Friday, 30 July 2010

Books for field botany beginners

I think it would be of great help to beginners to give a brief overview of the
best books for those beginning field botany here:

When starting a botanical course, most people go straight out and buy the (revised) Wild Flower Key (Rose, 2006), which is a great resource. However, I think that when one is not at all familiar with plants, it can be hard to identify them just from illustrations (ignoring other possibilities, such as using a key!).

When I was starting out, I found Roger Phillip’s large format photographic guide, Wild Flowers of Britain (1977) to be of great help. This guide presents large photos of plants laid out against a white background, allowing one to get a clear impression of a plant’s appearance in the wild. Also, Phillips, uniquely, often gives plants more then one entry, showing their changing appearances through the year. Other benefits are that the plants are ordered by season (so if you have no idea what you’re looking at, but know what month it is, you might stand a chance), and the commonest plants (i.e. the ones you’re most likely to be looking at in the field) have the clearest (white background) photos.

Phillip’s guide is very easy to get second-hand for around £5 from Amazon marketplace or eBay, just check with the seller, if you can, that the photos are not faded.

Serious alternatives (at the same level) to Rose’s Wild Flower Key are limited to Streeter’s new Collins Flower Guide (2009) and Fitter, Fitter and Blamey’s Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland (2003). The general consensus is that Streeter’s pictures are slightly better than Fitter’s, but, as far as I recall, only the Fitters include distribution maps, which is a nice touch. Both these books have the advantage over Rose in that they include graminoids (= grasses, sedges and rushes), the id of which is essential for any serious botanising, and not as hard as is often made out.

For large-format, illustrated books, to keep back at base, the field is, really, limited to Streeter & Garrard’s Wild Flowers of Britain, or Keble Martin’s Concise British Flora in Colour. Keble Martin is very easy to pick up cheaply in charity shops or online, but the pictures are typically smaller than Streeter & Garrard, and considered inferior (though they’re very good!). Also, Streeter & Garrard has more ecological information. The BSBI recommend Streeter & Garrard.

Most botanists will probably end up owning most of these; you might wonder what the point of owning several guides covering the same plants is; well, different artists will capture plants in different ways, different books sometimes have different facts or keys, so owning several guides always results in complementary information, which outweighs the redundancy.

By focusing on illustrations or photos, I am not denigrating the use of keys, which are of course massively important. I just think that when you are starting out, having a range of good visual resources can give you a lot of confidence in whatever answers your keying out provides.