How to identify British Wild Flowers?


I finally (late August 2015) purchased a second-hand copy (in good condition, though a useful saving for someone like me on a tight budget) of Stace's 'NEW FLORA OF THE BRITISH ISLES' (Second Edition, published in 1997) - which is, apparently THE flora which should be used nowadays.

Well, my FIRST impressions are that whilst it unquestionably has excellent ADDITIONAL information in the form of ILLUSTRATIONS (a combination of line drawings plus black and white photos and photocopies) which are invaluable plus is much more up-to-date in terms of nomenclature and taxonomic revisions since the 'FLORA OF THE BRITISH ISLES' (1962) that I am accustomed to, I have major reservations. It claims to be USER-FRIENDLY but being 'different' to what I am used to, this will take time for me to adjust to. What concerns me is that there as been a major REDUCTION in information provided, in the form of VERY abbreviated general descriptions of each species.  I find the RELIANCE on keys disturbing - as I feel many people will NOT check or now be able to check so effectively if what they THINK they have identified has been is CORRECT.  I strongly prefer and advocate more 'supporting evidence' by covering more characteristics for each species plus greater habitat/ecological details, rather than JUST the supposedly 'diagnostic' ones.  It take many years, if not DECADES for us to familiarise ourselves with what written descriptions of plants actually mean. All too easy for the less experienced to misidentify a plant as a result.

 I regularly encounter people misusing/misunderstanding how to use keys, seemingly unaware of their STRICT LIMITATIONS.  Nowadays, people too often BLINDLY use keys ONLY, immediately CONVINCED at the result they arrive at using the keys.  Keys ALWAYS need considerable experience and expertise to use well.  I remain convinced that it is VERY difficult to come up with good keys - plants are variable and it is a challenge to put into words/simplify/encapsulate differences between species.  I use keys AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE and justifiably have minimal confidence in them.  They SHOULD only be viewed as one, of several tools and to be focussed on AT THE EXPENSE of other ways of checking identifications, such as detailed descriptions of all parts of the plants and its habitats, is a mistake.

My concern is that despite the CONSIDERABLE advances that the illustrations and up-to-date information bring, will Professor Stace's 'New' Flora of the British Isles result in the USERS identifying plants more RELIABLY?  Surely this is what matters.... At this stage, I am far from convinced that it will - no matter how scholarly the work undoubtedly is. TO ME, IT IS NOT THE NUMBER OF COPIES OF A BOOK THAT ARE SOLD WHICH MATTERS, NOR ITS REPUTATION OF CONTANING HIGH QUALITY, RELIABLE INFORMATION BUT HOW WELL IT IS USED, CERTAINLY THOSE WHICH ARE USED FOR IDENTIFYING PLANTS.


I have recently (Autumn 2015) purchased a copy of the above book, designed to allow one to identify British plants when not at the flowering or fruiting stage. This certainly SOUNDS an ADMIRABLE idea.  I must admit, unfortunately that initially, I am having CONSIDERABLE difficulty in getting "into" this book - it is SO different to what I am used to and requires close examination of actual specimens in the field (sometimes at a magnification beyond my modest hand lens) - in some cases my albeit good close-up photographs (which I take on a modest digital camera) are no use when I attempt to use the book back home.  I am unfamiliar with a good deal of the terminology used and from considerable personal experience, I find that descriptions in the botanical books and floras I have used for 40 years, are open to interpretation. One needs, at times to examine transverse sections and the number of vascular bundles (I STILL do not fully understand what I am looking for - perhaps a sad reflection on me or my botanical training)..... I do HOPE I will become a convert but I cannot escape the feeling that something important is missing and to be honest I am NOT comfortable, given how variable plants are, relying a single description/image of just a SINGLE leaf. I cannot help but wonder how experienced one needs to become using vegetative characteristics to be CERTAIN as to identification?

   At this point I suspect that widespread use of this 'Key' by INEXPERIENCED people may lead to GREATER LEVELS OF MISIDENTIFICATION than currently exist,  Especially, having now got a copy of Stace's 'NEW' Flora (see above) which is the 'current' British Flora to use to accompany this 'Key'.  Seems those "in the field" will have so little information to go on and not be accustomed to checking whether it makes sense as to the species they THINK they have identified - especially if they rarely take herbarium specimens or consult herbaria.  The back cover states that the 'Key' is an essential identification aid to ALL amateur and professional botanists, ecologists, gardeners, foresters and naturalists - yet MOST within the latter categories will have received little or no training in plant identification. Not that I ever did, despite study 'A' level Biology and taking a degree in Botany (specialising in plant taxonomy and plant ecology)!  I picked it up as I went along and learnt about herbaria (most people still don't know what these are for). One has to understand that publishers of books wish to maximise sales but I question the value of selling a book, if it is not subsequently used or the use contributes to more plants being misidentified.  Since 1984 I have lectured widely around the UK and abroad, being hosted on many occasions.  I get to see what botanical books are my hosts' shelves - cannot but judge that many are enthusiastically bought but seldom used.

