Front cover- 20k Collins How to Identify Wild Flowers
by Christopher Grey-Wilson & Lisa Alderson
pub. HarperCollins Publishers, 2000
Paperback, 256 pages, 12.99
ISBN 0 00 220107 0

This plastic slip-covered book may not be a true flora but it is an excellent guide to take on wild flower-hunting walks, and at A5 size is just the right size to slip into a large jacket pocket or ruc-sac.

It is 'designed to help those with the most basic knowledge identify species with confidence' and covers about 120 of the main species in Britain and northern Europe, illustrating another five or six hundred 'lookalike' or commonly confusable species as well. All in all it's a pretty comprehensive guide for the amateur or novice with an interest in learning about our wild flower heritage.

The first Introductory part of the book is devoted to the physical appearance of flowers and plants, their fruits, some hints on where to explore for wild flowers, and notes on wild flower conservation. In the last respect, as a book for the wild flower enthusiast, this Collins edition is one you should feel happy to 'take to the plant' and not pick flowers for the purpose of identification when you get home.

The main contents are organised for identification by the 'apparent number of petals and petal-like structures', and means that if you aren't familiar with terms like stamen, corolla and umbel then you will need to read Grey-Wilson's introductory sections mentioned previously. However, the descriptive language used is simple, straightforward, not overburdened with botanical jargon, and illustrates most of the items. Incidentally, there is no glossary.

The book really comes into its own in the main identification pages. These include an artists' illustration of the main species, a paragraph of text about the plant, and then a section with key features, habitat, frequency, season, habit, leaves, flowers and fruit. One very good feature is that each of the main species pages has a 'Calendar bar' which simply and graphically shows in which months the plant flowers and seeds. Such a simple idea, yet very effective.

On the opposite pages to the main species (but sometimes on the same page) the book features 'lookalikes'. Generally these are of specimens so similar that only a trained botanist would recognise the difference. So, in the case of Meadow Buttercup the 'lookalikes' featured are Corn Crowfoot, and Creeping, Goldilocks and Bulbous Buttercups; all with subtle differences that the amateur should be able to identify with the help of this book. Some plants like Marsh Marigold don't really have any 'lookalike' competition and warrant only a single page entry.

Lisa Alderson's illustrations throughout the book are excellent, and somehow one feels that the botanical illustrator can have the edge over photography. For example, an illustrator has the ability to strip out the petal formation of an individual flower on a compound umbel whereas a photograph often only shows a close-up view of a mass of umbelliferous flowers, without really singling out those potentially important differences. The other advantage of painted illustrations is that the artist can spread out an individual leaf formation to show features such as serrations and hairs, whereas photographic specimens are usually photographed in their natural form. In this book the illustrations provide a clear guide towards identification.

The bottom line is that 'Collins How to Identify Wild Flowers' is an excellent choice for anyone who doesn't really wish to get involved in the botanical nitty-gritty of wild flower identification. It's not too unwieldy a size to take with you on a ramble or country walk, although at almost thirteen pounds for a plastic slip-covered paperback some may feel it's a bit on the pricey side. Set against that there are over 700 original illustrartions within these pages, and the fact that you're likely to get years and years of pleasure and practical use from this book. Definitely worthy of consideration for the coming summer and beyond.

Copyright © 2000