Today I want to share a list of my favorite field guides on plant identification as well as some useful tips on using field guides and other resources to identify different species. Note*Many of these guides are specific to the Northeast where I live in rural Northeastern Connecticut.
But first I’d like to share a story with you.
When I first started to immerse myself in nature and learn more about the magic of plants, I had a deep desire to find a mentor. I believed the answer for the deeper learning that I desired could be satisfied by being guided by someone with deep knowledge who could guide me through personal transformation. Unfortunately, my journey did not happen this way.
Now, this might seem like a sad story, but it’s not. There is a happy ending.
Two things happened. The first is that soon after I made a plea to the Creator for a mentor, I received a call from a fellow Nipmuck leader who had received a grant to provide free educational training to Indigenous people in the area of herbalism (I am Chaubunagungamaugg Nipmuck). When I was asked to participate, I literally jumped at the chance. Soon I began to study beginner herbalism through the Herbal Academy. It proved to be life-changing.
Although this wasn’t the mentor I’d been seeking, I found it to be equally important. It was a path, and one I have stayed on ever since. This was back in 2013. Over time I learned so much more than I imagined possible.
Instead of one mentor, I met many. and the second thing I learned was that there were other forms that mentors could take. I realized that mentors didn’t HAVE to be people at all. I discovered that field guides and books are mentors, something that should have dawned on me sooner considering that I hold a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. I have always held knowledge and learning as the highest goals of attainment in life and why I never stop trying to learn new things, so it made perfect sense to turn to books for help and guidance.
Just think about it. Someone put years of their life into creating a guide with incredible amounts of detail. Sure, it would be nice to have a personal mentor that knew everything about everything. But honestly, do you even think that exists?
What does exist is a world of books written by experts that can teach you anything you want. So, I have compiled a list of my favorite field guides, plant identification books, and other resources that really helped me on my way. I hope this list helps you as well.
Tips to Getting the Most Out of Field Guides
A little known trick to learning about nature is understanding how to use field guides. Here are a few tips that can help you get started.
- The first tip is to look at the range maps. Is this species present in your area? If not, move on.
- The second tip is to read about the habitat. Where is this species most commonly found? Once you know the right habitat, you can weed out lots of species.
- Now you can look at the details of the picture or drawings. What are the most obvious traits? Does the plant have square stems? Or a 5-petaled disk flower within a larger head (Compositae)? What stands out the most?
There are many more tips, but this will help you as you get started.
Botany and Plant Identification
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification Paperback – May 15, 2013 by Thomas J. Elpel
Looking for a faster, easier, and engaging way to identify plants? Learn to identify plants based on plant family patterns.
Easy to read, with detailed color photographs that illustrate plant family characteristics, this guide is perfect for those who are really excited about botany and plant identification.
Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary by James Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris
An excellent reference for those studying botany or wanting to use technical keys in the field, this guide clearly illustrates nearly 2,000 botanical terms!
Weeds of North America by Richard Dickinson and France Royer
Organized by plant family, and features more than 500 species. Each species receives a two-page spread with images and text identification keys. Species are arranged within family alphabetically by scientific name, and entries include vital information on seed viability and germination requirements.
Peterson Field Guide To Medicinal Plants & Herbs Of Eastern & Central N. America: Third Edition (Peterson Field Guides) by Steven Foster and James A. Duke
One of my favorite field guides of all time. The clear and concise text identifies the key traits, habitats, uses, and warnings for more than 530 of the most significant medicinal plants in the eastern and central United States and Canada including both native and alien species. Seven hundred plus images, the organization-by-color system, and simplified warnings make identifying medicinal plants fast and easy.
by Liz Neves
In Northeast Medicinal Plants, Liz Neves is your trusted guide to finding, identifying, harvesting, and using 111 of the region’s most powerful wild plants. You’ll learn how to safely and ethically forage, and how to use wild plants in herbal medicines including teas, tinctures, and salves. Plant profiles include clear, color photographs, identification tips, medicinal uses and herbal preparations, and harvesting suggestions. Lists of what to forage for each season makes the guide useful year-round.
Wild Edible Plants
Edible Wild Plants: Eastern/Central North America (Peterson Field Guides) by Roger Tory Peterson
An invaluable resource for foragers and outdoor enthusiasts. More than 370 edible wild plants, plus 37 poisonous lookalikes, are described here, with 400 drawings and 78 color photographs showing precisely how to recognize each species. Also included are habitat descriptions, lists of plants by season, and preparation instructions for 22 different food uses.
A guide to 32 of the best and most common edible wild plants in North America, with detailed information on how to identify them, where they are found, how and when they are harvested, which parts are used, how they are prepared, as well as their culinary use, ecology, conservation, and cultural history.
Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods by Thomas Elias and Peter Dykeman
With all the plants conveniently organized by season, enthusiasts will find it very simple to locate and identify their desired ingredients. Each entry includes images, plus facts on the plant’s habitat, physical properties, harvesting, preparation, and poisonous look-alikes.
The plant profiles in Northeast Foraging include clear, color photographs, identification tips, guidance on how to ethically harvest, and suggestions for eating and preserving. A handy seasonal planner details which plants are available during every season.
A wide-ranging guide to invasive plants affecting various regions across North America. It is good general reference on identifying these plants, understanding their effects on local ecosystems, and finding species specific-control methods.
