How to Use This Site

THIS SITE IS DESIGNED to enable those interested in prairie plants in Iowa and surrounding states to make reasonably accurate identifications and to learn more about the distribution, structure, and natural history of plants on the prairie. The content comes from An Illustrated Guide to Iowa Prairie Plants by Paul Christiansen and Mark Müller (University of Iowa Press, 1999).

This online edition is a collaborative project created by the University of Iowa Press and The University of Iowa Libraries. The print version of the book is available for purchase on the UI Press site. If you have questions or comments about the site, please contact


With some exceptions, common names and scientific names follow those used by Lawrence Eilers and Dean Roosa in The Vascular Plants of Iowa. Where another common name is frequently used, it is placed below the preferred common name. Also, if there is a scientific name that has been widely used in the past but is no longer preferred, it is placed below the preferred name. Common and scientific names of the plant families are also given.


Species are described from the ground up: stem, leaf, inflorescence, flower, fruit, and habitat. As you compare plants in the field to the descriptions given, especially plant and leaf size, keep in mind that considerable variation occurs depending upon local conditions of competition, soil moisture, available nutrients, etc. Measurements in the descriptions were made on plants in the field and herbarium and give the average size range to be expected but are not meant to encompass every specimen encountered. The time of flowering and fruiting is given for the central part of Iowa. Differences of one or two weeks can be expected in the extreme northern and southern parts of Iowa for many species. Occasionally, additional information on the natural history of the species is given. Where several species are closely related, a common member of the group is fully described, and the other species are compared to the first in paragraph form with diagnostic characteristics italicized.


A distribution map for each species is included. Distribution maps are not intended to note the occurrence of every species in every county in which the species occurs. Rather they are to give a general idea of the range of each species across the state. These maps first appeared in a book printed and distributed in 1992 by the Iowa Department of Transportation, Distribution Maps of Iowa Prairie Plants, by Paul Christiansen.


Color illustrations come from Prairie in your Pocket. All drawings are by Mark Müller.

In addition to the general shape of each plant, characteristic features of use in identification are included.


As an aid in identifying prairie plants, a guide to family identification appears in the section Family Finder. The aim is to speed identification by determining in which family a plant belongs, thus narrowing the number of drawings and descriptions one must scan to locate the correct species. By answering the questions and following the instructions, along with use of the species descriptions and illustrations, reliable identifications can usually be made. In order to help the reader become familiar with the plant families treated in this book, a short synopsis of each family is given.

For more positive identifications plant manuals and keys should be consulted. Several that are useful for Iowa are Eilers and Roosa, The Vascular Plants of Iowa, which lists all verified species that exist in the state; Pohl, “Grasses of Iowa”; Van Bruggen, The Vascular Flora of South Dakota; Mohlenbrock, Guide to the Vascular Flora of Illinois’, and Styermark, Flora of Missouri.

Where positive identification is important, taxonomists at local or state colleges or universities or other knowledgeable individuals should be consulted.


To make the descriptions as accurate as possible, some botanical terms have been used. To help in understanding the descriptions, a glossary of botanical terms can be found here.


The order is pteridophytes (nonseed plants) followed by the angiosperms (flowering plants), with the dicots first followed by the monocots. The species are grouped by plant families in alphabetical order. Several families are now known by different names than in the past. The umbel family (Umbelliferae) is now the Apiaceae, the daisy family (Compositae) is the Asteraceae, the mustards (Cruciferae) are the Brassicaceae, the legumes (Leguminosae) are the Fabaceae, the mints (Labiatae) are the Lamiaceae, and the grasses (Gramineae) are the Poaceae. With some exceptions, all names follow Eilers and Roosa's The Vascular Plants of Iowa. The book was arranged by classification, and you can browse by classification to see all the species included in the book.