Learning to identify plants, even for full-time students, is no small task. Building a library of the best plant field guides will help you learn to accurately identify plants. While field guides may seem technical and tedious at first, they are integral to building your plant identification knowledge.
Although apps like PlantSnap make plant identification easy and quick, the best plant field guides help give more information on a given plant. Using apps and traditional field guides together is a great way to quickly build your plant identification skills.
What makes a good plant field guide?
As you may already know, not all plant field guides are created equal. Depending on your needs, the definition of a great plant field guide may change dramatically. That said, there are some features of the best plant field guides that will remain unchanged no matter what your goals are:
- Go local. Some of the best plant field guides in the world are hyper-local. Visit a local nature center, university, or forest service office and ask if they have any recommended field guides. Looking at a local field guide will help ensure that you don’t get tripped up with exotic lookalike plants. Most good local field guides will also include information on common invasive plants.
- If you just want one field guide, you might be better served getting a regional field guide than a hyper-local one. Regardless, a field guide specific to your region (say, the Pacific Northwest) will be more useful than “plants of the world.”
- Get specific. If you’re specifically interested in lichens, trees, edible plants, or invasives, get the corresponding field guides. With an estimated 400,000 plant species around the world, you’ll be less overwhelmed if the field guide in your hand is specific to your interests.
- Match your expertise. It seems obvious that expert botanists may be disappointed with field guides made for beginners. However, it’s also true that a dense botany field guide made for expert scientists will likely be frustrating overkill for a casual user. Be sure to flip through the field guide before purchasing it to ensure that it feels usable for your skill level.
- Prioritize usability. Your definition of “usable” will vary based on your expertise. A budding gardener may enjoy a field guide to flowers that are organized based on bud color, while a forager may prefer guides that are organized by lookalike plants. Scientists generally opt for field guides that are arranged by taxonomy. No matter what you choose, ensure that the field guide makes sense to you – otherwise, you’ll probably never use it!
It’s nice to check out a plant field guide in person before purchasing it. That’s part of why I recommend visiting a local college, visitor center, nature center, or forest service office to get the local, expert opinion while you page through a guide!
PlantSnap’s Guide to the Best Plant Field Guides
Here at PlantSnap, we still love using field guides to identify plants. Although our goal is to make plant identification easy and accessible to anyone with a smartphone, we also know that field guides are still the best way to learn to identify plants around you.
Ultra-specific books like Trees of Michigan are exactly what I look for when buying a new field guide – but there’s simply no room to list all of the excellent local guides here. In fact, many of the best plant field guides are almost impossible to find online.
Instead, we’ll list some of the more general best plant field guides.
If you really want to start taking a deep dive into plant identification, you’d be hard-pressed to start somewhere better than Plant Identification Terminology: an Illustrated Glossary. Recommended by professional botanists around the world, this guide aims to demystify the dazzling array of botany terms by pairing them with clear illustrations.
Trees and Shrubs
While trees and shrubs are the biggest plants around, their size doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easy to learn to identify. Our favorites are:
- The Peterson Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs. Be sure to purchase the correct region, as there are different Peterson Field Guides for each part of the US. This guide doesn’t have many color illustrations and is organized by leaf shape, so it takes a bit of getting used to if you’re a novice.
- The National Geographic Pocket Guide to Trees and Shrubs of North America is a bit more user-friendly for the budding botanist. That said, this book is truly pocket-sized and therefore leaves a lot of trees and shrubs out.
Flower identification is a great place to get started with botany. The bright blooms are often a bit easier to identify than grasses, for example.
- The National Audubon Society Field Guide to Flowers is a staple resource for flower identification. Be sure to purchase the correct region. Many users seem to have a strong preference for either Audubon or the corresponding Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers – you might want to flip through both before deciding which you prefer.
- For real gardening aficionados, consider the American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers. This encyclopedia is made to help plan, identify, and grow your garden flowers rather than identify local wildflowers.
Ferns are sometimes omitted from other field guides since they do not produce seeds like the rest of the world’s plants. This technical difference can be frustrating for beginner botanists. The Field Manual of Ferns & Fern Allies is an excellent, in-depth guide to ferns for users who want more than a cursory overview.
Like ferns, the cactus family is sometimes neglected in more generic field guides. Unfortunately, the go-to guide to cacti for botanists (The Cactus Family) is out of print and copies currently sell for $200-$500. The Cactus of the Southwest Adventure Quickguide is a good basic substitute. Otherwise, check for local guides such as “Cacti of Arizona.”
Grasses are notoriously difficult to identify. Even professional botanists struggle to identify grass. The Manual of Grasses of North America is probably the best field guide to grasses on the continent, but its steep price tag ($80+) means few beginners will be interested. At the other end of the pricing spectrum lies the slightly older (but still useful) Field Guide to Grasses, Rushes, and Sedges of the United States.
Lichens are yet another niche field of plant identification. While Lichens of North America is a well-respected and well-loved guide for experts, it is probably more technical (and more expensive) than most casual plant-lovers need. Instead, most people will be better-served by finding a local lichen field guide, such as Common Lichens of Northeastern North America or Lichens of the North Woods.
If you really want to get into foraging and sampling edible plants, a good field guide is a must. Good edible plant field guides will help you really get to know the differences between edible plants and their dangerous lookalikes. Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods is a great place to start.
Did we neglect to list your favorite field guide? Let us know what you won’t leave home without!