Botany advice please - ID guides

I’m trying to improve my plant identification skills this year. My wife enjoyed Peter Marren’s “Chasing the Ghost” (inspired by his Keble Martin) and now we’ve started listing flowering plants we see, with a first-year target of 500, I think. Like many general naturalists who grew up in the countryside, I know most of the distinctive plants (of southern England) on sight, in the way that a birdwatcher knows at a glance it’s a Dunnock and not an obscure vagrant passerine. But I’ve always shied away from tricky-looking (and sometimes to me rather dull-looking) white and yellow crucifers and yellow Compositae, for example. I realise I need to move away from the picture-comparing approach to identification you get accustomed to - in my case, originally from a Fitter, Fitter & Blamey from 1974 and more recently Streeter’s Collins’ Wild Flower Guide - but equally I know I’m not ready for Stace and the like. I need an intermediate approach, combining field guide style imagery with greater precision and detail of description. I’ve just got the BSBI’s handbooks on Crucifers and on Umbellifers, which I really like. Can anyone recommend any books which might be suitable for someone making this kind of transition? Thanks.

I have a well thumbed copy of Simon Harrap’s Wild Flowers. It doesn’t have every flowering plant but does have most that you will come across with good descriptions and photos of the important details. Worth having a look at.

The problem with Stace, and with Sell & Murrell, is that they’re too bulky for field use. (After food, water, tablet, powerbank, map, camera, waterproofs, GPS and handlens I’m already carrying enough weight.) I’ve picked a copy of Streeter’s Collins’ Wild Flower Guide for field use, but I have had the problem that the plants I wanted to identify weren’t in it. Back home my first port of call is Streeter and Garrard (Midsummer Books), which is a coffee table book, with good illustrations. I’ve quite liked Sterry (also Collins), with its emphasised field marks, for a field book. But neither of those is an advance on Streeter (Colllins)

You can pick up the Plant Crib in PDF form from the BSBI web site (and also Narcissus and Galanthus identification guides.) I use these in the field, and also the Kindle sample (club mosses, ferns and conifers) of the Stace 3rd edn. And I have PDFs of a couple of Spanish floras which I’ve occasionally tried to use in the British field.

I sometimes dip into Keble-Martin for grasses - it has good line drawings, and a lot of floras are rather skimpy on grasses.

Your intermediate approach might be the 40 volume Illustrated Critical Flora of the British Isles that I fantasize about crowd sourcing. I suggest that you try Stace - you’re probably more advanced than I was when I started using it.

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Thank you both for your thoughts and suggestions. I’ll look at all of these (except “Plant Crib”, which I bought last week and which, for my purposes, looks like I will be a curate’s egg, good in parts).
The multi-volume Sell & Murrell might be prohibitively expensive.
The mention of the Streeter & Garrard book interests me, as I have seen that work recommended elsewhere, for instance for its illustrations of Alchemilla. It seems to be out of print but widely available second-hand. Do you know if there is a qualitative difference between the 1st ed (MacMillan, 1983) and the 2nd ed (Midsummer, 1998) or if it’s just a new print run under the different imprint? I ask because I’ve seen big differences between, for example, the quality of reproduction of the illustrations in Keble Martin.
Probably what I need most is the equivalent of a BSBI Handbook on the Compositae (the BSBI not having produced one, as far as I can see, unless you are ready for dandelions and hawkweeds - which I am most certainly not!).

Also, does anyone have any views on Stella Ross-Craig’s “Drawings of British Plants”?

How about Francis Rose


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I’d agree with Mark - the Wildflower Guide by Francis Rose is really good for “intermediate” botanists, make sure you get the edition which is revised and updated by Clare O’Reilly (the one in the picture, in Mark’s post).

It nicely combines good illustrations with detailed descriptions.

My personal bible for plant ID is Poland - “The Vegetative Key to the British Flora” by John Poland, as I have to ID plants all year round, not just the 5 minutes when they are flowering! It’s much more compact and sturdier than Stace (tissue paper thin pages, weighs a ton) but it contains most of the stuff you are likely to find.

And, I hate to sound like a relentless self-publicist laughs but I have published a number of small Field Guides to various “groups” of plants, the ones which I found troublesome as I was learning my way through them: you might find one or two of them useful for specific groups. it Cow Parsley

…for example. There’s a whole list of them on my Author Page:

Hope this helps!

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Thank you both for your kind suggestions. I think I need to inspect the books in person in a bookshop to decide whether they would help me. The Poland book looks good, I just need to see how its keys work in practice.
I’ld love to have field guides dedicated to willowherbs and speedwells, among others, but don’t own a Kindle and prefer a book to an app. Are your Botany Cribs available anywhere other than Amazon at present (I’m trying not to use it)?
Thanks again.

Stella Ross-Craig was a botanical illustrator; the quality of her work can be measured by the awards she received, among them the Kew International Medal given to individuals who have made a significant contribution to science and conservation.

The paperback series has 31 volumes and vol 3 is the Cruciferae (now called Brassicaceae) which you have mentioned.

