Better botany by (book) design

14 Jun

The first week of any new job can be a little slow, and arriving at your first federal posting is certainly no exception. There’s a stack of field guides on a nearby desk, so I’ve decided to flip through and do some comparing while I wait for my colleague to finish getting set up on all our various computer profiles. So, especially if you’re looking to pick up a Pacific Northwest field guide, here’s my summation.

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Western Region, Elbert L. Little, ed.

Grade: C

The book provides a very cursory discussion of botany basics (plant parts, leaf shapes, etc.), some of which is illustrated, and details on major habitats and proper usage of the book itself.

Organization is based upon thumb tabs organized by leaf shape with a helpful corresponding silhouette (lobed simple leaves, scale leaf conifers, etc.) and a list of major families (i.e., hemlocks, true cedars, “cedars,” etc.) with page numbers; a photo key follows. This section contains photos of leaf and bark detail with common name and page number. It looks beautiful and much more useful than it turns out to be. Unfortunately, you not only have to read through each entry to determine most any identifying characteristic, but you also have to flip to a separate page to read it, and flip back to other sections and entries to keep looking if it’s not correct.

Any botanist, student or aspiring plant person knows that looking at a real specimen and referencing it against a single picture is not a very good way to ID something; similarly, flipping back and forth or thumbing through dozens of pages looking for the right photo it is not a particularly great way to use a reference book. To me, it seems too much like reading a dictionary start to finish. There are plenty of good features to this guide, but they don’t come together into something very useful, in my opinion — for beginners or more advanced users. 

National Wildlife Foundation Field Guide to Trees of North America, by Kershner, Mathews, Nelson and Spellenberg

Grade: A+

Before even turning the first page of this book, I was greeted by a nice illustrated primer on leaf shape, base, structure and arrangement inside the front flap, along with a diagram on how to use the book. There’s a nice overview section with general info on things like forest health, and a visual glossary as well. The bulk of the guide is organized and color coded by leaf shape; each section has a handy silhouette of the general leaf shape at the top of the pages, too.

At the beginning of each section are a brief discussion of family or genus characteristics and key-like section headers (e.g, “Needles deciduous. Cone small with thin, persistent scales. Larches: pp. 94-97”) I like this, but there’s no key once you get to the Larch section, which I don’t like. For larger groups, on the other hand, this does exist.

When you flip to a section like alternate compound leaves, there are several photos of representative species and multiple headings that break things down by characteristic — “fruit a small, round berry or follicle,” “fruit a pod,” for example; under family headings, such as the maples, there are often photos of other plants with look-alike leaves. You should have a pretty good idea of what plant you’ve got by the time the guide pushes you to read the detailed entries, which is my favorite characteristic of any good field guide.

Individual entries have photos and sometimes other things like range maps, along with lots of notes on similar plants, several photos of diagnostic parts of the plant, and often information on toxicity or ethnobotanical uses.

Personally, I want a field guide that doesn’t push me toward a detailed entry until I’m relatively certain I’m sure of the plant I have; if I’m still uncertain as I read through several entries, I feel like I need to return to the key and read more carefully. This makes me equally a fan of exhaustive dichotomous keys and books like this one. Bonus points for a design that makes this guide useful for beginners, too. Definitely my favorite out of the bunch!

National Wildlife Foundation Field Guide to Wildflowers of North America, by Brandenburg

Grade: B-

Very similar, except (as you might suspect) it only deals with wildflowers. The layout also includes the photo guide and how-to-use notes on the cover, introductory discussions about things like climate change. The key changes quite a bit, however, switching to flower shapes, arrangements and colors with photos and corresponding page numbers. The thumbnails are tiled together in an interesting way, but there isn’t even room for common names!

When you flip to the actual section, there are brief details about family characteristics and the same detailed, multi-photo individual entries featured in the tree guide. Large families like the Asteraceae have illustrations of the distinctive Aster family flower and a pretty comprehensive collection of illustrations depicting the many types of Aster fruits. 

