If you were to pick up my work backpack on any given day at forest school, you just might fall over as you tried to lift it. It’s that heavy! Why, might you ask?
Well, take a peek inside and you’ll find your standard outdoor educator gear: a first-aid kit, bandanas for playing games, fire-making materials, a knife for whittling, a random feather or animal skull or owl pellet, student medical forms, and last but certainly not least, field guides! Lots and lots of field guides. Aha! There’s the culprit! Most field guides aren’t exactly lightweight.
But as much as I may occasionally grumble about the weight that I carry on my back, I do so with a bit of a chuckle. I admit, I have a somewhat ridiculous field guide hoarding habit! What can I say, I just can’t resist! I love having some good, solid field guides on hand with me at all times, just in case we discover something cool with the kids (which happens like 1352682 times a day!).
At forest school, we turn to these field guides as we’d look to a wise elder: seeking advice, information, stories, and most of all, connection. Is this plant edible? Which species of salamander is this? Woah! That’s a cool insect, I wonder what it’s called. . .
As we crack open a field guide, we’re prompted to pay closer attention, seek important identifying features, and really have a sensory experience with that fascinating wild thing that we just found. This sensory input, which results from the deeper exploration, has a profound impact on the group learning experience. It helps to cultivate greater connection and learning that lasts.
In my opinion, today’s children need to see us adults take a break from our iPhones once in awhile and instead, flip through the pages of books that contain information and pictures about the natural world. Normalizing the use of field guides is one way in which we can create a culture of nature connection and teach our children that nature deserves our attention and that taking care of wild things is important.
But I didn’t write this blog post to preach about why field guides are cool or why we should put down our phones (let’s face it, I’m just as guilty as anyone for spending hours mindlessly scrolling through Instagram!)
The reason I’m writing this blog post is because I get asked by parents all the time for field guide recommendations.
There are so many factors when it comes to choosing a field guide, including what your intention is for using it and what your current level of knowledge and experience is.
But in my humble opinion, when it comes to field guides, aside from accuracy being of number one importance, the “best” field guides are the ones that you actually use.
If you buy a field guide and it ends up just sitting on your bookshelf collecting dust because it’s too big and cumbersome, or too wordy and overwhelming, or most of the species live in another part of the country and the pictures aren’t helpful, then by all means, this isn’t the best field guide for you!
The best field guides are the ones that makes it easy for you and your family to connect more deeply with the species that you’re curious about.
The best field guides are the ones that have you feeling appreciative of the knowledge that is being shared and full of inspiration to explore more.
I’m a huge fan of field guides that are well organized, user-friendly, and feature good photos and/or drawings. I’m also particularly drawn to field guides that are geared towards beginners and that cater to children’s learning styles so that I can use them at forest school.
Today I’m feeling inspired to share just a few of my personal favorite field guides and reference books (aka the ones that spill out of my work backpack most often!) about one of my favorite subjects within the natural sciences: Plants!
A few of my favorite plant field guides and reference books:
This FREE printable PDF of local native plant species ID cards is an excellent quick reference for beginners. Each plant species card contains clear, detailed photos which highlight the plant’s distinguishing features. These cards make it really easy to identify some of the most common local plants here in the PNW! It doesn't feature every single plant out there, but it does have the ones that you’re most likely to come across while out on a local wander with your family.
These cards also include information that helps you identify the plants during different times of year. I love how each card clearly displays the habitat that you can find the plant growing in, and uses a color-coded side bard to indicate whether the plant is deciduous or evergreen and to distinguish the plant type (i.e. tree, shrub, ground cover, or forb/grass).
These cards make a great companion to another favorite plant field guide, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon (see my review of this book below). In fact, each plant card includes a reference to the page number in Pojar and MacKinnon’s book so that you can easily flip to that page and learn more about the plant.
Honestly, it’s no surprise that these plant ID cards are so clear and informative, as they were developed by local ethnobotanist Heidi Bohan who is an excellent teacher with a wealth of knowledge about native plants (Patrick and I were lucky enough to travel through Ireland with Heidi a couple of years ago! By the way, Heidi’s book The People of Cascadia is an incredibly comprehensive ethnobotanical guide on Pacific Northwest native culture and history. Check it out HERE!)
So if you’re looking for an easy-to-use beginner’s local plant ID reference for your family, do as the folks at Starflower Foundation suggest: print out a color copy of the cards from this link HERE, get some inexpensive laminating pouches for waterproofing, punch a hole in the left corner of each card, and bind them all together with a metal file ring. What a great project to take on with your kiddos!
Deep gratitude to the Starflower Foundation and Heidi Bohan for this incredible free resource!
This is by far the most beat-up book in my collection, and with good reason. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of my favorite field guides EVER and I pretty much never leave home without it!
