Review: Collins Wild Flower Guide

Sarah Cody and a team of volunteers see if the latest edition of the Collins Wild Flower Guide is a worthy successor.

When I think back to the early days of my formal botanical training at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, memories flood through my mind with such vividness – it could have been only yesterday. I recall going on an excursion with my classmates to an area of heathland located somewhere in the uplands of Scotland. We braced ourselves against the strong winds, as we meandered between patches of spiny gorse (Ulex) with its yellow flowers brightening up the landscape, and stepping over the low growing heathers (Calluna and Erica) in their muted pink and purple hues. The scene before me was of such wild beauty and harshness that I felt like I had stepped into a novel by one of the Brontë sisters! Like all good botany students, we each carried with us a field guide, a small magnifying glass (hand lens), a dissection kit and, of course, a packed lunch. Working through the floristic key to uncover the identity of an unsuspecting wild flower proved to be hungry work indeed – and there was the ever-present risk of taking a wrong turn and ending up lost in the myriad of botanical candidates. With patience and determination, we would get there in the end – and with great satisfaction.

Fast forward eight or nine years, and I am standing in the Annals of Botany office, opening up a brown parcel addressed to me: Sarah Cody, editorial assistant. It is the second edition of the Collins Wild Flower Guide: The most complete guide to the wild flowers of Britain and Ireland by David Streeter et al. I confess, I was more than a little excited at the prospect of reviewing this latest wild flower guide, which promises to be one of the best field guides on the market today.

This new version, with its tidy layout, pastel tones, clear diagrams and mercifully succinct species descriptions – not to mention a glossary spanning only 6 sides – is perfect for complete beginners and seasoned botanists alike.

One of the major advantages of this book is that it is so comprehensive, describing no less than 1,900 species arranged by family, with the key features highlighted for quick and easy identification. Each species is illustrated in colour, and the scientific name is given beside it for expediency. The advantage of a complete guide is obvious, but it is worth spelling it out.

There are many reasons why correct identification to the level of species is important. For example, an endangered species may easily be mistaken for its similar looking, ubiquitous cousin and without proper identification we wouldn’t know to conserve it and thus it may be driven further into extinction as other plants compete for space, or the use of the land changes due to human activity. With the loss of a species, which is in itself a sad state of affairs, we also lose the genetic diversity and a host of other attributes known and undiscovered some of which may be of benefit to humankind through medicine, crop improvement, materials, etc.

Imagine, you are out in a field, or in your garden, or inspecting the plants poking up from the paving slabs down your road, and you come across a plant that you haven’t seen before. You pull out your “less-complete” guide, and quickly flick through the pictures, hoping you will get a lucky break and be able to match it up on visual similarity alone, with a little verification from the text. After a few hopeful minutes to no avail, you take a deep breath and decide to key it out. Hand lens at the ready, you sniff it, tear it up looking for exudates, hold it to the light to check for glands, rip open the corolla and inspect the number of stamens, the height of the ovaries, the texture of any fruiting bodies. Finally (finally!), you have narrowed it down to one possibility – but something still niggles – it’s the closest match, but is it the right match?! If you had Collins in your handbag (it would have to be quite a sturdy handbag as it is rather heavy), you’d feel reassured that if you were in the UK and you saw a wild flower, it would most likely be featured in this beautiful brick of a book. In my opinion, its weight would not be enough to deter anyone serious about field botany and the inclusion of mosses, ferns, conifers and grasses in one volume saves you carrying around multiple guides.

No review of a second edition would be complete without having a look at the previous edition of the book. I consulted a number of herbarium volunteers at Leicester University for their expert opinion on the matter. Let me introduce them. Diane Mattley took up botany in a serious way five years ago, and has not looked back since. Collin’s first edition is her bible, and, I quote, made her the person she is today. Pouran Khodabhaksh has been volunteering in the herbarium for several years, and is passionate about Veronica a genus for which she is developing a new floristic key. Finally, Rowan Roenisch is a specialist of the sedge family (Cyperaceae) and shares her knowledge and infectious enthusiasm for the natural world with members of the public on her guided walks through Leicester’s botanical gardens. The question is: Does Collin’s Second Edition stand up to the scrutiny of this formidable panel of experts? Below, I summarise the key points of their assessment.

  1. The inclusion of ferns, mosses, grasses and conifer species in addition to wild flowers is a major plus, and makes this book indispensable for any budding or seasoned naturalist.
  2. The second edition has been updated to take into account the current phylogenetic (i.e. using DNA) understanding of plant relationships. For example, Eyebrights (Euphrasia spp.) and Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) are now placed within Orobanchaceae, whereas previously they were in Scrophulariaceae. Names have been updated, for example Galium mollugo is now called G. album, and Leontodon autumnale has been updated to Scorzoneroides autumnalis.
  3. The Bibliography has been updated to include Poland’s ‘The Vegetative Key to the British Flora’ – an excellent resource for identification of plants when they are not in flower.
  4. There are a few words used in the main text, which are not to be found in the glossary. Examples are: aerial stems; crenate leaves; lenticels; septa; stipe and ternate.
  5. Many mistakes have been corrected, however, one or two minor discrepancies have been noted.
  6. The addition of Latin names alongside illustrations in the new edition saves time and avoids mistakes.
  7. The pages are sewn in, so it is robust, however, the same cannot be said for the cover, which is rather flimsy and susceptible to being damaged or coming unstuck. As a field guide, some degree of waterproofing (such as a plastic cover) is necessary, and is something the publishers may want to keep in mind for any reprints or future editions.

All in all, the panel were suitably impressed. The conclusion is, that this is a brilliant compact guide to the wild flowers of Britain and Ireland, unparalleled in its coverage and its ease of use, and an important book for anyone interested in learning about plants.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Very nice review – I will find a copy. One comment on the homonym in the section on mistakes etc.
    “7.The pages are sown in, so it is robust……” This is taking the botanical theme a bit far perhaps?
    Regards

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