What is a Field Guide?

A plant field guide is a book or other document or device designed:

  • Primarily for identifying plants in the field. For tropical forest trees this will often imply that the guide can be used even when flowers and fruits are not available. Details of leaves are almost always essential for identifying green plants in the field. A means of identification is needed, even if this is simply flicking through pictures until a look-alike is found.
  • Secondarily, field guides may include useful or interesting information about those plants which is not essential for identification. This is as incidental to field guide as the type of passengers would be to a definition of 'car'.
  • Field guides may also be designed identifying plants from specimens (often sterile) collected for later analysis during or after your field work or inventory, but there should be a bias towards identification using field characters.
  • There are many types of field guide, but most are designed to be usable by the general public with limited practice, or by foresters and others without special botanical skills. More specialised guides still focus on highlighting the types of features visible at all times on the plants in question, not requiring detailed dissections, high powered microscopes or non-portable equipment.

What a Field Guide is not

  • Monographs, Check-lists or Floras are types of botanical publication which we are excluding from our definition. Scientific names are normally published for the first time in journals, and these names are summarised for a given area in check-lists and Floras; or for a limited taxonomic group of plants in a monograph. It is possible that a journal - a periodical publication with articles on various subjects - might include a small field guide, but normally field guides are stand-alone publications.
  • Floras and monographs are mostly based on flowers and fruits, and are full of technical information appropriate for use by botanists in herbaria. It is usually not possible to name a plant in a tropical forest with these books because most plants are without flowers and fruits for most of the time. Floras and monographs are, however, essential for naming herbarium specimens that have been formally collected with flowers or fruits and are therefore crucial to our cataloguing of the world's biodiversity.
  • Other types of plant reference books, even if designed for field use, may not qualify. A book that tells you something about plants - "Practical fruit tree management", for instance - but assumes you know the name first as a means of getting to the details, is not in our definition likely to qualify as a field guide, unless there is information about the appearance of the plant adequate to confirm the correctness of the name.