Here are some books that have inspired me and have been useful again and again.
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Reading the Forested Landscape. Tom Wessels
There are some tricks I learned from this book that I use all the time. That many multi-trunked trees in a forest usually indicate prior logging. How to interpret stone walls. What a wolf tree is and how to interpret the presence of low branches in closed forests.
I think land use history is as important a determinant of present habitat as the classic abiotic factors: climate, geology, hydrology, etc. This book helps you to step into a woods and deduce its history. Fun to read, nicely illustrated, one of a kind.
Forest Ecosystems. Perry, Oren, and Hart.
A textbook but damn good. Repeatedly acknowledges the limits of our understanding while dishing out a very holistic and comprehensive treatment of forest ecology. If you need a fundamental foundation in the language and concerns of the field, I can't say anything would do better for you than this book
The Once and Future Forest. Leslie Jones Sauer
I read this book and by the time I finished it I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Can't recommend it much more highly than that. A manual for restoration practice in the Northeast by a brilliant practitioner.
A Guide to Native Plants of the New York City Region. Margaret B. Gargiullo
This book is not a field guide. It is a reference book of indigenous plant species and their suitability for ecological restoration design, with concise and relevant data about the tolerances of each species and their utility in a restorationist's palette.
The Tallgrass Prairie Restoration Handbook. Packard & Mutel
In many ways, the Midwest was the birthplace of modern ecological restoration, and the breadth and depth of practice among the prairie restorationists is a huge inspiration to me. This is a manual to the techniques and philosophies developed in that milieu, and is largely relevant to practice here in the Northeast as well.
The Once and Future Planet. Paddy Woodworth
I heard a great interview with the author on the In Defense of Plants podcast and decided to order his book. This will interest those involved in the ecological restoration world who want a global context for the practice and want to challenge their assumptions. Paddy Woodworth makes an honest assessment of the successes and failures of restoration projects from New Zealand to Costa Rica to Chicago, and grapples with emerging perspectives on novel ecosystems and involving local communities.
I wish this book was a little less sparing in its evocation of each place, and would have gladly sopped up extra detail about the plants and wildlife that motivate each restoration. But the strong suit here is on the human frame: the politics, the relationship between academics and practitioners, the difference between getting things done and communicating them effectively.
Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Douglas Tallamy
Tallamy is an entomologist who drew a line between native plants, invertebrates, and the rest of the food chain, and then became hugely influential by expressing it in wide-ranging, well-presented, and inspiring way. This is one of the best polemics for native plants around, and is also a great source of accessibly written information about our local ecology, the relationships that underpin it, and how we humans can support those relationships in our own backyards.
Native Trees, Shrubs & Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants. William Cullina
Cullina's books are the basis upon which we started our native plant nursery. Cullina's writing is evocative and economical - conveying a wealth of experience, research, and dripping with sensitivity to the world of plants. He's funny, too, which doesn't hurt. These books can be used in many different ways: as great introductions to many native plant species, as guides for the amateur or professional propagator, or as overviews of plant physiology and function written in an engaging and locally-inflected (for the Northeasterner) manner.
Looks like some of his books are out of print. Wildflowers: A Guide to Growing and Propagating Native Flowers of North America is worth finding if you can, as is Native Ferns, Moss and Grasses.
The Book of Herbal Wisdom. Matthew Wood
Matthew Wood's case histories as a clinical herbalist make this a fascinating read. It is a deeply personal herbal with extensive treatises on a number of herbs that are clearly core to his practice. The stories are often riveting and astonishing, and he embeds them in a richly-evoked understanding of the lore and literature of each species. I found this to be a highly usable guide due to the richness of detail and to what Matthew Wood calls "specific indications" for the use of each herb.
Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide. L. Newcomb
My copy of Newcomb's is so battered from constant toting and use that it has practically broken up into its constituent elements. This is the one book that is always in my bag, from March until November.
Here's the thing about Newcomb's. It has a fairly unique system that lets you figure out what a wildflower is by answering a few (usually) simple questions. Work through the key for a minute or two and boom! -- you're at the right page.
This is the book I learned field botany from. Even though it's getting a bit dated (needs new nomenclature and is missing many new non-native species), Newcomb's is still the best guide to start with. Its economical but accurate descriptions and its excellent illustrations give it staying power.
The Plants of Pennsylvania. Rhoads and Block
Since New Jersey doesn't have its own field manual (ahem, powers-that-be!) this is the technical manual I often use to identify or confirm identity of difficult species and groups. Once you've mastered Newcomb's (above), you'll begin to realize that you need a guide for sedges, grasses, ferns, woody plants, and for many complex genera of forbs like Solidago and Symphyotrichum. This book is comprehensive, regionally applicable, has up-to-date nomenclature, and is nicely illustrated.
Nature's Garden and Forager's Harvest. Samuel Thayer
These are simply the best foraging guides out there. Why? Sam Thayer is meticulous, hilarious, and seems deeply driven to excel at everything. And its all based on personal experience. Which makes it credible, unique, and fills the chapters with good anecdotes.
These guides are different in that they feature totally comprehensive treatments, of a limited array of plants. Harvest techniques, preparation details, ecology, and identification are all detailed, practical, and thorough. There are great photographs, and lots of laugh-out-loud moments as Sam recounts anecdotes (ChokeBBBBBBerry is the name of one memorable chapter) and rails against the incompetence of others. In the best way possible.
You'll find a lot of species in here given short shrift in the typical dandelion-plantain-violet kind of guide.
Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America. Lee Allen Peterson
This book is handy and worth having, though somewhat limited. It's a compact reference book of species, with brief details on preparing any given plant for food. It will tell you about common uses, identify edible parts, and hold your hand a bit on some oft-used preparation techniques.
Here's how it's helpful: to double-check on something in the field, to get a rough idea of how to use something, to browse through and be enticed by the myriad edible species in our flora. Ultimately, to properly utilize those species that require complex preparation, you'll want to augment this book with other resources.