Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of the Western Mediterranean  

There can be no disputing that the western Mediterranean is one of the most desirable travel locations in the world. Pick a country and tourism is likely to be one of the biggest drivers of its economic engine. But a hidden wonder awaits, if only people would budge from their sun-drenched beaches, boats, cafes, shopping and museums. Though the countryside is one of the most human-impacted on earth, it retains an incredibly rich and diverse flora with many plants that can be found nowhere else.

Plumbing the depths of this treasure trove is a task that requires help and guidance. Once past the “plants as backdrop” stage, the naming of its members takes on an addictive appeal. Chris Thorogood’s Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of the Western Mediterranean (Kew Publishing, 2016; 640pp;. ISBN 9781842466162; Hardback)  is calculated to give readers the best chance  identify plants they might encounter in the region.

The flora of Europe and northern Africa is vast, particularly so in the mediterranean climate belt surrounding the great sea. This is the first time that the phytogeographic region of the western mediterranean is covered.

Thorogood, quickly becoming a 21st century Oleg Polunin, published a Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of the Algarve with Simon Hiscock just two years ago, here splits his consideration of eastern and western Mediterranean based on climate (which in this volume is the classic hot, dry summer/cool, wet winter we think of as “the” Mediterranean climate) and hints that a separate guide should be published for the East.

Certain classes of plants are separated from consideration here to help make the job manageable. Alpines, the flora of Macaronesia, and the mountain and desert zones of northern Africa are left for another day and other books. As it is the book covers 2400+ of the species you’re most likely to encounter—along with a tantalizing sprinkling of endemics and local rarities to keep you life-listing past your first trip to the area.

The book is a visual treat with over 1400 record photographs taken in situ and in excess of 880 line drawings to emphasis details helpful to identification in the field. This makes it a treat for the old-school, morphologically-minded amongst us, but a big nod is given to the growing importance of genetic analysis in the classification of plants as the entire volume is laid out in accordance with relationships established by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group (which published its fourth major iteration just this month in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society). Taxonomy is a moving target and readers may, consequently, encounter names with which they are unfamiliar. Including synonyms helps tie up any loose ends that may otherwise frustrate.

The bulk of the book, as is to be expected, is made up of species accounts. These are consistent with Thorogood’s prior work, and will be familiar to anyone who has experience with well done field guides. Accounts include native plants and exotics that have naturalized (e.g. the genus Agave and members of the Cactaceae family, which are seen across the region and thought by many to be native).

Don’t just flip to this section and put the book on the shelf or in a rucksack (though it’s a hefty book to put on your back!). The first 40 or so pages are packed with useful information to read before you strap on your boots. Thorogood does an wonderful job of clearly explaining classification and identification of plants, geography—pointing out great places to see wildflowers (your bucket list is going to grow…), and explaining wild flower habitats, including agricultural and disturbed lands.

No field guide is complete or perfect. Some will complain that Thorogood omits keys. His introductory pages, however, include many notate bene. This is clearly done to establish expectations, to tell readers what the book is and what it isn’t; what it contains, and what it leaves out. It’s another reason that it’s important to read these pages. On the issue of dichotomous keys for identifying plants he notes that for most people they are too much information, difficult for non-botanists to use properly and can lead to confusion.

The author is unapologetic about his extensive section on the Orobanchaceae, where you will find many species seen only in the most local floras. It is a treat, as his PhD had the biology of parasitic plants as its subject and he knows this material as well as anyone. As an aside, the family contains some of the most beautiful flowering plants you’ve never seen.

Thorogood’s guide is rigorous and easy to use. Not just a field guide, the book will appeal to gardeners—and not just those in Mediterranean climates. It may surprise readers to see both common and uncommon species that tolerate more temperate continental climate like that of the US northeast (e.g. the Helicodiceros about to bloom in my NJ garden hails from Sardinia and Corsica, yet has persisted here for years). I’ll leave it to you to find your favorites.

There are many field guides to the wild flowers of the Mediterranean. Most cover such a wide area with vastly different climates that they cannot hope to match the breadth of Field Guide to the Wild Flowers of the Western Mediterranean. One can only hope that the whisper of a similar work for the eastern region will be brought to fruition.

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