I have met Eric Clement at his home in Hampshire, who has helped John Norton (who I got a place on the University of Southampton Expedition to Ladakh, 1980) a lot with his work on the 'Flora of Qatar'.  It turns out that John Poland, the main author of the above key, is also a biology graduate of Southampton University. Interesting that the University has produced a number of noteworthy naturalists!

For the time being 'The Vegetative Key to the British Flora' only has a 'supporting' role when I identify British plants and I am confident that my level of accuracy and reliability is amongst the best achieved - albeit that I do not specialise in any particular genera.  I do have considerable experience of dealing with inexperienced people attempting to identify plants both in Britain and the Himalaya.   It is not just a question of the quality of the content of a guide/flora/key that matters and I am sure both this 'Key' and Stace's 'New Flora' are of the highest standard BUT....   I have utilised Polunin & Stainton's 'Flowers of the Himalaya' more than anyone since its publication in 1984 and KNOW how poorly it is used......  The content is high quality, contaning only a very small number of mistakes yet it has NOT resulted in an improvement in the overall standard of identification of Himalayan plants - whether by foreign visitors who have undertaken treks or local botanists (both amateur and professional).



I have found the photographic guide above (first published in 1977) invaluable over many years - though recently, with my digital cameras allowing me to take images at greater magnification, I am finding some of the photographs do not show sufficient detail. Clearly, I am becoming spoilt by the macro facility today's digital lens have - akin to the detail revealed by using a x10 hand-lens in the past. But this guide was the best available at the time and still a potential short cut to naming.  I would FIRST consult this to see if I could 'match' the image with my photos or pressed specimens (I did not take this book into the field).  I would then CONFIRM the identification by checking with detailed botanical descriptions within the floras below.  Or if I could not get a match using this book, use the floras below.  I seldom have used the keys to families or even genera within these floras, as often knew which genera a specimen belonged to or had a good idea, which I could then, USUALLY, narrow down rapidly.  For those of us living in the UK, familiarising oneself with the GENERA and FAMILIES of flowering plants growing in the wild (and gardens) is a worthwhile exercise.

I also used the book above a good deal (first published in 1974) above by Fitter and Fitter, with its lovely illustrations by Marjorie Blamey. Neither this nor Phillips covers grasses, sedges or rushes.  I used Hubbard for grasses, a BSBI Guide for Sedges and floras for rushes.  We all have our favourite publications, which worked best for us.  In the UK we are spoilt in the number and range of books available covering wild flowers.  And the information is exceptional.  Britain has a relatively impoverished flora (in numerical terms) compared to many larger countries or regions and has more botanists professional and amateur (many of whom operate to professional standards) per square km than anywhere on earth.  It is easy to forget this when exploring for plants abroad.  I was surprised, on my early lecture tours to the USA in the early 1980s to discover some states still did not have a flora.  As for the Himalaya - such a vast and varied region which by comparison has been poorly studied.....

I have to admit to not using Keble Martin's book in the early decades of my efforts to identify British wild plants.  It was first published in 1965.  I bought a second-hand copy for a modest £2 just a few years years ago and initially only glanced at it but came across it last year and it proved useful and now I am regularly consulting it.  It adds something to my armoury of detective tools!  There is no single, PERFECT publication, as each has strengths and weaknesses but a combination work for me and whichever of the 'illustrated' works which help me narrow down the search in the quickest possible time, is an asset.

I have used this 'Excursion' flora a lot, as it was more up-to-date than the full flora below and would sometimes take it into the field - much to the consternation of any non-botanists accompanying me, as it has no pictures!  As I knew most of the genera of the plants I found, the abbreviated descriptions would usually be sufficient to distinguish between species - and act as an 'aide-memoire'.  I remember, after many years botanizing little in the UK, having to "switch off" from my 'Himalaya' mode of thinking, as I realised I was initially thinking what 'Himalayan' species I might be looking at, when I was in the UK!  As quite a number of genera are the same (especially in the cooler, drier Western regions) in both 'regions' this was all-to-easy to do.

I purchased the above flora during the FRESHERS WEEK of my first year at University in 1977 and to begin with was rather daunted by it.  Now I can use it easily and even, which given my first impressions, almost 40 years ago and limited knowledge back then; it seems odd nowadays to be able to spot a few omissions and see where improvements could be made.....

But the MOST important aspect of plant identification is to be able to RELIABLY name a plant.  Many people misidentify plants - whether in the wild or cultivated specimens growing in gardens.  Whilst it does not really matter if someone takes a Sunday afternoon stroll and THINKS they have seen this species or that species, when it may have been something else.  However, as soon as the information is published or recorded, in any way, it is VITAL that the names are correct.

