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When we pick up a field guide, we make a lot of assumptions about its accuracy and take for granted it will tell us what we want to know. Even field guides we have never seen before seem familiar because they have that format we’ve come to expect — species names supported by descriptive text, backed up by an image confirming the accuracy of our observation.

Field guides are important tools and now that some come in e-book format, they are even easier to carry into the field.

Historians do not consider field guides to be scholarly texts, so the study of natural history books as identification tools has not been an area of special focus (Scharf, 2009). This makes Identification Keys, the “Natural Method,” and the Development of Plant Identification Manuals by Sara T. Scharf a particularly valuable reference.

It is easy to imagine modern botanical field guides evolving from early herbals, but according to Scharf (2009), herbals did not influence the development of field guides as much as the simpler, sparsely illustrated texts of the 18th century. These early texts lacked the visual appeal of herbals because botanists did not have money to hire illustrators (Scharf, 2009). Images created with woodcuts were too crude for botanists to use and copperplate engravings were too expensive, so Scharf (2009) says botanists had to make a choice — create illustrated books only the wealthy could afford or create instructional books in large quantities for amateurs and students and sell them at an affordable price. Botanists chose to create books for a general audience. What made these books predecessors to modern field guides was how they were organized.

Today we have the luxury of having botanists sort out a way for us to think about plants. But in the 18th century, the same level of organization did not exist. Plants were being discovered and described at a rapid pace and there were conflicting views about how plants should be organized (Scharf, 2009). Should they be organized in a “natural” way by grouping similar plants together or should an “artificial” organization be created by sorting specimens in some other way? Scharf (2009) tells interesting stories about several 18th-century botanists and the identification schemes they created. While these botanists made significant contributions to the field of botany, it was teachers in post-Revolutionary France who created the format of the modern field guide (Scharf, 2009). After the Revolution, botany became a required subject in school and teachers had to sort through existing identification systems to figure out how to satisfy this new requirement and how to teach botany to students who did not know Latin and whose lives had been interrupted by a revolution (Scharf, 2009). Seeing the flaws in each identification system, some teachers took it upon themselves to create books composed of a combination of systems that would be easy for students to use (Scharf, 2009). Their mixing of a dichotomous key (“artificial” system) with a broad grouping of similar plants (“natural” system) and an alphabetical index so users could look things up, laid the groundwork for the field guides we use today (Scharf, 2009).

The French were the first to create field guides for plants, with the first guide being created in 1803 by Canon Francois-Noel-Alexandre Dubois (Scharf, 2009). English botanists did not use field guides for another 20 years (Scharf, 2009). They were faithful to Linnaeus’ classification system and did not combine systems until after the death of Sir James Edward Smith, the President of the Linnaean Society in London and a staunch advocate for Linnaeus’ system (Scharf, 2009). It wasn’t until botanist John Lindley created introductory botany texts for his students that a “field guide” was written in English; they were normally written in Latin (Scharf, 2009). Lindley wrote his chapter about plant systematics using the format of French field guides and included a plant key, a section about plants arranged in the natural method, and an alphabetical index (Scharf, 2009).

To learn much more about the classification systems of 18th-century botanists, how each botanist contributed to the format of modern field guides, and how botanical field guides influenced guides to animals, obtain a copy of Identification Keys, the “Natural Method,” and the Development of Plant Identification Manuals at your local college library or purchase this paper online from the publisher ($34.95).

Literature Cited

Scharf, Sara T. 2009. Identification keys, the “natural method,” and the development of plant identification manuals. Journal of the History of Biology.
42: 73-117

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