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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We only make money if you purchase a product through our links, and all opinions about the products are our own. Read more  
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.Read more 
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

35 Models Considered
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Buying guide for best wild plants field guides

Foraging for wild plants can be a rewarding hobby and add a variety of culinary accents to your table. However, picking the wrong plant can be dangerous. One way to ensure that the plants you’re harvesting from fields and forests are tasty and not toxic is to use a wild plants field guide.

These field guides can help you find edible plants and some also list medicinal plants, wildflowers, and other plants. In addition to plant types, these guides also cover different geographic ranges. They can vary in the number of plants listed, the way the plants are organized, and even the intended target audience.

Our buying guide can help you find the right wild plants field guide for your needs at a price you want to pay. We outline what’s contained in these guides and how they’re organized. We also offer some of our favorite guides and tell you what we like about them.

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According to a report drafted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, there are around 400,000 plant types in the world, with hundreds of new species added yearly.

Key considerations

Range

Some wild plants field guides cover a broad, general range, such as North America. Others are much more targeted, focusing on a specific region such as the western United States, the Northeast, the mid-Atlantic states, or even a specific state. Selecting a guide for your specific region can help by focusing on those plant species that you’re likely to encounter and eliminating the species you won’t find growing in your area.

Plants

Number: Wild plants field guides vary considerably in the number of plants they contain. While some guides concentrate on several dozen plant species, others offer images and descriptions for several hundred. But more isn’t always better. In the case of these field guides, you can easily be overwhelmed by scores of plant species that you’ll never see, such as those in a more general North American guide. Conversely, a guide with too few plants will leave you with more questions than answers. Your best bet here is to select a guide that focuses on your area without being overwhelmingly detailed.

Related to the number of plants in a guide is the number of pages. Wild plants field guides can range from fewer than 200 to more than 800 pages. While you have access to more information in a larger guide, it’s also heavier and harder to lug around.

Types: The types of plants in a field guide can vary greatly. While most guides of this kind concentrate on edible plants, this can cover a fair amount of ground from medicinal plants and wild mushrooms to greens and berries or fruits. Inedible plants such as wildflowers and toxic plants may also be covered. If you have a narrow interest in only a specific type of plant, you’ll probably be better off buying a guide that concentrates on that rather than a more general guide.

Toxic plants: Some wild plants field guides include a dedicated section on toxic plants, mushrooms, and/or berries to help you better identify the plants that you should avoid when foraging.

Distribution maps: These maps show you where specific plants grow and are more common in larger regional field guides, such as those that cover all of North America.

Organization

While all wild plants field guides feature a wide variety of plants, how they organize and present the information varies greatly from guide to guide. Some organize plants by taxonomy (plant type), while others group plants by color. Some guides organize plants by lookalikes, others by region, and still others by season. Choose the format that will be most useful to you.

Index: An index in the back should be standard in a wild plants field guide. This is an alphabetized list of plant names and other relevant information to help you more easily find what you’re searching for in the guide. Guides that use a cross-referencing index system help you more easily find related plants.

Glossary: Some wild plants field guides include a glossary, an alphabetical list of common words and phrases used in the guide. Spending some time familiarizing yourself with the glossary can help you better understand the guide as you use it.

Target audience

The specific audience for a wild plants field guide can also vary considerably from guide to guide. Some are written for beginner or casual foragers, while others are much more detailed and written for botanists and experienced foragers. The age of the target audience can also differ greatly, with some guides specifically written with younger readers in mind.

Avoid guides that use black-and-white photos or illustrations. You could miss color shading that can be crucial to plant identification.

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Features

Pictures

Field guides of all sorts have long used pencil or painted illustrations to show the specific characteristics of birds, plants, and minerals to help readers identify them. Some guides still use illustrations, while others use photographs, and some use a combination of the two. While illustrations are generally more artistic, some guide users feel that photographs are a better way to identify plants.

Whichever method is used should concentrate on the whole plant, not just parts of it like the flower. If the guide includes photographs, they should be in focus and taken close enough to the plant for easy identification.

