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Choosing a Guidebook to Identify Wildflowers and Medicinal Plants

Wildflowers Key Guide Book ReviewsI have been asked a few times on herb walks for the best guidebook to help identify wildflowers and/or medicinal plants. What a difficult question!

I have accumulated quite a vast array of wildflower guidebooks and identification keys and have to say it would be impossible for me to pin it down to one ‘best guidebook’.

The following is a brief synopsis of a ‘few’ of the books I personally own. I have included some potential positives and some potential negatives. However, this is obviously somewhat subjective. I have finished, each individual review, with a brief summary – in a nutshell.

I hope this will give you some help in your quest to purchase your own wildflower, or herb, identification key or guidebook. The books are alphabetically listed by author, not in order of my personal preference.

Please use the comments below to add your own personal favourites, or even those you would avoid!

BARKER, J., 2001. The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe. United Kingdom: Winter Press

Wildflower Key Guidebook ReviewsPositives: I particularly love this book. Written by a medical herbalist and so is entirely based around botanical identification of medicinal plants. If you are a trainee herbalist or a herbalist I would thoroughly recommend this book. Laid out by botanical plant family. Ideal if you have a basic knowledge of key features of botanical families. This is one book I would be quite distraught if I lost.

Negatives: It is somewhat large and heavy for a field guide being about a kilo and a half in weight! Certainly not a book I would choose to take on a walk. It has a few line drawings of plants. If you like colourful photographs or images then it is not for you – not a pictorial book.

In a nutshell: A must have for a trainee herbalist or herbalist. Perhaps not ideal for the layperson looking for a wildflower identification guide. Not a lightweight ‘field guide’.

BREMNESS, L., 2000. Dorling Kindersley Handbooks – Herbs. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

Wildflower Herbs Key Guidebook ReviewsPositives: If you like photographs then this little book has over 1,500 colour images. Family name, Latin and common names are given. It also lists habitat and the plant parts used. Quite good if you are looking for a book with basic medicinal uses too. Divided into six sections: trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, annuals and biennials, climbers and other herbs (which includes some fungi). Each individual plant is nicely laid out. It is bright and colourful. It is not expensive.

Negatives: Includes some plants you are unlikely to find growing in nature in Europe e.g. Ananas comosus, better known as pineapple!!! Though, should the Ananas survive, I would be quite happy to have one growing in my garden!

Also, some ‘herbs’ could easily overlap in two sections e.g. Thymus vulgaris is under Shrubs but would also fit into the Herbaceous Perennials section. A little difficult to search through on a walk. Although not the largest book I have, it is perhaps a little large for a field guide.

In a nutshell: Useful information. Nice book. Not an ideal field guide but worth having as an extra.

FIELD STUDIES COUNCIL (FSC)., 2002-2014. FSC Guides – Fold Out Charts. UK: FSC Publishing.

Positives: There are a vast array of fold out charts from the Field Studies Council. They have collections for birds, fish, fungi, habitats and of course, wildflowers!

Wildflowers Key Guide Book ReviewsI don’t own them all, there are many! My personal collection includes Grassland plants and Woodland plants. I think they are great. They are very light, so easily portable on a walk. Lovely and colourful and also because they have a sort of glossy, wipeable surface you can drop them (accidentally, of course) in a muddy puddle and wipe them down easily. Not that I recommend dropping them in muddy puddles! They tend to include the more common plants you are likely to come across. Another nice thing about them is you get a little mini botany lesson. Also they won’t break the bank. They are generally no more than £3 a piece!

Negatives: You’re not going to find everything on them but they don’t claim to be inclusive.

In a nutshell: Easy to take out field guides and you get to learn a little bit of botany too.

FLETCHER, N., 2005. Easy Nature Guides: The Easy Wildflower Guide. London: Duncan Peterson Publishing.

Wildflowers Key Guide Book ReviewsPositives: This book works by comparing two similar wildflowers that you may confuse on a field trip. The plants are compared over a double page for ease and the similarities/ differences outlined.

As an example Rosa arvensis (field rose) and Rosa canina (dog rose) are compared. With the field rose the flowers are always white. However with the dog rose flowers are usually, though not always, pink. The dog rose can be found throughout Europe whereas the field rose is usually found in southern and western Europe. The field rose clearly enjoys a slightly warmer climate! He also explains the subtle differences in the rosehips to help identify between the two species.

Negatives: Not enough plants included. Not ideal if you want to focus on learning botanical features within plant families.

In a nutshell: A simple, jargon-free, book. Ideal for the lay person not wishing to get lost in complicated botanical lingo!

HENSEL, W., 2008. Black’s Nature Guides: Medicinal Plants of Britain and Europe. London: A&C Black Publishers Ltd.

compare contrast plant identification guidebooksPositives: I confess I chose this book because of the title. The positives, for me, medicinal plants and it covers Britain and Europe. It has nice images. Both common and Latin name are included. Habitat and a brief botanical and medicinal description are also included. It is reasonably small (just over 20cm) and could be taken out as a field guide.

