Hey, Plant Lovers!
‘Tis the season to get out in the field!
Summer is the season for outdoors-and the outdoors means time in nature, whether it’s road trips, day hikes, gardening, camping, or time by the lake! And what better way to spend time in nature than to observe our local plants?
Whenever I go on an extended road trip I don’t leave home without a field guide of some sort. Sure, you can take pics of mystery plants & flowers & look them up when you get home, but I personally love to have the plant on hand to really scrutinize their taxonomic nuances.
Plus, I’m impatient…. 🙂
So here is a list of some of my most well employed Plant ID books or field guides specific to Alberta & specifically to the Greater Edmonton area, which is largely Aspen Parkland, getting into Boreal territory in some spots to the north/east, depending on your proximity to the city.
I always like to remind people that there are Field Guides/Plant ID books & there are Herbals.
Herbals, or herb books, are dedicated to medicinal use of plants written by people who have studied & use herbs. They often aren’t dedicated to identifying the plant & are dedicated to the plants actions in the body, their therapeutic usage, medicine making, & contain a more in-depth materia medica.
Field guides are dedicated to correctly identifying plants (ie-is this edible? Is this toxic? Or straight up: what is this??)
Field Guides & Herbals are not necessarily one & the same. So I generally tend to take medicinal uses listed in plant ID books with a grain of salt & reference the plant use by an actual practicing Herbalist (or retired practicing herbalist) like Robert Rogers or Terry Willard (2 experienced herbal elders in our community). Basically you want to trust the integrity of the source of info- any knowledgeable herbalist who works with the plants & isn’t just regurgitating information from another source (we see so much of this in the copy/paste format of the internet!) will do.
Below I’ve listed the ones that I tend to reference the most. The list is by no means conclusive-there may be others that I just don’t have in my possession that are perfectly useful also (There is always another book to acquire it seems….).I will likely amend & update over time.
Bear in mind that there is a variety of Bio-regions in AB-and these books are mostly specific to what’s in & around the Greater Edmonton area. The plants you find in the South or in the mountains can cross over but there are many differences, hence often the need for multiple ID books. This is still a great place to start-find one or two and you will be on your way!
I’ve also listed a few “Pros & Cons” of their usage as far as what I like or feel is missing as this may be helpful if these volumes are new to you. There are some affiliate links to most books listed here (if available on-line-just click on the book title/headline). So grab one, get out there & enjoy!
Herbs of Edmonton’s River Valley, Volumes 1 & 2
Robert Rogers, AHG
Pros: Super specific to Edmonton. The River Valley & urban green spaces is most likely where us city folk will have plant encounters in the city-we have 7,400 hectares of parkland adjacent to the North Saskatchewan River. And the pictures are big. (No, huge!) No squinting here.
Also Robert provides method of preparation & tincturing ratios for those of you who are planning on making medicine.
Cons: Not really a con– but like most ID books, only one colour photo of the plant is provided, so if you are looking at a berry when the berry is not in season, or a pic of something in flower & you are seeing the plant/tree/shrub when it’s not in flower, you may have to cross reference it in another book or internet search.
You can often pick these up directly from Robert at speaking engagements & herb gatherings, & certain local natural food stores & bookstores.
France Royer & Richard Dickinson
From as far as I can tell, this is the one that “replaced” Plants of the Western Forest: Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba Boreal & Aspen Parkland. (I love this one but it seems to be out of print, & I just haven’t ponied up to order it used on-oine-because sometimes half the find of acquiring a book is the hunt! )
I love Plants of Alberta a lot. It’s another one on my list of “if I could only bring one”. Here’s why!
Pros: Like a proper, well researched & organized Lone Pine publication, it’s organized according to what you are looking for. Meaning: Trees, Shrubs, Woody Vines, Wildflowers, Aquatic Plants, Ferns, & Grasses & Grass-like plants. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. It also has great photos & sometimes includes illustrations. My fave is the mini Alberta map with a highlighted area indicating where in the province you can find it.
