REVIEW: Botany in a Day — The Patterns Method of Plant Identification

By Mindy

The best primer on the botanical classification of plant families for foragers that I know of. I am sure there are textbooks that are more complete; I doubt you need them!

Reading Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification (An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America) by Thomas J. Elpel is simply one of the best ways to learn your plants.

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Botany in a Day is a deceptive book. This is not because of the liberty it takes with its title (you clearly cannot learn botany in one day, but some reviewers have actually complained about this as being a cheap trick!) Botany in a Day is deceiving because of how fun it appears to be. Looking like an oversized children’s coloring book, the tome is the size of a sheet of paper in height and width, and over 236 pages. The spine and cover are rather floppy, but sturdy. Flipping through, both colored and black & white plant drawings and diagrams are intermingled amongst the somewhat note-like floral family entries, written with a mixture of prose and outline. Instead of the daunting feel of a hard-covered college textbook, Botany in a Day feels “doable”. You can read it for entertainment. There are plenty of natural breaks in the text, so you can read a bit here and there and easily put it down for the day.

A few pages of acknowledgments and the table of contents is followed by a 36 page debriefing on Botany 101. The case is made at this point for learning plants based on their scientific family, urging the reader to study the different patterns because plants in a given family tend to have similar characteristics and uses. Mr. Elpel takes a moment to plug his other plant products, keeping a conversational tone throughout the writing. He argues, quite convincingly, that if you can identify the plant family based on pattern recognition, then you are well on your way to knowing the individual plant.

Botany in a Day follows a pretty standard botanical key for determining the given family a plant belongs to. Answering the following questions guides users through the book: 1) “what major group does your [plant] specimen belong to [vascular, non-vascular, etc.]?”, 2) “Is your plant a monocot or a dicot?”, and 3) “Is your dicot plant a member of the Aster family?”. If you have made it through the questions without being sent off to another page, then you are then instructed to “Profile your dicot flower and key it out.”  The reader is given a list of botanical features (number of petals, leaf configuration, etc.) to compare their plant to, and then a page number to turn to for the complete description.

Part two of Botany in a Day contains monographs, complete with a drawing, for each of the individual plant families, divided into the following plant clades: clubmoss, fern, naked seed, and flowering plants (water lily, magnolia, hornwort, eudicots, and monocots). A description of all of the features of a given family are presented, along with representative members of the family, a list of the genera in the family, and interesting tidbits (including uses and chemistry).

This is where you realize that despite its lighthearted approach, this book is no lightweight. In fact, it is probably one of the best primers on botanical classification that I have ever encountered. It is decidedly not a field guide. You will need to bring something like this, or like this to a real foraging session. However, if you have room in your pack, and time to really sit with the plants, throw this book in and peruse it while you are out in the field. Compare the plants you encounter to the family descriptions. You will be amazed by how much you start to notice. If you can master the material in this book, you are well on your way to being able to correctly identify all of the plants around you.

Check out our 2-part guide on Beginning Foraging !

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The Walking Herbalist has no affiliation of the authors or the publishers of this book at the time of the writing of this review. We purchased our own copy of this book for our own private use. This review is simply here to help our readers put together their own herbalism library, and other than possible commissions as an affiliate, we receive no compensation for this. 

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