SUMMARY: A highly portable and information-dense backcountry reference, uniquely suited for checking on the usefulness of plants while on the trail and as a back-up guide to other more comprehensive plant identification books.
The classic series of field guides sparked by renowned naturalist and birder Roger Tory Peterson are regarded as premier references. The Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs is no exception. A collaboration by herbalist Steven Foster and ethnobotanist James Duke, the 3rd edition of this guide is one that I commonly drag out into the fields (usually along with this one).
The book cover boasts that this text “identifies the key traits, habitats, uses, and warnings for 530 of the most significant medicinal plants[…]”
Physically, this book is easy to bring along. Its size is not unwieldy, 7.2 x 4.5 x 1.1 inches, and can fit comfortably enough in a large pocket. At 1.3 pounds, it is solid but not overbearing. It is well-constructed with thick glossy pages that probably could handle a bit of contact with water.
A preface spends a few pages discussing the state of herbalism, including federal regulatory issues, and the ability to access new plant information due to the increasing abundance of electronic resources. This is followed by a quick overview on the organization of the book, strategies for plant identification, and techniques for responsible harvesting.
Like many others, the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs first classifies its plants based on flower color. A colored band along the bottom of each page corresponds to bloom hues for quick reference. (Of note, one of the few field books that does not initially stratify its organization based on flower color is this one). There are plusses and minuses to this approach. For beginners, flower color is a very easy starting point and can usually get people “up and running” with their identifications. That said, obviously bloom hue is only apparent when the plant is flowering. Thus, identifying unknown plants that are not in the proper flowering season can be tricky. Plants besides wildflowers (vines, trees, ferns, etc.) are also discussed.
Embedded within the colored band on each page, as well as inconspicuously as a heading at the beginning of each section, is a brief physical description of the plant category. For instance, overlying a purple band is “flowers with 5-petals, curled clusters”. Make a note of this, because although helpful, it is easy to overlook the presence of these descriptors.
Each plant description consists of the common name, the scientific name(s), the botanical family, what part of the plant is used, a physical description, the geographical habitat, the uses (both modern and historical) of the plant, and any warnings associated with it. Photographs are of superb quality, with most plants having one or two images. Of course, as is expected representative photos in a field guide are small and otherwise cannot depict all of the visual minutiae associated with any given species (thus my reliance on 3+ field guides for positive identification).
While the Peterson Guide is an intensely useful book, I would not rely on it as a primary, or even a secondary source of positive plant identification. This is specifically because it only contains plants that are of use or significant interest to humans. If you stumble (and most definitely you will) a plant that does not or did not have recognized use to humans, it will not be in this book. I recommend this and this as the most robust wildflower field guides for the northeastern United States.
I use it as 1) an on-site tertiary identification source to back-up to my two other favorite field guides (this one & this one), and 2) a quick field check to see if the plant I have identified has recognized medicinal or nutritional utility.
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.