Negatives: Colour coded book. I am sorry but this type of book frustrates me! Imagine you see a beautiful little purplish flower out on a walk. So what colour is ‘purplish’ under in the guide? Is it blue or is it red? Half an hour later still flicking through the book and none the wiser what the beautiful little flower actually is!

In a nutshell: Lovely pictures. Nice size for field guide. But, frustratingly colour coded!

KEBLE MARTIN, W., 1969. The Concise British Flora in Colour. Norwich: Jerrold & Sons Ltd.

Positives: This has 100 plates filled with plant images and each plate includes several species within a plant family. Plates are all categorised into botanical family making it easy to navigate if you know the plant family. For example there are approximately ten plates for the Compositae family. So you’ll find the Carduus species next to each other for ease of comparison on one plate. A brief description of each is included and a plant image (see image below for layout).

Thyme Breaks Book ReviewMy own copy was a find in a secondhand bookstore some years ago and the front protective cover was missing. I believe the front cover reads ‘1486 species illustrated’ so lots of plants.

Negatives: Old, you may have already noticed ‘Compositae’ now known as Asteraceae. Large hardback book (nice but not as a field guide). You would want to know botanical families. It could be a long search if you find a plant and have no idea of the botanical family. Particularly based on British flora so, for me personally, not as useful in France.

In a nutshell: I think this is a lovely book and worth having if you can find it cheap enough secondhand. However, it is a bit on the large size for a field guide if that is particularly what you are after. Great for reference.

PODLECH, D., 2001. Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe. United Kingdom: Harper Collins.

Positives: Really cheap, covers Britain and Europe and medicinal plants. It is small and lightweight and ideal for taking out on a herb walk. Including common and Latin names, habitat and brief uses with nearly 300 plants with images listed. Both inside back and front covers have rulers and drawings of leaf shapes, margins, fruits and flowers.

Negatives: Aaaaggghhh, colour coded! [see Hensel above]. You get what you pay for

In a nutshell: Cheap to buy and ideal size for a field guide. Good as it does cover healing plants. But, colour coded!

ROSE, F., 1978. The Observer’s Book of Wild Flowers. London: Frederick Warne

Positives: I bought this book in a secondhand bookstore so it was cheap. I love secondhand bookstores. I can get lost for hours…. Actually I love ALL bookstores and huge libraries… Okay, I digress…

It is the smallest book I have (huge bonus for a walk). Laid out by botanical family. Each plant includes Common and Latin name, botanical family, distribution and habitat. There is a good botanical description too. Each page has the common and Latin name at the top with an image below and the remaining information at the bottom. I actually really like this little hardback book (picture of book at top of post, one with poppies on front). It pops in a pocket or my herb basket and I find it easy to use.

Negatives: It doesn’t include many plants, perhaps only 150 at most (but then it is really only a pocket book). You would want to have basic knowledge of botanical plant families to use it. It is old so lists older botanical family names; Labiate, Umbelliferae etc.

In a nutshell: What’s not to like if you can find it somewhere secondhand! Cute little pocket book.

ROSE, F., 2006. The Wild Flower Key. Warne New revised and expanded by Clare O’Reilly. England: Frederick Warne.

Positives: The description reads “A guide to over 1,600 wild plants found in Britain and Ireland……The only field guide that combines comprehensive keys and colour illustrations”. It is, unsurprisingly, quite a chunky field guide, but do-able! It certainly does have a range of comprehensive keys and colour illustrations. A useful illustrated glossary of botanical terms is at the back. Much needed for non-botanists! There is a guide to the structure of flowers to aid in use.

A section at the front is laid out with keys to help find the correct plants in the book. Habitat keys include Woodlands, Roadsides, Grasslands, Heathlands etc. Essentially after following these keys you should reach a botanical family and, hopefully, an answer. Remainder laid out by botanical family.

Finally it has a waterproof, wipeable cover – so we’re back to muddy puddles again!

Negatives: The book prides itself on “Designed for beginners, conservation volunteers and amateur wild flower lovers but also invaluable for professional ecologists.” However, you do need to have a decent amount of botanical knowledge to use this book effectively. I would also add, ideally, a hand lens. There are a lot of abbreviations and symbols so I find myself flicking back and forth quite frequently as I am not a botanist and don’t know all the terms. I tend to use it with lots of bookmarks!

Would I agree with “beginners”? Probably not unless you are willing, and have time, to learn a bit of botany first and purchase a hand lens. It is also quite an expensive book. I think I paid £25 for it.

In a nutshell: So Francis Rose to the rescue again! I do like this book. The more I use it the more this book resembles mistletoe. And me, well the host tree. Or perhaps it is the other way round! If you can afford it, go for it.


BSc (Hons) Herbal Medicine /
Diploma in Aromatherapy & Essential Oil Science

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