Friday, 29 May 2009

Book Review: Collins Flower Guide

Collins Flower Guide by David Streeter, C. Hart-Davies, A. Hardcastle, F. Cole & L. Harper, Collins, 2009; Hardback (ISNB: 978-0-00-710621-9), 704 pp; £30.

There are, of course, many illustrated guides to wild flowers on the market; some are much better than others. In my opinion, ‘dumbed-down’ guides, such as those based on flower colour, are a complete waste of money. A good guide should be well illustrated, based on scientific principles of plant classification, be up to date in terms of nomenclature and should contain information on such parameters as: plant dimensions, flowering time, distribution, habitat and relative frequency of occurrence (i.e. ‘common’, ‘rare’ etc.). Keys should also be available so that members of the more difficult groups can be separated from each other. Even in terms of our relatively sparse flora, this is a lot of information to pack into a single volume. Until the last few years most guides excluded more ‘difficult’ groups, such as ferns and grasses, sedges and rushes – but some recent guides, including the present volume, have begun to include information on those groups.

This latest guide from Collins has been eagerly awaited, not least because this publisher has a very distinguished history when it comes to publishing field guides. Their guides to birds, flowers, insects etc. are legendary and highly regarded. In addition they have been publishing their famous and definitive ‘New Naturalist’ series, on British natural history topics, since the 1940s.

The book’s text is by David Streeter, who is Reader in Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the ‘New Naturalist’ series mentioned above, has served on the council of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) and is currently president of the Sussex Wildlife Trust. He also wrote the text for one of my favourite wild flower books: ‘The Wild Flowers of the British Isles’, Macmillan, 1983 – which was superbly illustrated by Ian Garrard. Although this latter book is a little out of date now, I still refer to it constantly.

The new Collins Guide has been illustrated by a team of four illustrators: Christina Hart-Davies, Audrey Hardcastle, Felicity Cole and Lizzie Harper. My first impression is that some of the illustrations are better than others – although all are adequate. I am biased, though, as I was practically ‘brought up’ on the illustrations of the redoubtable Marjorie Blamey – whose work I regard very highly.

So is the present book any good? This is a difficult question to answer as such a book needs to be used for at least a couple of seasons to be sure, but it certainly meets the criteria for a good guide listed above. Having said that, I’m not sure that I would want to take it ‘into the field’; it’s not particularly portable and it’s too handsome a volume to get wet and muddy. Perhaps the paperback, scheduled for the autumn, will be more suitable for this purpose?
Should you buy it? Well, if you only want one book, and you’ve already got, ‘Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland’ by Marjorie Blamey, Richard Fitter and Alastair Fitter, A&C Black, 2003, and are happy with that, you probably don’t need it. But if you want the very latest, super-dooper, all-singing-all-dancing plant manual, with all the trimmings (and I so desperately needed it!) you will just have to ‘shell out’ 30 quid for it (luckily I had saved a Christmas book token – ha!) ... or wait for the paperback, of course.

Dave Bishop, May 2009.

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