Why am I so in love with this book? Well, for starters it is extensive! It features nearly 800 local native plants species: trees, shrubs, wildflowers, aquatic plants, grasses, ferns. . . you name it! It even has entire sections on mosses and lichens!
I also love this book because it’s chock full of historical information, name origins, and interesting characteristics for many of the plants. Ethnobotany is a huge interest of of mine and the authors of this book did a really nice job of sprinkling in fascinating information about traditional native uses for many of these local plants for food, medicine and tools, etc.
My only complaint is that the first two sections of the book, which feature Tree and Shrubs species, do not indicate plant families, so you have to figure those out on your own. Luckily, the non-woody wild flowering plants, which make up the majority of species, are sectioned off by plant families. Each of those sections features a nice key to that family so that you can narrow down the species.
So if you enjoy “geeking out” about local plants and their traditional uses, I highly suggest picking up a copy of this book! You can find it HERE.
These next two books are not so much “field guides”. They’re more like reference books. Although both of these books do a great job of describing the distinguishing features of specific plants, they don’t have a dichotomous key for plant identification like a traditional plant field guide would. They sprinkle in some technical botanical information, but that isn’t so much the focus. They don’t feature every single species out there, but rather, they highlight specific species and offer guidance around using those plants for food or medicine:
I just recently got my hands on this beautiful book and I gotta say I’m really enjoying it so far. I find it to be a very clear and straightforward primer on how to identify, harvest, and use specific local wild plants for medicine.
This book features large photos of the plants which are helpful for identification. The author uses really clear language on how to identify each plant, and gives guidance on where, when, and how to wildcraft the species. He discusses the medicinal uses and recommended preparations for the plants, offers words of caution where necessary, and also mentions how to care for the plant so as to ensure future harvesting. The book is written in a way that’s not too overwhelming or advanced, which is really refreshing considering how heady the subject matter can be.
I think what I appreciate most about this book is the way in which the author writes from his own perspective and brings in his personal stories and reflections. It’s clear that he has been cultivating a deep relationship with plants for a long time. I love his chapter on wildcrafting basics and the questions that he offers the reader to consider when wildcrafting. As a teacher myself, I truly appreciate his approach.
This book really draws me in, in a way that other plant medicine books do not. When I read it, it feels like I am being mentored by the author. I feel inspired to get out there and connect with the plants more deeply. As I suggested earlier, the “best“ field guides are the ones that you want to use. For me, this book definitely fits that bill! Check it out HERE.
This book is another recent addition to my library, and I’m so glad that I picked it up. It’s a great book to use with children because it offers some basic introductory information on local wild edible plants. It features large, clear photos and discusses some identifying features of the plants. It offers useful information on where, when, and how to gather the plants, and also includes some basic suggestions on how to prepare the plants for consumption.
You’ll notice that this book does not feature every single wild edible in the Pacific Northwest. Rather, the author took a very practical approach and chose to include species that “navigate the middle ground between aesthetic and utilitarian goals”. So the coveted delicious wild berries such as huckleberry and wild strawberries are featured in this book amongst the less palatable but very abundant “survival foods” such as sword fern roots and skunk cabbage. (By the way, I never knew that you could eat sword fern roots! Now I’m intrigued. . .)
The author was very intentional not only in choosing which plants to include in this book but also in his way of encouraging the reader to cultivate a mindful relationship with the plants. The mentoring that he received from Native elders truly shines through in his discussion around the importance of avoiding over harvesting and honoring the plants that we take by always giving something in return. He offers suggestions on how to care for these wild plants by aiding in their dispersal and propagation.
I truly appreciate the author’s discussion on responsible and sustainable harvesting, as I have witnessed time and time again in my experience as a nature mentor that it is more common than not for children (and adults!) to just march into the forest and take all of the berries that they can without pausing to give thanks or even considering ways to give back to the plants. The reality is that we live in a “taker” culture, where exploitation of resources is normalized, so now it is more important than ever to teach and encourage the practice of cultivating reciprocity with wild plants.
I think this is truly an excellent book for those folks who’d like to dip their toes into the world of local wild foraging. You can find a copy of this book HERE.
Well, there you have it. . . just a FEW of my favorite local plant field guides and reference books. I gotta say that I’ve barely scratched the surface on this one, as there are SO many awesome books out there! I have so much gratitude for the authors of these books for so generously sharing their wisdom and knowledge and encouraging us curious folks to really explore and connect with the wild plants that grow around us. And of course, deep gratitude for the plants, without which we wouldn’t be here!
Now I’d love to hear from YOU! Which are your favorite wild plant field guides and reference books, and what do you like most about them?? Please post a comment below!