Descriptions

In addition to pictures, a quality wild plants field guide should include detailed descriptions of individual plants to aid in identification. The description should offer family, genus, and species names, common names, as well as detailed information on a plant’s habitat, distribution, and characteristics. The description should note if a plant is edible or toxic, and what it can be used for either in food or medicine. The description should also indicate if the plant changes greatly from season to season and what characteristics to focus on during each season.

Hardback vs. paperback

Wild plants field guides come as either hardbacks or paperbacks. While a hardback book is more durable, a paperback guide is easier to use in the field. Your choice will be determined by your intended use of the guide, whether in the home or in the field.

If you’re afraid the weather will ruin your guide, buy one with a vinyl- or plastic-coated cover, which will hold up better if exposed to moisture.

Recipes

Wild plants field guides that concentrate on edible plants often include a section dedicated to the preparation of the plants you harvest. These sections include tips on how to clean and cook the plants and often include a collection of recipes to get you started.

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DID YOU KNOW?
The first popular plant field guide in the United States was How to Know the Wildflowers by Frances Theodora Parsons, published in 1893.
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Wild plants field guide prices

You won’t find a huge price difference between one wild plants field guide and the next, but a number of factors separate lower-priced guides from higher-priced guides.

Under $20: These wild plants field guides tend to include fewer plants than pricier guides. They are often more specialized (for example, wild mushrooms only) and often cover a more focused regional area, such as a single state or a specific bioregion. These tend to be paperback and softcover guides.

Over $20: These guides have more pages, include more plants, and have a larger number of photos or illustrations. Hardcover guides are more common here, as are specialized sections, such as for recipes. Many of these guides cover a larger area and include distribution maps so you can more easily find where specific plants grow.

Be sure that the organization of the guide book (color, taxonomy) makes sense to you or it will be frustrating to use.

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Tips

  • Buy more than one guide. One decent wild plants field guide will take you pretty far in your foraging adventures, but you might be better off buying two or three. Multiple guides can provide you with a much broader knowledge of specific plants in addition to covering any plants that a specific guide might omit.
  • Check the guide before you buy. Take advantage of any available sample pages on a guide’s listing to decide whether the images are clear, the text is neither too basic nor too dense, and the various sections will meet your needs. If you want to see the guide in person before you buy, check local bookstores, libraries, nature centers, forestry services, visitor centers, and colleges.
  • Choose a guide based on seasons. If you live in an area that sees significant changes from season to season, such as the Northeast, consider buying a wild plants field guide organized by seasons. Many plants in areas with distinct seasons look very different from spring to summer to autumn to winter.
  • Join a group. You don’t have to stop with a field guide. Look for a class or group in your area that will help learn more about wild plants. Check with local colleges, outdoor centers, and arboretums to find other local wild plant resources and enthusiasts.
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When harvesting wild plants, avoid areas where the spraying of pesticides or herbicides might have occurred, such as near power lines, railroad tracks, city parks, and alongside roads.

FAQ

Q. Which is better: hardback or paperback?

A. While much of this comes down to personal preference, there are some practical reasons for choosing one type of cover over another. Hardback field guides can be an attractive addition to your home: think coffee-table books. They can also be a valuable research tool, but they tend to be large and heavy.

The more common and lighter paperback guides are much easier to take into the field. Also, softcover guides are often smaller, so you can more easily slip one into a pocket or backpack.

Q. In addition to a guide, what else do I need to forage for food in the wild?

A. A guide can help you to identify edible plants, but you’re going to need a few tools to harvest your plants. A foraging or mushroom knife is a standard tool in foraging kits. This has a blade on one end to cut plants cleanly and a brush on the other to remove dirt from them.

Other tools that are useful to foragers include a rugged pair of scissors, a small trowel or shovel for digging, and a sturdy canvas bag to store your harvested plants. If you live in an area with maple sugar trees, also consider throwing in a maple sugaring spile to collect sap samples.

Q. Do these field guides cover trees?

A. While wild plants field guides can vary a bit in what types of plants they include, most do not include trees. You’ll need a specific guide to trees for your region.

 

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