The Encyclopedia of Wild Flowers
by John Akeroyd
pub. Dempsey Parr, 1999
Hardback, 384 pages, £20.00
ISBN 1 84084 503 1
'Wild flowers are a national treasure. They add pleasure and interest to a car journey, a ramble or a picnic. They brighten the countryside and colour or lend atmosphere, even a sense of place, to landscapes,' says this Encyclopedia's author in his introduction. The problem is, however, that this book is not comprehensive in its coverage of our native species. Only 365 out of more than some 1500 wild flowers are covered in full, with another two hundred or so given passing consideration - a disappointment given the size of this publication, some nicely written entry details, and pleasing graphic layout.
The contents are arranged by 'family' following a traditional botanical order, which makes Akeroyd's work something for the research section of your bookshelves rather than a practical guide to flower hunting. Anyone without any botancial knowledge would flounder if the only starting point for flower indentification was the colour. And, given the book's weight and size, it is impractical for field use, while guaranteed indentification of plant variants is only going to be really possible through the use of a true botanical flora.
Still, there's a lot of useful material within the covers, plus one or more pictures of each of the main plants covered. One criticisim of the photographic content is that the pictures sometimes aren't definitive enough. For example, in the case of the Carrot and Hogweed family which covers the likes of harmless Angelica and the poisonous Hemlock, the pictures tend to show plant specimens in-situ rather than any close pictures of the leaves which could be used to identify the very important difference between these two plants. And in another case which comes to mind (that of Heath Speedwell) the photograph of the plant under discussion shows a specimen mixed up with cinquefoil or tormentil and barely distinguishable.
Each of the plant entries features their common and scientific names, physical description, notes on habitat and distribution, flowering time, and comments on related or similar plants. In fact, where reference is made to other plants included with pages of the book, the relevant page number is usually provided in brackets.
Each plant also has a small write-up which is easy to read and often contains interesting factual material. For example, the seeds of Dock plants can survive in the soil for 50 years. Elsewhere we hear that Silverweed may have been grown as a root crop in times long past, that Tormentil roots were used for bowel problems, and that the starch-rich tubers of the Pignut were often treasured as a tasty snack by country schoolboys before the advent of potato crisps. Interestingly, Akeroyd points out, the Pignut has not been grown commercially here, although in Turkey villagers eat the tubers of similar members of the Pignut family.
Another key feature of this book's layout is the use of icons to show the flower type, leaf group identification, habitat, population and UK distribution. To be honest I must admit to finding some of the habitat symbols a bit of a mystery until I looked up the key. Perhaps a question of the book's designers getting a little creatively over-enthusiastic. The small distribution map, though, is a useful item.
So where does that leave us with 'The Encyclopedia of Wild Flowers' ? Well, in my opinion, it's more of a populist publication than one that will suit serious botanists or flower hunters. It doesn't contain enough breadth in its coverage for these latter plant enthusiasts, although what detail there is, is perfectly adequate. And what about all the flowers left out? Perhaps less page real-estate should have been devoted to second or third photographs, while the strips of icons also take up space. Wild Flower enthusiasts will undoubtedly prefer a good 'field guide' over this encyclopedia which will be better suited to the less knowledgeable folks wanting to familiarise themselves with our native wild flora.