The other day I was driving with a friend, got a little lost, and pulled out an atlas to re-orient myself. My companion was shocked, “You know how to use that?!” In this age of techno-overload, we are losing some very basic skills, like reading a map. Our dependence on the internet is robbing us of our instinctual awareness and problem-solving skills. Though I am only approaching 30 years of life, I often feel more akin to my grandparents than my peers, thinking, “Gosh, what are the kids up to these days!? So much has changed!” One consequence I fear is the loss of field guides in the plant-lover’s life. Using a field guide is like a “choose your own adventure” book. (Does anyone remember the choose-your-own-adventure Goosebumps?! So good…). Most field guides have a key; the key is where you sort through a list of possibilities; does the plant have 3 petals or 5 petals? Opposite leaves or alternate leaves? Is it growing in rich soil by a river or on a sandy hill? All of these options guide you to accurate identification, and you have thus “keyed out” a plant. It is very satisfying. Alas, with the internet, people can just take a picture and post it on facebook or plug it into an app, and instantly the answer will be handed to them. I wonder if this new techno-dependence diminishes our interactions and intimacy with the plants. Perhaps you will miss that dynamic patch of fuzz on the underside of the leaf, or the shimmering stomata observed through a loupe. And it may seem too obvious to even bring up, but…the internet is often wrong! So this post is encouragement to engage with field guides, and more specifically, this post is a commentary on 2 books I find helpful for identifying plants in Central Florida…
Feelings of trepidation and doubt consume me when deciding which field guides to carry on a plant walk. What if I bring the wrong book and am unable to identify a plant that I need to know?! What if I bring too many books and feel weighed down? What if I bring a book of trees, but then come across some interesting fern I’ve never seen before?! So many things to consider. After much experimentation, I have settled on two books that feel like the best possible combination for most plant walks in central Florida. These books are Florida Wildflowers, by Walter Kingsley Taylor, and Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida, Third Edition, by Richard P Wunderlin and Bruce F Hansen. Along with these books, I carry a loupe for magnification and perhaps a camera, just in case I am still unable to properly ID a specimen.
Florida Wildflowers is a beautiful book that categorizes plants by their habitats. My teacher, Juliet, gifted me with this book when I moved south, and it provided a foundation for me to feel at home in a new land. Each plant community found in Florida is described in the beginning of the book; noting its overall appearance, location, common plants found there, and it’s current state of existence given the rise of development and loss of natural habitats. Then the book is divided into sections where a good number of plants in each habitat are described in detail, with growing habit and range, its native and/or endemic status, and a picture or two is included. The pictures are of excellent quality. This book does not include a key that guides your identification of the plant, rather it groups plants in the context of their community. When I arrive in a new area, I read about that specific plant community before walking through it and then I reference the book when I see a plant that I previously read about. Sometimes I also find myself trying to identify a plant by flipping through the pictures. This is probably frowned upon by many botanists, but I often find it to be less tedious than the key that I will talk about next.
Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida, Third Edition is a brilliant book that can be used to key out nearly any plant in the entire state. It is very technical in it’s language, and therefore precise and clear in its distinctions between species. In my copy, I bookmarked the glossary and I refer to it nearly every time I open the book. There are no pictures, which is why it can be helpful to cross-reference the previous book. This key takes commitment and patience to work with, but no other field guide matches the comprehensive documentation found within.
Carrying these two books on my long treks in the woods and prairies has not only strengthened my muscles (they weigh 6lbs…be sure to have a backpack with a waist strap!), but has also strengthened my connection to the plants growing around me. In my opinion, the intricate details of plant species in the Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida compliments the broad assessment of whole habitats in Florida Wildflowers. The perfect field guide does not and will never exist. Nature is too spectacular to be pinned down in one book. So with a good variety of books, patience to wait for the plant to reveal all its’ secrets through the seasons, along with some botany nerds for friends, and maybe the occasional internet search, identification is possible with thorough dedication that stems from a deep love for the natural world. So turn off your smart phones, and crack open your field guides!
PS. For a formal introduction to using field guides, consider taking the Intro to Botany class, offered in the spring. In this class we cover the basic language of botany, anatomy and physiology of plants, and practice keying out our green friends.