SUMMARY: An amazing field guide, with a unique classification system based on observations of plant leaf, stem, and petal architecture. Not as easy for a beginner to learn with when compared to guides based on flower color. The go-to book for when plants are not in bloom.
This classic text, first published in 1977, was reputedly designed to make plant identification accessible to the non-botanist. Being critical of the typical flower color approach to field guide classification of wildflowers, Lawrence Newcomb sought to devise his own system. Wild flowers, flowering shrubs, and vines were included.
Physically, the book is 7.8 x 4.8 x 0.9 inches, and will fit snug in an oversized pocket. It is fairly lightweight at 1.1 pounds. The pages are adequate, but on the thin side. The glossy surfaces of the cover and pages seem like they would shed a small amount of dribbled water.
Lawrence Newcomb created a classification schema based on a series of five questions regarding the physical appearance of a wildflower: Does the flower have a regular shape? How many petals does the flower have? Is it a wildflower, shrub, or vine? How are the leaves arranged on the stem? And what is the shape of the leaves?
Based on the answer to these questions, Newcomb assigned a numerical code composed of three numbers, which he designated the “Plant Group Number”. Readers are directed to look up the Plant Group Number in the “Locator Key”, where a page number leads the way to the description of an individual member of that particular Plant Group. An example of a Plant Group would be “Wildflowers with alternate leaves”, with such subheadings “Leaves entire” or “Leaves toothed or lobed”.
Tools within the guidebook to help facilitate these observations include: a detailed list of the definitions of the terms used, pictoral graphics used to help aid with describing the general configurations of the leaves (oval, lance-shaped, etc.) and architecture of the flowers (racemes, umbels, etc.), a ruler (in inches), and a bare bones schematic of the classification system. These helpful tools are readily found in the pages near the covers.
The plant information is generally set up with the Plant Group and subheadings on each left hand page, with the descriptions of the plants within each appropriate group. On the right hand side of each page, there are corresponding line drawings (mostly black and white, but some full color plates) of the plants. The common name, scientific name, and very brief but dense physical description of the plant (composed of generally 3 to 6 lines of text) are provided. Information of habitat, geographical location, and seasons is patchily available.
Plant drawings have the advantage of being able to idealize some components of the plant’s architecture so that readers can get a clear representation of a particular feature. On the other hand, photographs obvious more closely approximate what the plant looks like in real life. Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide does not contain photographs.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide is best suited for the intermediate-to-experienced forager. It is a robust and highly accurate field guide. While I certainly would never discourage a beginner from using it, I think that using color-based flower guides (such as this one or this one) are a better way to start learning about plant identification. Most people, when they begin their pursuit of foraging, will rely on flipping through the pages of their field guide, using an unsophisticated visual matching system (“uhhh…it kinda looks like this one…”). It is not easy to do this with Newcomb’s. Since it is mostly printed in black and white, flipping through by color is not an option. Instead, Newcomb’s requires you to be able to technically describe the various features of a plants aerial parts, prior to attempting identification.
Regardless, Newcomb’s is the first choice of many plant hunters and botanists. As you grow beyond the matching photos phase of your foraging career, you will begin to appreciate the subtleties of Newcomb’s approach more and more.
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 Amazon.com affiliate, we receive no compensation for this.