Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa – Review

Field Guide to Trees of Southern AfricaNote: This review applies to the paperback first edition (1997) only. The contents of the Kindle edition (second edition, 2013) and the paperback’s second edition (2013) may differ. The second edition adds nearly 200 pages of content and may have revised maps of tree species distribution.

PoachingFacts rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Field Guide to Trees of Southern Africa (1997) by Braam van Wyk and Piet van Wyk is the penultimate reference guide to over 1,000 species of trees and shrubs in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and nearby regions. This 536-page book covers roughly 50% of Southern Africa’s estimated 2,100 tree species and presents a comprehensive look at the characteristics and features of trees and their leaves, fruit, bark, and wood.

The Field Guide provides several useful resources that its recently updated sibling Photo Guide to Trees of Southern Africa does not. Among them is a map of the Southern Africa region depicting 17 key locations most likely to contain rare plant species due to those regions’ unique climates and diversity. Another map illustrates Southern Africa’s various biomes and vegetation which range from desert to swamp and mountain forests to shrub bushveld. It also dedicates several pages to descriptions of tree families and has a multi-page diagram of how trees have been categorized in this reference guide and their relationships with respect to leaf appearance.

In the Field Guide trees are categorized into 43 groups that are loosely color-coded and based on easily identifiable traits, with additional related or visually similar groups presented at the heading of each group for quick cross-referencing. Individual tree species are then listed within that group using their scientific name and on the right side of the page their name in English and also Afrikaans. Trees that are not native to the region are denoted with a bullet point beside their scientific name. Each species has detailed information on appearance; occurrence; size, shape, number of pinna, and number of leaflets; its traditional or current uses (medicine, firewood, etc.); and whether the tree can hybrize with other species (and what page that species appears on). A glossary of terms along with black-and-white illustrations as well as color photos of leaf features round out the comprehensive coverage provided by the Field Guide.

The Photo Guide provides much the same information, but in a more concise format that is primarily focused on features and uses (by humans and wildlife). The Field Guide has more depth relating to characteristics of trees and their leaves as well as regions it occurs in, focusing on identification. However the Photo Guide’s more recently published second edition (2011) contains updated distribution maps for each tree species relating to where it can presently be found in Southern Africa. The Field Guide is notably out-of-date in this respect, but a second edition published in 2013 has likely rectified this and added nearly 100 more pages of content.

The Photo Guide contains more pictures, on average, of the tree and close-up photos of its fruit or leaves, but the Field Guide doe a more than adequate job of presenting this information and necessarily cuts down on the average number of photos per species in order to present more total species of trees. All photos of trees in the Field Guide are organized on the right page, while tree information is on the left. This is a typical layout for many wildlife field guides, but the Photo Guide’s layout with a single-page dedicated to each species and all its photos may be easier for casual usage and reading.

Of particular interest to everyone visiting or living in Africa is the relationship that trees have with their surroundings, especially the wildlife that may depend upon them for shelter (and thus the presence of the trees may suggest the presence of sought-after wildlife), food, and who ultimately share the same ecosystem and resources. Botanists and zoologists will be interested in the details for some tree species relating to which wildlife species utilize the tree for pollination, food, shelter, and mating. However self-guided safari tourists will probably find the Photo Guide’s material more than adequate and is a more portable and accessible format. There is also a Pocket Guide to Trees of Southern Africa by the same authors, however at 132 species this falls significantly short compared to either of the other alternatives.

The Field Guide measures 210x150x32 mm (8.3x6x1.25 inches) and is roughly the same weight as the Photo Guide, albeit different proportions. The Field Guide also comes in an e-book format with a roughly 8.7MB file size, meaning that tree enthusiasts can carry the most comprehensive reference on their phone or tablet, though the e-book version is not as easy to thumb through. In spite of its relatively heavy weight the Field Guide is still a great desk reference or field reference able to be carried in a day pack.

Please see PoachingFacts’ other review of the related Photo Guide to Trees of Southern Africa by the same authors (available here) and other PoachingFacts reviews on GoodReads.