For anyone botanising in Buckinghamshire (and bordering counties), the small publication below is invaluable to check your identifications.  IF what you THINK you have seen is common and known from the habitat your saw it growing in, then it probably is correct (though still not certain).  Whereas, if the species you THOUGHT you saw is rare or not known from the type of habitat it was growing in, it would be worth double-checking.  In this case, you PROBABLY mistook it for a common, similar species or genus.  It does not mean it is impossible for beginners to find 'rare' plants, just not very likely, unless, by chance you happen to come across the habitat they are restricted to. Crawley comments in his 'Flora of Berkshire' (2005) that "uncommon native wild plants are not found in the open countryside at all but are confined to a tiny handful of nature reserves and SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) - I imagine much the same applies to Buckinghamshire (though am not familiar enough with the county as a whole to judge with certainty). Most people only get to see such uncommon species let alone rarities by going searching for them in promising sites or joining a botanical outing arranged by a society to visit a special place, where these species are known to be found.

I highly recommend that anyone keen on learning more about the flora of Buckinghamshire (and bordering counties - my home in Langley now comes within Berkshire) should purchase a copy of the above check-list published by the Milton Keynes Natural History Society.  This provides an up-to-date listing in alphabetical order by genus and species of all flowering plants.  Common names are provided where they exist.  An indication of national and/or local significance, its status within the county and something of its distribution.  The list, compiled with great care, dedication, and professionalism is invaluable in checking the likely validity of your personal identifications.  If the species you believe you observed is a rarity locally, then it would be worth checking.  Further information about the Milton Keynes Natural History Society can be found at:

Copies of the booklet can be obtained from Summerfield Books:


Chris Chadwell is available to give a digital presentation WILD FLOWERS of IVER AND DISTRICT to any interested LOCAL group or society - in return for a lift from his home (he does not drive) plus a donation to a charity of his choice (this could be in the form of a collection afterwards), allowing smaller groups or those with limited funds, to afford to book him.

I have a copy of the above flora published in 1926.  The author travelled extensively through the county, resulting in an outstanding account.  He also published floras for Berkshire and         Oxfordshire.  It is fascinating to compare the distribution of species, a century apart. 

                         The entry for 'Himalayan Balsam' (IMPATIENS  GLANDULIFERA) is:                      

"Pink Balsam; Alien, India; Waste places; Rare, but likely to spread; records from Denham, Colne district in 1918 and Brickhill, Ouzel district, 1899".

      And to discover that 4 of the first 8 records for Buckinghamshire, published in Gerard's 'Herball'  of 1597, were from Iver: ANGELICA ARCHANGELICA; ARCTIUM MINUS, XANTHIUM STRUMARIUM and BERBERIS VULGARIS - most of them are rare nowadays.


My first ever check-list of flora was produced (the year after I graduated with a degree in Botany from the University of Southampton) for Astonbury Wood near Stevenage in Hertfordshire, managed by Herts & Middx. Trust for Nature Conservation and the Education Dept. of Herts Council. I made a herbarium collection of 127 specimens, which was held at the Field Centre.


As team-leader of surveys of riverside vegetation I was author the above report, on behalf of the Welsh Water Authority, University of Wales Institute of Science & Technology, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Otter Haven Project, Powys County Council and the then Nature Conservancy Council. The rational behind the river corridor surveys described in the report was to give interested bodies a simple but objective account of the conservation value of all the reaches of a particular water course within the context of it's catchment.  Although several disciplines were involved in the corridor surveys, the report only covered higher plants, bryophytes and the physical features and the inter-relationships.


Following on from the report I had written above, I was junior author of 'A PRACTICAL APPROCH TO THE EVALUATTION OF THE CONSERVATION STATUS OF VEGETATION IN RIVER CORRIDORS IN WALES' published some years later in BIOLOGICAL CONSERVATION.  The article was written by Dr Fred Slater, Director of the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, Field Centre at Newbridge-on-Wye, Powys, Wales, based upon the experiences of the teams surveying various rivers in Central Wales.


The year after publishing the original report, I presented a display on RIVER CORRIDOR VEGETATION OF THE UPPER WYE VALLEY - RIVERSIDE EVALUATION PROJECT at the annual Exhibition Meeting of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), held in the Department of Botany, British Museum (Natural History), London, on 26th November 1983.  An abstract was published within the REPORTS section of WATSONIA 15, 161-175 (1984).

In the same publication, pp. 125-143, within PLANT RECORDS, my 1982 field record for EUPHORBIA AMYDALOIDES at Stanner in Radnorshire, Wales, representing a first county record, was published. I had first come across this spurge at Astonbury Wood near Stevenage.



From April to September 1984 I was employed at Scientific Officer level to help with botanical surveys in Dyfed/Powys, in South Wales, Snowdonia and the Berwyn mountains - where I found the most southerly record for the 'The Cloudberry' (RUBUS CHAMAEMORUS) in the UK. 

The work involved visiting landowners/tenants to ask their permission for surveys, mapping wetland sites, standard upland surveys and other office/fieldwork.

See, I did have a 'proper' job for a short while!