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A beautiful new field guide to the flowering plants of Britain and Ireland
on 4 November 2009
I confess to being a field guide addict, so when I this new Collins Flower Guide at the Birdfair, I knew I had to get it. The previous titles in this series - birds, butterflies and trees - are the definitive guides to their respective groups; indeed Collins Bird Guide, in my opinion, sets the standard as the best field guide to an avifauna anywhere in the world. So despite the price, it was not hard to part with the money.
Having field-tested this book at the tail end of the flowering season, I am certainly not disappointed. The book is billed as "the most complete guide to the flowers of Britain and Europe", and it probably is. Some 1,900 species are described and the grasses and ferns are treated to full colour plates. The attractive features of the other guides in the Collins series - plates and text on a single spread, clear type-face and layout, compact form, excellent illustrations - are all here. The plates are particularly satisfying: beautifully painted, they look to be the most accurate yet included in a guide of this type. And, as in other plant guides, keys are provided as a more structured way to identify flowers.
But this book faces some pretty stiff competition, namely from Blamey, Fitter & Fitter's Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland and Rose's Wild Flower Key. How does it stand up? I'm a sucker for Marjorie Blamey's illustrations, so I have most of her books and I love Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland, not least as an armchair flora. Rose has long (at least for the quarter century since I took any botany classes) been recognised as the most accurate illustrated field flora - the botanist's guide of choice. Despite its fine illustrations and keys, I am not sure that this current guide can rival either of them. I took both Rose and the Collins guide out into Norfolk and ran several plants - tricky things like umbellifers and crucifers - through the keys and Rose performed flawlessly, whereas the new guide was a little murkier. Some of the illustrations are quite "washed out" or at least not as saturated as others, leading to some loss of details - notably in the Asteraceae in my copy. Opened the book at the oaks, I noticed that the Sessile Oak caption is missing - admittedly just a detail. In the end though, much as I warm to the new guide, I find that I am carrying Rose rather than the Collins guide into the field when I want a reference I can depend on. Perhaps it's just that when I pick up a guide, Rose fits more easily into my pocket and is a fair bit lighter.
In sum, this is a guide that the plant enthusiast will want to have, but if you already possess a trusted field guide like Rose, you may not want to pay for the more expensive new Collins Flower Guide, beautiful as the illustrations may be. Having said that, I have no regrets at having this handsome new field guide on my shelves - the more field guides the better.
Chris Sharpe, 4 November 2009. ISBN-13: 978-0-00-710621-9