I have a stack of plant ID guides, with most of which I have a love-hate relationship:
- North American Wildlife, Reader’s Digest. This is a nice all-purpose book which covers plants and animals. It’s too bulky to be a field guide, but if you’re going to have one book on your shelf, you could do worse. It has nice pictures and shows many different parts of the plants, which aggravatingly, most other guides do not. So it shows a tree’s leaves, and if useful, the bark, flowers, and fruit/seeds. So many guides assume you will always be identifying a plant when it is flowering, which is very limiting. While this book usually illustrates all the helpful plant parts, it does suffer from flower-assumption in the organization of wildflowers. They’re in order of plant family, but there is a flower chart, which with no thumbnails leads to a lot of lookups. Mostly I end up flipping through it or taking a guess at a family.
- Field Guide to the Cayuga Lake Region, by James Dake. If you live in this area, this is really handy since it has such a limited selection to look through. It’s organized intelligently and includes fossils, fungi/lichens, ferns/mosses, trees, wildflowers, invertebrates and vertebrates. But no fish or seaweed! The flowers are arranged by color and the trees by alternate/opposite, simple/compound leaves. There are only a page or two of each category to look through. It mentions which are alien or invasive. Color photo with description all in one place. Tree leaves often photographed against bark.
- Peterson Trees and Shrubs: This is the book I reach for to ID a tree based on characteristics, but I find the key complicated and the line drawings unconvincing. It does a pretty good job at pointing out important characteristics and includes fruits and flowers, and has a really complicated winter ID key (no leaves). In case you don’t know, a key is like a flow chart where you answer questions about the plant (leaves alternate or opposite, how many petals in the flower). I hate that they put the pictures dozens of pages away from the text; this might be understandable if the “plates” were glossy full-color, but it’s just a bit of green ink on plain paper. Charge an extra buck and don’t make me flip.
- Golden Trees of North America, 1979: I like the paintings in this guide, much more convincing, and including fruit and flowers, but despite its subtitle “A Guide to Field Identification”, it has no key, so not much good if you have no idea what kind of tree it is. I use it as a secondary verification because its pictures are so good.
- Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: This has full-color pictures and is organized only by flowers. This sounds great because it’s easy to compare what you see in front of you with a picture, but in practice, it includes all of North America, so lots of flowers you don’t need, and let’s face it, a lot of flowers look alike. The photos do not always include as much info as I’d like; often no leaves are shown, and fruits pretty much never. Without sub-organizing by leaves, you can’t narrow down the possibilities very much, so you will end up flipping through dozens of pages, wondering whether this flower is on a prickly plant 10′ high or a 6″ water plant. You won’t know until you flip hundreds of pages to get the text description. Do that a few dozen times for each ID and you will be ready for a new guide.
- Golden Book Weeds, 1987: This is a strange little book. By “weeds” they mean nuisances to people. It is annoying for me because it is entirely human-centric, which doesn’t suit my purposes at all. For instance, native cattails are listed on page 1, with their only desirability being that they provide food for “muskrat production,” whatever that is. Native milkweed, the only host of Monarch butterflies, is also listed, as well as the lovely native Joe-Pye Weed, and the native Goldenrods and Sunflowers that feed the birds. But there are lots of tidbits of info such as that ragweed seeds have high oil content for wildlife.
- American Nature Guides Wild Flowers, Pamela Forey: This has lovely watercolor illustrations but the key is rather complicated because the decision was made to organize the rest of the book by family. This used to be my go-to guide, but I’ve found one I like better:
- Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. Such a simple concept. Simplify the key and organize the book around it. You start out making 3 easy choices: number of petals (8 options), placement of leaves (4 choices) or is it a vine or shrub, and is the leaf toothed or lobed (4 choices). You do this over and over and get good at it, arriving each time at a 3-digit number which takes you into the key itself, where you answer usually only a few more questions before you are pointed to a page. If you’re unsure, it’s not usually hard to check out a page for each answer, and they are nearby. The text is opposite the line drawings, so everything you need is right there, and plants with similar characteristics will be on the surrounding pages. The drawback is that if you don’t know the answer to the first question, how many petals, you are rather stuck. The only solution to this dilemma, how to organize the info in more than one way, depending on what you do and don’t know, is a computer application. This guide also has an * for alien plants – other guides put it in the text inconsistently if at all. My only gripe is I wish more pictures were in color, though the leaves will of course be green and they tell you next to the drawing what color the flowers/fruit are meant to be. It would just be easier to scan for colors instead of reading.
So I take the Newcomb’s and a digital camera out with me into the field. If I were looking for trees I’d take the Peterson’s. I take photos, and anything I can’t ID in the field I work my way through my stack of guides.
What guides do you like?