Monday, December 5, 2011

Book Review- Great Books! Botany in a Day and Shanleya's Quest

I love foraging. I love going outside, seeing all the greenery growing, learning what foods are edible, and then picking and feeding them to my family.

I've officially found one foraging book that covers local plants. All other foraging books I've seen cover plants in England or in different regions in North America, which doesn't really help me identify most plants that are local to me.
The one foraging book I have describes approximately 15 different local wild edibles, but that wasn't enough for me, because I know there's more than that available to spot, pick, and eat here.

My Foraging Issue
I wanted to be able to identify the different plants here, just by taking a look at them. I didn't want to try to find those 15 plants among all the others that grow here- I wanted to find out the names of all the plants that grow here, and from there, break them down into different categories- edible, medicinal, inedible, and poisonous, and to break down the edible category into edible and tasty and edible and icky tasting.
But I was finding it incredibly hard.

I'd see a plant, and then didn't even know where to start looking for information on how to identify it!

What I'd be do was take walks with the kids, snap photographs of every plant I came across that I didn't recognize, post them on facebook, and hope that someone among my foraging and plant loving friends would be able to identify them.
It worked.
But not for many other plants.
And it was dreadfully annoying!
I wanted to be able to figure out on my own what these plants were, and not just be told by someone who recognized it.
But unless I wanted to flip through my 500 page tome of local plants that I got from my mom, to try to spot a match in a book with only drawings but no photographs, making it harder to identify just based on that, I had no way of knowing even where to start identifying these plants.
Quite frustrating for a wannabe forager.

And then I got an email from a man named Thomas Elpel, who wanted me to review two of the books that he wrote.
What were his books called? "Botany in a Day" and "Shanleya's Quest".
"Botany in a Day" is a book that helps you learn to identify most plants out there, without having to study every single one individually. How's this? The book breaks the various plants out there into different families and helps you learn how to identify plants based on the patterns found in each family. "Shanleya's Quest" is a children's book designed to help kids learn the same basic ideas.

I gladly agreed to review these books and was excited to receive my free copies in the mail!

So, what did I think of the books?

"Botany in a Day" Review
Well, "Botany in a Day" was the solution to my foraging/plant identification issue.

Why is that?
Because the book taught me very quickly and easily how to figure out what family each plant I spot is in, and from there, helps me break it down further to know which species it is exactly, and even if it doesn't list that specific species, it helps me know where to look for further information to identify the plant.
Now instead of trying to guess what plant of all the plants in in the whole wide world this specific plant is, I only need to search within a specific family and subdivision, which makes my search a lot easier!
"Botany in a Day" is written in very simple language, with very clear precise information that even the novice botanist can understand. I've never learned botany in school or anywhere else; this book helped me learn the names of different plant parts, how to understand what the different classifications of plants were about, and what common features all plants in a certain family have.

The book has something in it that reminds me of those "Choose your own adventure" books. Only, this is a "choose your own plant identification guide."
What do I mean?
Well, suppose you come across a plant, and you want to identify it. First, using the techniques given, you narrow down whether it is a dicot or monocot (the book explains well how to know this). Then, you go to the page that talks about that subdivision, and then look at the different options- tree/shrub or herb? Within the tree/shrub category, you see "Does it have leaves like this and positioned like this? Are the flowers like this?" If so, go to page X for more info. Within the herb category, its broken down into further categories, like "Does it have colored flowers or green flowers?" or "How many petals does it have?" etc...
Basically, it gives you clues to narrow down which family, species, or genus you've found, and then tells you which page to look at for more information.
I found this to be invaluable!
No more flipping through 500 pages to try to get a match! This book directs me to the exact page that I want!

Then there is the section of the book that talks about the different features all plants in certain families have. Using that information, I've been able to identify quite a few of the local plants that before, I had no clue where to even start on the identification process.

The intro to the book is very heavy with evolution related material, because the plant classifications are easily understood via looking at the evolutionary background, but I know that I have quite a few "young earth theory" and "non evolution believers" who read my blog, so if this is a concern for you, this book talks a lot about evolution in the first part. But hey, I doubt you'd find very many botany books that don't talk about evolution, and if you don't like something, just skim it or skip it- even without that information, this book is still very useful.

