Washington Wildflowers
Klipsun Magazine June 8, 2015

Bellingham photographer co-develops native plant identification app

STORY BY ARIANA RAYMENT | PHOTOS BY JAKE PARRISH

Turner looks up the Fringecup flower using the mobile phone app he co-created, Washington Wildflowers. The app is a database of more than 850 common wildflowers in Washington state with photographs of each one taken mostly by Turner. Jake Parrish / Klipsun Magazine 

Bellingham photographer Mark Turner recalls coming across a patch of yellow heather in the alpine country at about 6,000 ft. “It’s been a year since I’ve seen you,” he says.

Turner’s love for wildflowers is deep-rooted. “Some of them just become old friends,” he says.

Turner co-created Washington Wildflowers, a wildflower identification app that was released in April 2013. The app provides descriptions of more than 850 common wildflowers, vines and shrubs located in Washington state and neighboring areas of Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia.

High Country Apps programmed the app and David Giblin and Ben Legler at the Burke Museum’s University of Washington Herbarium provided the data to build the plant identification key, says Giblin, the collections manager.

The app features wildflower images, all of which were photographed by Turner, who has been taking pictures since he was 6- or 7 years old, he says.

“I’ve been interested in what’s growing around me for a very long time,” Turner says. “I grew up in West Virginia, where I wandered the fields.”

Turner started his photography business after he was laid off from his job at Western in 1993, when he worked for the Program for Social Service Research, Demonstration and Training, which no longer exists.

Photographer Mark Turner poses with his digital camera amongst yellow Creeping Buttercup wildflowers Wednesday, May 28, 2015 in Bellingham, Washington.
Photographer Mark Turner poses with his digital camera amongst yellow Creeping Buttercup wildflowers Wednesday, May 28, 2015 in Bellingham, Washington. An established photographer, Turner documents wildflowers around the United States, working for magazines, field guides and creating most of the photographs for the wildflower identification and location app, Washington Wildflowers. Jake Parrish / Klipsun Magazine

Neil Maillet, former acquiring editor at Timber Press, a publication company that specializes in publishing books in the fields of natural history, horticulture and gardening, eventually asked Turner to help develop a wildflower field guide in 2002, which later became “Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest.”

Even though Turner was not a botanist, he decided it wasn’t completely crazy to work on a field guide, he says.

Maillot and Turner asked plant enthusiast Phyllis Gustafson to write the plant descriptions, Turner says. It was coincidental that Turner and Maillot both knew Gustafson.

“One of those wonderful bits of serendipity,” Turner says.

Gustafson agreed to write the descriptions, although she was also not a professional botanist.

“The book was written for amateurs by amateurs but went on to be used by professors and students,” Gustafson says.

Turner learned what he knows about wildflowers by studying field guides, going out in the field and gathering information from people of varying wildflower expertise, including professional botanists. After he received his contract, Turner spent almost two years on the road chasing and photographing wildflowers in bloom.

He did not have to hike great distances to find wildflowers, he says. He often found flowers on the side of the street or up many obscure back roads.

Turner also connected with people through the Native Plant Societies in Washington and Oregon, who could take him to wildflower locations, he says.

When in Oregon, Turner would visit Gustafson, where they roamed the Siskiyou Mountains. Gustafson was very knowledgeable about Oregon’s native plants, Turner says.

Similar to Turner, Gustafson’s knowledge of wildflowers sprouted from a passion for plants. “I was born and raised in a family that always loved flowers. I lived in them,” Gustafson says.

“Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest” contains more than 1,240 of Turner’s wildflower photographs, all of which were captured primarily in Washington, Oregon and northern California.

The Washington Wildflowers app is based in large part on Turner and Gustafson’s book, Turner says. The descriptions of the plants are drawn from the book, as are many of the photographs.

“When we developed the app I went through my entire library and chose between three or four images that would best tell the story of a particular flower,” Turner says.

Turner looks for the best close-up shot of each flower as well as one showing the whole plant, both of which contain characteristics people would use to identify them.

It can take roughly 15 minutes to photograph a specimen and an additional 45 minutes to figure out the name, Turner says. It can be difficult to find a specific plant without knowing what it looks like, Turner says.

Once Turner has identified a wildflower, he will look for the “hero” specimen, a term often used by advertisers meaning the best or most ideal, Turner says.

With his camera and tripod slung over his shoulder, Turner wades through low-lying plants while locating the Washington state native wildflower Bleeding Heart Wednesday, May 28, 2015, in Bellingham, Washington. "You never know where you're going to find [the wildflowers]," Turner says. "They could be thousands of feet up in the mountains or just on the side of the road." Jake Parrish / Klipsun Magazine
With his camera and tripod slung over his shoulder, Turner wades through low-lying plants while locating the Washington state native wildflower Bleeding Heart Wednesday, May 28, 2015, in Bellingham, Washington. “You never know where you’re going to find [the wildflowers],” Turner says. “They could be thousands of feet up in the mountains or just on the side of the road.” Jake Parrish / Klipsun Magazine
He then looks for the best vantage point and sets the camera on a tripod. He looks for any distracting elements, such as dead leaves or grass, which he will then remove from the scene. “Gardening, is what I call it,” Turner says. “It’s a pretty important process.”

Finally, Turner will evaluate the lighting and define the composition until he’s ready to take a picture of his hero, he says.

Portraits are Turner’s specialty, or where he makes most of his living, but he continues to photograph wildflowers whenever he can.

“Children don’t blow in the breeze; wildflowers don’t try to scowl at you and run and hide,” Turner says.

He has three acres of woods behind his house, where he photographs native species weekly, when the mood strikes and the lighting is nice, he says.

Turner uses Washington Wildflowers himself on his iPhone 6 anytime he goes looking for plants and finds something he doesn’t recognize or doesn’t know the name of.

The app does not require an Internet or network connection to run because it runs locally on the processor in the phone, Giblin says. This allows users to access it at remote locations.

The Washington Wildflowers team collaborated to produce a similar app for Idaho, called Idaho Wildflowers, which will increase Washington Wildflower’s total species coverage from about 850 to more than 1,000, Giblin says. Washington Wildflowers is expected to update in June 2015, Giblin says.

Turner photographed more than half of the plants in the Idaho Wildflowers app, and the rest are from other photographers, Giblin says.

“There’s just such a diversity of trees and plants and the whole natural world,” Turner says, reminiscing. “Wildflowers provide a good excuse to get outside.”