Best Plant ID Books for Albertans
(…& the rest of you folks in the Aspen Parkland/Boreal Forests)
One of the biggest questions I see come up in herbal circles in the west, and particularly in the Wild Rose Herbal Village, is “What is a good Plant ID guide for Alberta?”
Having grown up in Alberta and spent a fair amount of time there as an adult Herbalist, one thing I can tell you is this is a question I can answer 10 times over. Whenever I go out exploring the plants around me-especially on extended road trips– I don’t leave home without a field guide of some sort. Yes, 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 and I don’t go around (or recommend) pulling up plants you are not familiar with to take home.
And yes, it’s 2020 and I’m aware that there are apps for that. Call me old school…but apps? I’d like to rely on and hone my observational skills as an herbalist thanks. What’s the point otherwise? While apps may be one tool in your Plant ID Toolbelt, one can’t trust an app to identify a plant you hope to learn, ingest, and possibly give to others.
So what is one who is highly impatient (and also forgoing App Plant ID technology) to do?? ….
Well, she gets herself some solid plant ID books, that’s what.
Here is a list of some of my most well employed Plant ID books or field guides specific to Alberta & even more 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. Many of these will cross over into other prairie provinces like Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as further up north in many provinces.
“I always like to remind people that there are Field Guides/Plant ID books & there are Herbals and they are typically 2 separate things.”
-Dionne Jennings, Community Herbalist
Field Guides VS. 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 (but typically have illustrations or some identifying features).
Herbals are dedicated to the plants actions in the body, their therapeutic usage, medicine making, dosages, & contain a more in-depth materia medica.
Field guides are dedicated to correctly identifying plants. Meaning: is this edible? Is this toxic? Or simply: what is this plant?
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 practising Herbalist (or retired practising herbalist) like Terry Willard or Robert Rogers (2 experienced herbal elders in our community). Basically you want to trust the integrity of the source of info- you are looking for 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).
Below I’ve listed the Plant ID books 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….)
Bear in mind that there is a variety of Bio-regions in Alberta. Many of these books are 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!
Here we go–read on!
Field Guides…and Herbals
Herbs of Edmonton’s River Valley, Volumes 1 & 2
Robert Rogers, AHG
Pros: Super specific to Edmonton if that’s where you happen to live and play. The River Valley & urban green spaces is most likely where city folk will have plant encounters-there is 7,400 hectares of parkland adjacent to the North Saskatchewan River. And many of of these plants can be found throughout the province. And the pictures are big. (No, they’re huge!) No squinting here.
Also Robert provides method of preparation & tincturing ratios for those of you who are planning on making medicine with the plants around you.
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.
Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains
Terry Willard Ph.D.
Pros: A field guide that is written by a practising herbalist. Yes, Dr. Terry Willard PhD founded & taught at Wild Rose College for over 35 years, as well as having a clinical practice in that time. So safe to say we can trust the medicinal uses in this one!
I also like that there are both photos & illustrations of the plants featured. There is also a stellar introduction penned by the late, great herbalist Michael Moore.
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: Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Rockies
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’ve heard rumours it’s coming back in print though-ask google!
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 Alberta Herb Club or Edmonton Herb Club.
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!).
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 Alberta 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.
The Standing People: Field Guide of Medicinal Plants for the Prairie Provinces
I happened to pick 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 field guide that she compiled.
Pros: This has several great photos of each plant/shrub in different stages & seasons, so makes it much easier to identify 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 with her medicinal uses. 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 is actually 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.
A Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants of Canada ( & The Boreal Herbal)
Although not technically a field guide, Beverly compiled a great Canadian 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.
Pros: The Boreal Herbal is an excellent 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. She features a lot of recipes and medicine making techniques with local plants as well.
Learning The Plants Around You
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. It’s imperative to know the plants you are working with.
“I also recommend joining local herb walks by knowledgeable herbalists in your area and nature clubs to start learning things from people who know their plants.”
And nothing replaces the value of just observing, observing (& did I say observing?) plants–in all places and in all seasons. And while you’re out there observing, tuck a field guide into your back pocket!
Dionne Jennings, Community Herbalist
Marketing & Outreach Coordinator, Wild Rose College