.
  • Base of the plant where it emerges from the soil
  • Leaves: overall shape, compound or simple, top and bottom views, note hairs, edges.
  • Other features according to the habit of the plant (e.g. note horizontally spreading stems on the soil surface, or below ground) and time of year (e.g., in winter, give special attention to buds).

8. Some Angiosperm Families to Know

It helps to recognize when a flower falls in one of the more readily distinguishable families, e.g the following:

Asteraceae (Aster or Sunflower Family) - many small flowers in a disc-like flowerhead, e.g., asters, Tussilago farfara (coltsfoot) at right. More bluebead lily
Brassicaceae (Mustard Family) - 4 petals and 6 stamens--4 tall and 2 short. Cardamine diphylla (toothwort) at right. More bluebead lily
Ericaceae (Heath Family)
Often simple, leathery, evergreen leaves, 4 or 5 united sepals, 4 or 5 united petals, often bell shaped flowers, typically shrubs, e.g. blueberry, Rhodora, Chamaedaphne calyculata (leatherleaf) at right. More
Fabaceae Pea Family - "banner, wings, and keel" flowers; pea-like pods, often with pinnate leaves. Lathyrus japonicus var. maritimus (beach pea) at right. More

beach pea
Lamiaceae (Mint Family) - Square stalks and opposite leaves, often aromatic, 5 united petals and 5 sepals/asymetric flowers. Glechoma hederacea (ground ivy) at right. More beach pea
Liliaceae (Lily Family) - Monocot Flowers with parts in threes. Sepals and petals usually identical. Clintonia borealis (yellow bluebead lily) at right. More beach pea
Orchidaceae (Orchid Family)- Bilaterally symmetric, complex flowers, 3 petal-like sepals, 3 petals, lower petal often a sac or spur; in most, male and female organs fused into a single large structure called the column. (43 species in N.S!). White variant of Cypripedium acaule (pink lady's-slipper) at right. Morebluebead lily
Rosaceae (rose Family) - The flowers are 5 part or multiples of 5, solitary, with little fusion of petals and lots of stamens. Rubus chamaemorus (cloudberry) at right. More Rubus
Source for short descriptions: Botany In A Day- The Patterns Method of Plant Identification Thomas J. Elpel's Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families (5th Edition, January 2004) (highly recommended)

9. Local Habitats & Vegetation

Halifax Co. (Halifax Regional Municipality): We're lucky, & let's keep it that way!
  • Glacial landscape, high rainfall, coastal --> high diversity of habitats and associated vegetation types (dunes & salt marshes; barrens, bogs & fens; deciduous, coniferous and mixed forests; marshes, swamps, ponds, lake edges…).
  • Halifax-Dartmouth is embedded in a largely forested landscape.
  • Halifax County contains sections of 4 of 9 Ecoregions of N.S., 8 of 40 Ecodistricts. Read more
  • Halifax Co. has many accessible, protected natural areas in Municipal & Provincial Parks, Protected Areas, Nature Reserves, as well as large tracts of "undeveloped" privately held or privately protected land. Many Trails & Trail Groups, e.g. The Bluff Trail
  • Major reservoirs of endangered plant species (for N.S.) occur in other areas of the province (see Keddy - we should add Gypsum flora to the three groups cited by Keddy ), however the vegetation of Halifax Co. includes healthy populations of some species that are endangered outside of Nova Scotia, e.g. broom crowberry, mountain avens.
  • Naturalized exotic species are largely restricted to disturbed habitats (so far); a few notable exceptions invade native habitats, e.g. Rosa rugosa
  • Many Threats: Development of barrens & coastal habitats, acidification, eutrophication & siltation of fresh waters, fire, invasive species, climate change…

10. Native Plant Gardening

It helps! Critical issues:
Native Plant
Lobelia cardinalis
(cardinal flower) in garden
  • Sourcing plants; grow your own plants from seed, use plants grown from seed in nursuries, or horticulatural lines of native plants; collect plants from areas about-to-be excavated. See: Some local nursuries with native plants
  • Creating appropriate habitat/soil moisture & nutrients. Big challenge: to create nutrient poor, acidic conditions in typical urban garden area
  • Retaining native vegetation in new developments
Some features of one (my) version
  • Mixed food/ornamental
  • Leaf composting in alleys. More
  • Keep rhizomatous (potentially invasive) species in (e.g. stinging nettle) & out (mostly goutweed) using open bottom barrels
  • Tolerance/use of most weeds ("friendly exotics"), except in alleys, e.g. ground ivy to stabilize raised beds
  • Clover (a "friendly exotic") in lawns. More
  • 47 native species in garden or pots
Native/wild plants as food

11. Clubs, Short Courses & Workshops

Two natural history oriented societies based in Halifax offer monthly talks and field trips: The Seaside Programme at Dalhousie University offers a 3-week class on the Flora of Nova Scotia in the summer.

The Harrison Lewis Coastal Discovery Centre in Port Joli offers an assortment of workshops, often including topics in Natural History.

Keep an eye on the Nova Scotia Wild Flora Society website for announcements of other workshops.