Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bookshelf: Wildflower ID

If there's one book we take on walks with us more often than any other, it's a wildflower ID book. After 9 years or so of doing this, the woods are no longer just a big mass of green -- each plant is like an old friend that we're checking in with. When we see something unusual, it jumps out at us. And out comes the ID book.

There are three popular books that cover the flowers of this region well: Newcomb's, Peterson's, and Audubon. Your preference will likely depend on which one you start using first. After learning the Newcomb's system, for example, we find it tedious to ID plants in Peterson's. But we've heard the opposite from folks who started out with Peterson's. And when we recently tested all three books with a couple of Natural Capital readers who happened to be hanging out on our porch, Audubon was a clear favorite. Here's a description of the three books and how they work.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (1375 species, 490 pages, some color and some black and white illustrations). The key to Newcomb's ID system is a key: a method of identifying certain characteristics about a plant to help you find it quickly in the book. This requires you to look closely at your plant. First, three questions: 1) the type and number of petals, 2) the position of the leaves, and 3) the basic leaf shape. You're then referred to a page with additional questions specific to the set of plants that you could be looking at. As people who really wanted to learn a lot of plants, we found that the investment in learning this ID system was worth it -- we can find most plants much more quickly with the key than by flipping through other guides, and the hands-on attention required to use the ID helps us get to know the plant. To our porch-based test group, however, the key was completely baffling.

Peterson: A Field Guide to Wildflowers (1293 species, 420 pages, color and black and white illustrations). In the introduction to this field guide, Roger Tory Peterson writes, "if one can master them, keys are the proper formal approach to flower identification. But, I am afraid, most of us belong to the picture-matching school, and it is for this audience our Field Guide has been planned." The flowers are organized first by color. At the beginning of each color section, there are some pages with representative types of flowers, to help you narrow your search. The rest of each section includes black-and-white drawings of many more species, organized by flower shape. As with Newcomb's, descriptions of the species pictured are on each facing page. Our testers' main complaint was that the black-and-white drawings made it more difficult to envision whether the drawing was a good match for the plant they were trying to identify.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (658 species, 888 pages, color photographs). Audubon covers half as many species as the other two books, in twice as many pages. With large photographs, only 2 to 3 flowers fit on a page. The species descriptions are also longer; they are in a separate section of the book, which requires some flipping back and forth. Like Peterson's guide, Audubon organizes flowers first by color, then by flower type. The color photographs were a big hit with our testers. And Matt identified a few plants via photographs in here that had been eluding him in the Newcomb's key. As with the bird books we reviewed, however, using photographs can have drawbacks. When a photo is good, you know immediately that you've found the right plant (or a close relative). But for some plants, the photos are limited by focusing only on the flowers; there may be clues in the foliage that are not well illustrated.

The bottom line: The Audubon book seems to be the most appealing to beginners. The photos are nice enough that you may find yourself just browsing through the book, which is a great way to prime yourself to recognize things in the field. But if you want more depth, you may find a book like Newcomb's might also be rewarding, with its much larger coverage of species.

If you want to buy: We got the wildflower books we didn't own from the library to evaluate them, and encourage you to do the same. But if you're ready to buy one, consider supporting The Natural Capital by going through the links in this post -- or use this little store we set up to mirror our own bookshelf of nature books. We'll get a tiny cut off anything you buy there. We also thought it would be a help to Natural Capital readers to set up that virtual bookshelf just so folks could see which books we've found useful. Of course, you're free to buy any of them wherever you like!