Friday Books – My Favourite Plant Books

The Wild Flower Key by Frances Rose

Dear Readers, over the years I have used lots of books to help me with the creation of the Wednesday Weed, so today I thought I’d share four very different works. Some are useful for ID, some are full of information, and I use all of them practically every week. So, to start with, here is that old favourite ‘The Wild Flower Key’ by Frances Rose. This is the first book that most people use when they start to become seriously interested in identifying plants, because it is concise without being too simple, and because the illustrations are clear. You can use it as a proper ‘key’ once you know the basic plant terms, but I find it most useful in identifying plants when I already know roughly what they are.

A page from ‘Rose’ showing the fumitories.

Incidentally, with a surname like ‘Rose’, how could Frances Rose have become anything other than a botanist? In New Scientist they have called this ‘nominative determinism’ – so my plumber is called Mr Boyle, and I once had a dentist called Mr Fang. I’m sure you can find lots of others.

I love Rose, but I have to admit that there is a lot of writing. If I want photos, I always turn to this book.

Harrap’s Wild Flowers by Simon Harrap

I often use this in combination with Rose: I find the photos very useful, and it sets out the key ways of telling the difference between different plants by putting the diagnostic features in bold. For example, the position of the buds is a key way of telling the difference between oilseed rape and wild turnip, and I learned this from Harrap. Plus, the photos, though small, are rather lovely.

Another book that I’ve found to be full of useful information is in the New Naturalist series – Stace and Crawley’s Alien Plants. Stace is a master botanist, who produced the definitive guide to plants in the UK, and this work on ‘Aliens’ is fascinating. He explains the various paths by which alien plants have arrived in the UK, the reasons why they thrive, and how they impact on native flora.

Alien Plants by Clive A. Stace and Michael J.Crawley

He has a list of the most common alien plants found in different parts of the UK, and who would be surprised by the number one plant in London? Yes, it’s that old favourite the buddleia. Who’d have thought that petty spurge would come in at number four though? It hasn’t even made my Wednesday Weed list yet (though sun spurge has). I shall have to pay closer attention.

But finally, here is my favourite book on the folklore, uses and culture surrounding plants in the UK. Richard Mabey is probably my favourite author on plants, and his books will certainly crop up in future when I’m thinking about books on ‘weeds’. In Flora Britannica he gathered information from the four corners of the UK, and you cannot open a page without finding a useful factoid. He reminds us that our plants have a biography and a historical significance too, and, as it was originally published in 1996 it was before its time in its focus on what we were in danger of losing.

In addition to describing the various plant families, Mabey also has special sections on areas such as ‘spring flower festivals’ and ‘plants, places and names’. I cannot recommend this book highly enough for sheer breadth of knowledge. It single-handedly reclaims the history of plants in the UK and reminds us of how long we have been admiring, using and destroying them.

So, that’s a small selection of the plant books that I find most useful for the Wednesday Weed – I could easily add in another half dozen that I use more occasionally. What are your ‘go-to’ plant books? I think there might be room on my bookshelf for a couple more….

8 thoughts on “Friday Books – My Favourite Plant Books

  1. Anne

    You know a guide book or reference book of any kind is good when the corners get scuffed and the book begins to look a bit worn. I mostly use the “Field Guide to Wild Flowers of South Africa”, “Common Weeds in South Africa”, “Guide to the Aloes of South Africa” and the “Guide to Garden Succulents”, along with various bird and butterfly guides – all live near at hand and are used almost daily.

  2. FEARN

    Thanks for sharing your books. Your recommendation highly valued. I am a Roger Phillips fan as he lets the photographs take the lead and tracks a year of observations with good cross referencing. You do need to go to another source for those tricky confusables, but for the occasional dabbler it is not offputting. On another tack, the author of my current read “Where Do Camels Belong”, Ken Thompson, would bristle at any title with the perjorative term “aliens”. But I must concede Russel Lupins and Snow in Summer are both irksome to me!

  3. Bug Woman

    Hi FEARN, I have some sympathy with Ken Thompson, but i suppose that i don’t think of the word ‘alien’ as a pejorative, more descriptive. But then, it is a tricky subject – sycamore is technically an alien tree, as is the horse chestnut, not to mention many of my favourite ‘weeds’ (another tricky term). I thought about ‘archaeophytes’ and ‘neophytes’ but the book itself is called ‘Alien Plants’ so i figured i was stuck with it. Truth is, the UK’s flora was so sparse after the last Ice Age that there were many niches just begging for a plant from mainland Europe or elsewhere to fill the gap, and i personally feel that without some ‘aliens’ our flora would be very sad indeed. An interesting point, thank you for raising it!

  4. Relly

    You might be surprised at how good Sarah Raven’s “Wild Flowers” is – I always found her fairly annoying as a TV personality, but the book is really good I have to admit, after borrowing it from the library. Lots of interesting information about wildflowers and might be especially good for anyone thinking of growing wildflowers in their own garden (UK). Not to mention, another great surname reflecting nature!

    1. Bug Woman

      I agree, Relly, it’s a very interesting book, and she certainly knows her stuff! And a beautiful book to look at too. It may well feature in the future.

  5. Sarah

    Hmmmm, I can’t agree about Rose. I’ve had my copy for 30 years and still find it frustratingly hard to use. From the photos, I think yours is a later edition than mine (1981). The Fumitory and Willow pages in mine have a lot more text and fewer pictures! I was wondering whether to buy the Collins Flower Guide (as I like my Collins Bird Guide a lot), but perhaps I should just get a newer Rose. If you have any views on Collins I would love to hear them!

    1. Bug Woman

      Rose can be a real pain but it does help me nail some id’s when I’m not sure. Maybe have a look at the new one in a bookshop when such things are safe to visit again? Or try a second-hand copy? I don’t have the Collins, but I have found the Harraps moderately useful if I at least have an idea of what I’m looking at.


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