Cons: No real cons, but as it’s got such great close up photos of flowers in bloom, you may not get enough foliage to identify the plant when it’s not. (Common in field guides). So you may need to cross reference or throw up that pic in one of our great Facebook groups to see who may know it, such as the Edmonton Herb Club.
Trees & Shrubs of Alberta
Pros: Well, this one is obvious–it’s specific to Trees & Shrubs. So if that is what you are after, you don’t have to wade through all the other stuff to get to what you are looking for.
I also like that there’s little symbols on each page for the region of the province in which you will find it-as well as the mini map of AB visually indicating where that might be.
Cons: Haven’t really noticed any yet! Once again, I would refer to an Herbal to make sure you are getting accurate medicinal info to be safe.
Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains
Terry Willard Ph.D.
Pros: A field guide that is written by a herbalist who founded & taught at Wild Rose College for over 30 years, as well as having a clinical practice. So I trust the medicinal uses in this one!
(Also a stellar introduction penned by the late, great herbalist Michael Moore.) I also like that there are both photos & illustrations.
Cons: There aren’t always colour photos of each plant or tree listed, so sometimes you may need to cross reference in another book.
You can still pick this one up from Harmonic Arts. Not to be confused with this Field Guide which is also a great resource for: Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies
Neil L. Jennings
I like this book a lot for quick flower IDs-if I had to pick one to take on a hike this would probably be it as it’s simple to use, lightweight & not a back-breaker. (Also, Full Disclosure: Neil is no relation to me-so no bias there. Lol).
Pros: The book is actually organized according to flower *colour* (cue angels singing!).
This means: found a pink flower? Look in the pink section. You don’t need to know anything about the plant-whether it’s in the Rose family or orchid family or anything. So it’s a great starter book & a quick reference for ID’ ing your flowers quickly.
Cons: As the focus is the flowers (and note that it’s often when in bloom that one can definitively ID most plants) there isn’t much in the way of foliage in the photos if you are using that to double check your ID. So I would cross reference it in another reference book to make certain if you plan to harvest them to ingest in any way.
As it’s a field guide & not an herbal, remember to do more research on medicinal uses (if you don’t already know them!).
The Standing People: Field Guide of Medicinal Plants for the Prairie Provinces
I just picked up this little gem at a local garage sale-I’ve heard of Kahlee Keane but our paths have never crossed & I had never seen this lovely filed guide that she compiled.
Pros: This has several great photos of each plant/shrub in different stages & seasons, so makes it much easier to identirfy what’s in front of you. And remember how we talked about the difference between a field guide & an herbal? This one is definitely a bit of both. It’s not a materia medica, but this lady works with herbs, so I feel much more comfortable that you It also has a handy glossary as well as lists references in the back.
Cons: As it is organized by plant family, it’s not as quick to find things by common name as they are not listed alphabetically if you were flipping through. But not to fear! It’s indexed at the back. Swoon. The only REAL con here may be that it is out of print! So keep an eye out at used book stores, thrift stores, garages sales, and good ol’ used book sellers on Amazon.
Although not technically a filed guide, Beverly compiled a great “local” herbal titled The Boreal Herbal that I refer to a lot (& recommend a lot!). But she’s also created a handy pocket ID guide if you don’t want to drag a bunch of books in your backpack when out on a day hike. I wish I had a photo of that one for you-but you can find it here.
Pros: This is a great book for those of us in the North. It is dedicated to the Boreal landscape, but this does cross over to many of us further south still. You can bring the smaller laminated laminated field guide with you that’s a bit more pocket friendly.
Cons: Although more of an Herbal than a field guide, (hence too large really to carry in a day pack) it’s still a great reference to use once you’ve got back home, & cuddle up with it & a nice cuppa tea.
So there you go- a great start to getting your Plant ID on, which we want to be certain of before we start harvesting, eating or doing any medicinal preparations in any way. I also recommend joining local nature clubs & attending herb walks to start learning things from people who know their plants.
And nothing replaces the value of just observing, observing, & observing plants-in all places & in all seasons. And while you’re out there observing, tuck a field guide into your back pocket!
your YEG Community Herbalist