A Peterson Field Guide To Eastern Trees: Eastern United States and Canada, Including the Midwest (Peterson Field Guides) by George A. Petrides and Janet Wehr
This field guide features detailed descriptions of 455 species of trees native to eastern North America, including the Midwest and the South. The 48 color plates, 11 black-and-white plates, and 26 text drawings show distinctive details needed for identification.
Trees of Eastern North America (A Princeton Field Guide) by Gil Nelson, Christopher Earle, and Richard Spellenberg
Illustrated and comprehensive, this field guide uses a simple botanical key. The book covers 825 species, including all the native and naturalized trees of the eastern United States and Canada as far west as the Great Plains.
Native and Naturalized Trees of New England and Adjacent Canada: A Field Guide. 2006. Richard DeGraaf and Paul E. Sendek.
This authoritative guide offers taxonomy, range, detailed notes on botanical features (leaves, buds, bark, twigs, flowers, and fruit), and a general description for each of eighty-two species of forest trees and twenty common shrubs found in the region.
Trees and Shrubs of New England. 2nd ed. 2000. Marilyn J. Dwelley.
With more than 300 entries, this is an indispensable guide for field use or home reference. Listings include text descriptions; information on range, habitat, and growth habits; and Latin and common names.
Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses William Cullina. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008.
This is a tremendous resource about the more obscure plant groups— mosses, ferns, clubmosses, horsetails, grasses, sedges, and rushes. It includes details that are hard to find elsewhere, about species’ propagation and use of these plants in garden settings.
Field Guide to Ferns and their Related Families of Northeastern and Central North America: Peterson Field Guide 2005. B. Cobb, E. Farnsworth and C. Lowe.
This book has become the classic on the subject. Now the New England Wild Flower Society (NEWFS) has completely updated the text and added 100 color photographs. New subjects include a section on habitats and conservation, a glossary of botanical terms, and a chapter on gardening with ferns.
Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-Central North America: Peterson Field Guide. 1998. Roger Tory Peterson and Margaret McKenny.
1,293 species in 84 families are described and illustrated. Included here are all the flowers you’re most likely to encounter in the eastern and north-central U.S., westward to the Dakotas and southward to North Carolina and Arkansas, as well as the adjacent parts of Canada.
Wildflowers of New England is a compact, beautifully illustrated guide packed with descriptions and photographs of thousands of the region’s most important wildflowers. It includes annuals, perennials, and biennials, both native and naturalized.
- Covers Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont
Summer & Fall Wildflowers of New England. 2nd ed. 2004. Marilyn J. Dwelley.
This is an indispensable guide to summer and fall wildflowers in New England. Each listing includes a thorough text description, as well as details about range, growth habits, and habitat. Includes Latin names and families, in addition to common names, and more than 700 color illustrations.
Wildflowers in the Field and Forest: A Field Guide to the Northeastern United States by Steven Clemants and Carol Gracie.
This expansive guide includes 1,400+ species of herbaceous wildflowers, covering a wide area from the northeast to the mid-Atlantic and midwest. Features excellent color photos that illuminate the key structures of flowers and leaves that are needed for accurate identifications, as well as a helpful range map for each species.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. 1977. Lawrence Newcomb.
Amateur and expert alike can quickly and accurately identify almost any wildflower using Lawrence Newcomb’s system, which is based on natural structural features that are easily visible even to the untrained eye
Insects, Birds, and Pollinators
An in-depth guide to nearly 30 bee genera, with information on their life cycles and ecological interactions that is vital to creating truly valuable bee habitat. It also includes descriptions of 100 native plant species, particularly trees and shrubs, that provide forage for bees.
This richly detailed guide is a tremendous resource for understanding the complex interactions between native plants and insects. Holm highlights over 60 species of native wildflowers, and describes the variety of insects that pollinate them, disperse their seeds, use them as larval hosts, and more, all illustrated with remarkable photographs.
Smithsonian Handbooks: Birds of North America — Eastern Region by Fred J. Alsop III
Discover 706 species of birds known to breed east of the 100th meridian in the United States and Canada with this indispensable reference guide to birdwatching!
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region, Revised Edition by National Audubon Society
Virtually every bird found in eastern North America is brought to life in this portable guide, an essential companion in the field and a staple in any birdwatcher’s library. It features a durable vinyl binding and brilliant full-color photographic identification pictures arranged for quick access and definitive text, including information on the bird’s voice, nesting habits, habitat, range, and interesting behaviors.
Engaging to read, Kuo’s book features a hundred of the most common edible mushrooms and includes color photos, edibility ratings, descriptions, poisonous relatives and look-alikes, and a recipe section in the back of the book. Not exactly a pocket guide, but small enough to accompany you into the field. This is Juliet’s favorite book on wild mushrooms for beginners.
Peterson Field Guide To Mushrooms Of North America, Second Edition (Peterson Field Guides) by Karl B. McKnight, Joseph R. Rohrer, et al.
Thousands of different species of mushrooms appear across North America in the woods, backyards, and in unexpected corners. Learning to distinguish them is a rewarding challenge for a naturalist or chef.
This beautifully illustrated guidebook provides specific, easy-to-understand information on finding, collecting, identifying, and preparing the safer and more common edible and medicinal mushroom species of New England and Eastern Canada.
The book I always have in my backpack when I’m foraging or wild harvesting is Peterson’s Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs. It has vivid photographs of every plant and is a great tool for identifying plants while you’re out in the field. Personally, I think it’s one of the best field guides of all time! Having learned some of the techniques from Botany in a Day and Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide helps me make quick decisions about which plants to lookup more closely and which ones to just identify based on family patterns and structures. What are your favorite field guides?
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