Each species has its own page. Typically the lithograph illustrates the whole plant, the flowering section, the petals, calyx, stamens and ovary, the fruit and details of hairs etcetera all of which can be seen with a hand lens. There is no additional text, but the illustrations can be compared to a description in a flora.

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Thank you, JoC. The Ross-Craig illustrations look to be of exceedingly high standard but I wasn’t sure whether they would illustrate the often subtle differences between closely-related species (such as Cardamine flexuosa and hirsuta that have been the subject of comment on the forum recently, or the Valerianella species).
I know there is an 8-volume consolidation of her illustrations, which looks attractive and collectable - but without text I’m not sure they would be suitable for my “intermediate” needs.

I know what you mean: personally I’d much rather have something physical in my hand! Going to bookshops to look at the books, handle them, feel them, is definitely the way to go.

As for my Field Guides, you don’t need an actual Kindle, they can be downloaded to any tablet/device, and there is an “app” (or “programme” as we grown-ups call them) on Amazon to download to your own PC, which many people find easier than a tablet/Kindle. I do appreciate that many people are trying to use Amazon less, for many perfectly valid reasons, but at present it’s way too expensive to try and produce them as paperbacks.

Would you (or anyone else on here!) be interested in buying them as a pdf, would that work? You could then print it out and take it with you, annotate it, reprint it if it got dirty, etc?

Buying a guide as a pdf sounds a good idea.

Agreed ++ (need 20+ chars)

I ended up buying “The Vegetative Key to the British Flora” on Rachy_Ramone’s recommendation and the Streeter & Garrard on lavateraguy’s suggestion.
The Key has already helped me identify Caucasian Comfrey, which I’d been puzzling over as it’s not in Collins’ Wild Flower Guide - I keyed it out from photos I had taken earlier in the week, and then googling images online it was a perfect match. It’s also helped me key out a local American Willowherb, which I’d been pondering over for a couple of weeks.
It didn’t resolve my ongoing Medicago lupulina (Black Medick) versus Trifolium dubium (Lesser Trefoil) dilemma. My photos weren’t good enough, so tomorrow I’m returning to the location to take another look at the plants. Ditto my Crepis (Hawk’s-beard) photos didn’t show key features well enough for me to be absolutely certain it’s C vesicaria, as I suspect, and not another.
The Streeter & Garrard is, as described, more of a coffee-table book, but I like the scale of the illustrations. One or two plates are rather over-coloured, but the best of them are excellent - the Lady’s Mantles in particular.
I still feel a need for more of a BSBI Handbook approach to some of the families I find tricky. I don’t just want to know that it’s species x and why - I want to know about the ecology and habit of the plant. The BSBI Handbooks - at least those for the Crucifers and Umbellifers - are excellent in that regard.

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Useful. Thanks…

I relented and bought Stace 4, on lavateraguy’s advice. It arrived today. First impressions: I’m pleased with it, it’s not as intimidating as I had expected; but I will need to extend my botanical vocabulary so as to be able to read a paragraph without too frequent recourse to the glossary at the back; it’s not for the field, it’s chunky but the pages are very thin and wouldn’t stand many trips in a backpack even if it always stayed at home on damp days.
The descriptions are more precise. I now realise that one of the distinctions between the sweet-briars Rosa rubiginosa and R micrantha is that the sepals of the former persist until the fruit matures. When I’d read before of sepals persisting or sepals dropping, it hadn’t been clear to me (merely assumed by the author) that this was at fruiting and not at flowering.
I also bought at the same time the BSBI’s new “Hawkweeds of South-East England”. There may be no end to my foolhardiness.

You are not at all foolhardy, rather you have just acquired the keys to further delights.

for far more technical interactive On-Line keys. I have Stace 3 by my bed, it would be on My Desert Island choice, a reasonable alternative to the complete Works of Shakespeare.
My Luxury item would be every plant known to man. Surely it would be isolation fun but I am not quite ready and I might need the Illustrated Guide to Botanical terms and my trusty camera - forget the mobile phone!

The BSBI’s new “Hawkweeds of South-East England” is tremendous, if you live in the area. Suddenly, hawkweeds become a little less intimidating, When down to vice-county level, the number of possible or at least likely species is radically reduced and becomes manageable. I took, in despair as much as hope, some photos of unidentified and what I thought unidentifiable Hieracium species back in May. It’s true that I cannot identify them from the photos but I think I’m better prepared now - I know what to focus on, in both senses, and I think I’ll be able to identify these ones when I see them again in the same spots next year, and am more likely to be able to identify any hawkweeds I see between now and the end of the flowering season.
With my new Stace I was able to identify a galingale I saw growing as a ruderal this morning. I knew it wasn’t Cyperus longus, the Galingale I know from Kentish marshes, but it wasn’t in the field guides - but I could see instantly from Stace that it was the neophyte Cyperus eragrostis.

Progress worth celebrating. In March you said “Im not ready for Stace”. 4 months later, it’s a neophyte galingale. Well done.