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Flora Britannica: The Definitive New Guide to Wildflowers, Plants and Trees

Flora Britannica: The Definitive New Guide to Wildflowers, Plants and Trees
Richard Mabey
London: Chatto & Windus
Publication Date: 

cloth, 480 p., $55

Noted nature writer Richard Mabey has already received wide acclaim and several major awards for this book. Its glossy pages are well researched and written and feature 500 superb photos of Britain's herbaceous and woody plants and landscapes, and of cultural scenes showing people-plant connections through custom, ritual and festival. Several historical illustrations complement the photos.

One thousand species are treated, with excellent information about habitat, general distribution and regional location. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book and its unique contribution is tracing the history in Britain of most plants featured: their origins, usage — medicinal or culinary — and symbolic or cultural significance. Much of the multifaceted history of plants is suggested by their revealing common names, many of which are provided. Some plants have as many as 100 common names.

All this information results from the author's careful historical research. But more importantly, Mr. Mabey also incorporates input from a wide cross-section of the public who were solicited through the media during this five-year writing project to contribute local and personal anecdotal information (folklore) and observations about plants. He sought to learn whether plants still play a vital part in British culture or whether they, by and large, are merely of historical significance. What he discovered was the sustained importance of plants in culture and place, in the lives and memories of people, and he concludes that "Britain still has a lively popular culture of plants." He also notes that this fact has strong implications for conservation.

American botanists and native plant enthusiasts will be interested in the indigenous flora and the history of plant introductions to Britain, many of them dating back to Roman times. Americans tend to be smug about the persistence of virtually the full complement of native flora in the "New World" and often think nothing "native" remains in Europe because of the millennia of agriculture, grazing, urbanization and other human uses of the landscape. However, responding to a strong interest in Britain in the original flora and the origins of plants, Mr. Mabey presents a landscape in which many native plants (either endemic or colonized by natural means) persist. He relates the historical origin of most of the introduced species.

While recognizing that the author's intent is primarily a cultural one, and not wishing to minimize its valuable contribution, it must be noted that there are some gaps. The problem is not so much in what the book does so well, but in what it leaves out.

For example, the title is misleading for several reasons, and the reader wishes for one less comprehensive but more accurate. The book is not a true "flora" — a comprehensive taxonomic treatment, with identification keys, of the native and naturalized flora of a region. Mr. Mabey does reference other established and recent floras of the British Isles, which he clearly did not intend to duplicate: Flora of the British Isles, third edition ( Clapham, Tutin and Moore, 1987) and New Flora of the British Isles, second edition (Stace, 1997).

Nor is the book a true "guide" — its size prevents its being used in the field. It is rather a coffee table book for leisure reading about an array of fascinating plant information. It lacks the comprehensiveness of a definitive guide. Nowhere is there a separate, complete list of plants, although it is standard to provide a list of both scientific and common names. There are more than 4,600 species in Great Britain, which includes England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (Stace, 1997). Mabey includes only 1,000 species in this book, limited to England, Scotland and Wales. This selection of plants was largely based on whether they figured in local culture and on what was submitted by the public. Even with the species treated, there is a lack of thoroughness. Few descriptions are given in enough detail to assist in identification, and descriptions are often lacking altogether. For some plants, such as the major tree genera, the information provided is extensive. For others, merely a brief paragraph or simply a listing as a related species within a genus is given.

The book's organization is not clear, and there is no discussion of how the book is arranged. Plants are treated in groups by families, but not in any apparent order. The reader learns more about the history of the book and its intent from the disposable dust jacket than from the author's introduction: the number of species treated, the process of writing and the solicitation of public input through the media.

Many of the fine photos (by Bob Gibbons and Gareth Lovett Jones) are lovely impressionistic views of plants growing in characteristic landscapes rather than images to help in identification, as expected in a guide. Fewer than one-third of the photos show the entire plant closely enough to make out the form or habit and the leaf shape. Examples of photos that do capture the plant for close-up identification and also are beautiful images are Spanish bluebell (p. 416) and yellow star of Bethlehem (p. 402). Many species are not even shown in photos, and there is usually little textual description to help distinguish them from others in the same genera. Further, the captions chiefly refer to common names, but since plants often have multiple common names, the scientific name in parenthesis would have been helpful. It is necessary to search the text to find the precise plant.

Despite these limitations, the reader will still find the book fascinating, informative and well worth perusing before or after a botanic excursion.

— Susanne Masi, Research Botanist, Chicago Botanic Garden.


A.R. Clapham, T. G. Tutin and D.M. Moore, 1987. Flora of the British Isles. Third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

C.A. Stace, 1997. New Flora of the British Isles. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.