It also includes a large section on introduced species and a list of synonymous scientific names. Pretty cool. But overall, when I flipped open the book and saw such visual similarity to the tree guide, it set me up to expect the same utility. On that account, I was disappointed to find a lot of ambiguity and flipping, more similar to the Audubon guide than to the other NWF guide. 

Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, by Pojar and MacKinnon

Grade: A

Such a fabulous book. This one has a fascinating ethnobotanical undercurrent, as well as photos with every entry, and an inclusive list of species including bryophytes and lichen! There are many keys interspersed throughout the text, both large (trees) and small (Portulacaceae). Everything gets a range map and all the keys are listed right up front in their own table of contents. It provides excellent notes on disambiguation of similar species as well as faithful attention to disclosing toxicity on any level.

When I need a plant guide at on the job, this one is my go-to workhorse. The only minor downside is that it may be a little confusing for the most inexperienced users, and some might find it a little pared down compared to other glossier guides. As for me, I’m practical, so I give it an A.

Handbook of Northwestern Plants, by Gilkey and Dennis

Grade: A-

My introduction to this excellent guide was in the first lab section of my very first botany class. I had some familiarity with identification and dichotomous keys from a single dendrology class I’d taken the previous term, but that course had emphasized identification of individual species. I was wholly unprepared for the exhaustive nature of this particular book and the vastness of the botanical universe.  

Our instructor played the nasty trick of having us key out a completely unknown Aster and a mysterious plant with stealthy petal-like colored sepals (Petasites frigidus and Caltha palustris); I distinctly recall flipping madly through the Kew Illustrated Plant Glossary in a mostly-fruitless attempt to decipher all the technical terminology. To my excellent instructor’s credit, the whole point of this traumatizing exercise was to give us perspective on the extremely wide scope involved in botanical identifications; he want on to take a family-based approach for the remainder of the course, which was both enlightening and a bit of a relief.

Once I became more familiar with herbaceous plant anatomy and family characteristics, this book became indispensable. I take some issue with how difficult the key can be to use, and with the sparse distribution of illustrations which can make the final identification somewhat uncertain. However, I will always have a soft spot for this guide.  

With great pains taken to remain as objective as possible, I will give it an A- for the purpose of this review, as it may not be accessible to users of all levels. But I will also blow it a kiss. (You’ll always be an A+ to me.)

Conifers of California, Ronald Lanner

No score

Begins with some very general notes on tree names and cones before leaping directly into family descriptions and species profiles. There are two short dichotomous keys to genera buried at the back — one for cones and one for leaves. But I must point out: Those who have sallied forth to identify conifers have certainly encountered the dilemma of not being able to reach leaves or cones, or being able to definitively confirm which cones in the litter came from the mystery tree in question.

That given, I’m not convinced that there was any real intent to make this a guide to trees, although that’s how it was presented to me and how I’ve seen it displayed and arranged at bookstores. In the interest of fairness, I won’t score this one. It lacks use as a guide, but is a lovely and informative coffee table book.


Now, you might be wondering how I wrote a post this long while waiting on my colleague. If so, you have clearly never dealt with the U.S. Forest Service help desk. More to come soon, lovelies!

6 Responses to “Better botany by (book) design”

  1. Dori June 17, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    Funny and informative! I like the kiss blowing and the comment about how much time you had to write this blog. 😀

  2. Evan Milton June 18, 2012 at 8:02 am #

    I am very much partial to Google image search, ideally on an iPhone. Back in Bclass it was approximately 10x faster than trying to key with a book.

    Looking forward to hearing about your job.

    • xylem_up June 18, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

      I don’t generally trust photos — too much variation within a species and too many lookalikes, usually. But I can see how the phone would be faster, especially if you already have a good idea of what you’ve got. As for work, there’s not much to say yet. Lots of bushwhacking.

  3. Elke Stracquatanio July 7, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after browsing through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely glad I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!


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