Descurainia nelsonii was treated by L. E. Detling (1939) and R. C. Rollins (1993) as a subspecies of D. pinnata, but the latter in the sense of these authors is not monophyletic, comprising instead either four or two unrelated species, respectively. ITS molecular data (B. E. Goodson 2007) suggest that D. nelsonii is most closely related to D. longepedicellata and D. paradisa. It can be distinguished from the latter species by its linear fruits with cuneate tips; D. paradisa has obovoid fruits with rounded tips. Descurainia nelsonii resembles D. pinnata subsp. brachycarpa in the orientation of fruiting pedicels and in having short styles (to 0.3 mm) and small seeds (to 1 × 0.5 mm). It differs in being branched (versus simple) at base and in having smaller flowers (petals 0.7-1 versus 1.5-2.6 mm), fewer ovules (6-12 versus 16-40) per ovary, linear (versus subclavate) fruits, and uniseriate (versus biseriate) seeds.