Last week we learned how to conduct and record observations of plants in the field. Today we are treated to a reference serving as a fine example of how the life histories of plants can be written and, more importantly, introduced to a general audience.
In Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History,
Carol Gracie shares the life histories of more than 30 spring-blooming plants growing in the northeastern United States. A seasoned writer, teacher and interpretative naturalist, Carol is able to “talk plants” to an audience whose interest may range from no interest at all to pure passion. The plant profiles Carol writes are more than a string of facts about a plant’s morphological parts and its dry taxonomic history. Each profile is a history lesson sprinkled with interesting insights into how plants work.
Using a friendly conversational tone, Carol touches upon complicated topics such as pollination ecology, species introduction, plant taxonomy, ethnobotany, horticulture, medicine and climate change without bogging readers down with the type of information that makes eyes glaze over. To maintain her easy-going storytelling approach, Carol chose not to clutter her profiles with references and footnotes. Instead, she waits until the end to cite her sources. She also went out of her way to keep her book free of the confusing technical jargon botanists speak. However, since some botanical terms cannot be translated into everyday English, Carol also provides a glossary of terms at the end of her book.
More than a guide to 30 popular plants of the northeast, this book is a guide to seeing. While reading Carol’s book, be prepared for your observation skills to improve without any effort on your part. This magical transformation occurs because of Carol’s detailed color photographs highlighting key characteristics of plants and the significant changes that occur during each plant’s life cycle. After viewing Carol’s 500+ images, you will discover you’ve developed a search image for the subtlest of details such as tiny persistent styles and the gentle arching of reflexed stamen.
I like Spring Wildflowers for several reasons. First, it doesn’t read like a textbook. It is easy to get lost in one plant profile after another. Second, it is a fascinating introduction to the plants of the northeastern US. Having lived around chaparral and coastal sage scrub all my life, there were plenty of opportunities to be surprised as I turned the pages of this book. What a treat to see the snowflake-looking flowers of the miterwort (Mitella diphylla) and its boat-shaped fruit. Not to mention the drama of an emerging skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) and the intriguing morphology of featherfoil plants (Hottonia inflate).
What I like best about Spring Wildflowers is that it piqued my curiosity about East Coast plants. My fascination with plants and how they go about their business was greater at the bottom of page 233 than it was at the top of page 1. This is a good thing!
Published earlier this month, Spring Wildflowers is Carol’s most recent book. This book is recommended for teachers, naturalists and all plant enthusiasts in the northeastern US, armchair naturalists everywhere, and anyone striving to write interesting, easy-to-read plant profiles for a general audience.
Gracie, Carol. 2012. Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.