My one criticism of the book is tied in with other positive aspects of the book. Within each class, subclass, and order of plants as the book is divided, there are specific pages for each family and subfamily of plants, with drawings of different plants in that category as well as specific species listed. This is really terrific, and there is some really great information written about different species, like which are poisonous, which are medicinal, which have other wild crafting uses, and which are edible.
My one (rather important) issue with this is that I have noticed a few places where the book says all plants of a certain type are edible, but my own research has shown me that they're not. Juniper is one example. The book says juniper berries are edible, but my research has shown that only certain types of juniper berries are edible and others are poisonous or inedible.
So, word of caution- this book is great to identify plants and figure out what plant you're looking for, and even to get a general idea if it a plant is edible or not, but please, before eating any plant mentioned in the book as edible, please research to make sure that this is, in fact, true.

Shanleya's Quest Review
"Shanleya's Quest" is written for kids ages 9-99, and I thought my 4.5 year old might be old enough to appreciate it, but I have to say, although he's a bright kid, I think the contents of the book flew over his head entirely.

"Shanleya's Quest" is a story about a little girl on a mission from her grandfather to go to different islands to pick plants for her family to eat and use medicinally, and she travels to different islands, each representing a different family of plants, and on each island, she learns about the different families of plants and how to identify them. I thought it was explained very well on a level that even younger children could understand, and the pictures were great and fun and illustrative!
I especially loved the anthropomorphism in the book, with the friendly Mint King, and the sly and dangerous Parsley King, which helps you identify with the "friendliness" of the mint family, and the danger involved in trying to harvest things in the parsley family.
Its a great way to teach even young kids how to identify the common patterns found in these different plant families.

My one issue with it is that the book starts off with a creation myth... and I felt funny reading a creation myth that went contrary to what I believed in/agreed with to my young child. I ended up skipping the first few pages because of this, and the last few pages, when reading it to my kids. Other people who may have no such inhibitions should have no problem at all with this book.

I have shelved this book and plan on taking it out to review with my kids when they're a bit older; right now, as I mentioned, it's a little above their heads, but I assume in a year or two, my oldest will be able to understand it and apply the concepts written in the book.

Together with the books, I actually got a bonus- a card game based on Shanleya's Quest! At first, I had no clue what this game was or why it was sent to me... but yesterday I took a good look at it and I got so excited by all the possibilities involved.
The game is a deck of cards, only instead of numbers and suits, this deck has a bunch of pictures of plants in specific families as well as a descriptive card with the characteristics of each of the families written on it.

The description of each family is very clear and simple, and the photographs are stunning. With this deck, there are many games you can play, among them "memory", where you need to match different cards from the same family, or snap, where if two cards from the same family appear in a row you slap the pile and get all the cards in the pile, with the goal to get as many as possible. It wasn't listed, but I'm sure you could even play a "Go Fish" type game with this deck.

Again, my kids are a bit too young for this, but I plan on playing this game with my husband, who also things it is a terrific game. For the record, until I showed my husband the game, he had no clue about how to identify plant families, but after looking at the cards for only a few minutes, he now understands how to identify the different plants in these various families. This game makes learning very quick!

So, what do I think of these 3 products I was asked to review?

Botany in a Day- Buy it! It makes a terrific addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in foraging, as it'll help you identify plants that perhaps haven't made it into your foraging books. Just don't use it as the final word as to whether or not a plant is edible.
Shenlaya's Quest- Great book! Buy it if you would like, as long as you don't mind creation myth stories or don't mind skipping over it! Its a fun, educational read!
Shelaya's Quest- The Game- Beautiful game, guaranteed to teach you lots while having fun!

My one biggest issue with this lot- that these books were written with North America in mind, and as such, doesn't cover every single last species where I live, but it certainly comes close! It almost makes me wish I was living back in the US so I could take full advantage of these books!

Are you a forager? Have you ever discovered a plant that wasn't in your book but you wanted to identify? How did you learn to identify those plants, or did you just leave them unidentified? 
Do you think these books (and specifically "Botany in a Day") would be beneficial to you?
And just out of curiosity- are you one of my readers who doesn't believe in evolution/is a "Young Earth" theorist? Would the evolution part of the book bother you, or would it not even register in your mind as an issue?
How about creation myths in a children's book that go contrary to your belief system?

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1 comment:

  1. The creation myth/evolutionary viewpoint of these books is what holds me back from purchasing them, otherwise they sound great!


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