Plants of New Zealand
By C. J. Webb, P. N. Johnson, W. R. Sykes
Published by Botany Institute, DSIR Land Resources, Private Bag,
Reviewed by Mike Oates
New Zealand's unique
flora developed in isolation for eighty million years until the
first humans landed here a thousand years ago. The special qualities
of the flora are slowly being recognised by the New Zealand public,
helped along by the attention given it by international stars like
David Bellamy. In spite of this interest, many people are still
ignorant about native plants, knowing only kowhai, cabbage tree
and flax by sight. What's worse, many believe plants such as macrocarpa
and willow are native. Not altogether surprising I suppose, given
the introduced flora is almost larger than the native. However,
it is a sad state of affairs and needs to be remedied.
DSIR Botany Division
has made an immense contribution to our knowledge of native plants
in the form of the Flora of New Zealand series. More recently their
focus has shifted more towards the general public with the production
of popular publications such as Threatened Plants of New Zealand
by Wilson and Given.
Flowering Plants of New
Zealand is aimed at the wider public and is written by three Botany
Division botanists as a DSIR contribution to New Zealand's 1990
celebrations. It is in itself a celebration of New Zealand's flowering
plants and is a real attempt to increase people's appreciation and
knowledge of native plants. It is written for those with little
or no knowledge yet contains enough to interest experienced botanists.
The book begins with
an introduction to plant classification and nomenclature: why we
need to use botanical names and why they change. It then discusses
the development of the flora and its relationship with other countries
that were once part of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland.
The next section deals
with those vegetative and floral features useful when identifying
plants. I found this section well written and easy to follow with
excellent diagrams and photographs illustrating important features.
The three photographs of Fuchsia procumbens showing, male,
female and hermaphrodite flowers were particularly good. I did,
however, have difficulty with the paragraph detailing the female
flower parts and the difference between carpels and pistils. The
book defines carpels as the circle of female parts containing the
ovules: known collectively as the ovary. Above the carpels are the
stigmas and styles. My understanding of the term carpel is the ovary
plus style and stigma. This concurs with the definition
given in Flora of New Zealand Volume 4.
To confuse matters even more, the diagram of a typical flower adjacent
to the text doesn't mention carpel at all but has the ovary, stigmas
and style labelled along with the collective term pistil.
The major part of the
book contains descriptions of 52 flowering plant families. Each
family is set out on two pages (except Asteraceae, Orchidaceae,
and Fabaceae with four), one page of text, and one page of photographs.
I was impressed with the clear, easy to follow layout. The families
are arranged in alphabetical order, and where necessary, relationships
to other families are discussed and differences listed. Each description
also includes two tables, one listing floral characteristics of
the family, the other giving statistics of native and naturalised
genera and species. In the descriptions of the Poaceae (grass family)
and Cyperaceae (rush family), additional line drawings were included
detailing the layout of flower parts. These were extremely useful
and I would have liked to see similar diagrams used in other families,
especially more difficult ones such as Asteraceae and Piperaceae.
For all its strong points,
I found it a slightly frustrating book. It needs a rigorous edit
to ensure standardisation between the families covered. It seems
that each author was responsible for specific families. This shows
in the writing style as well as the quality of the description and
assumption of background knowledge. Inconsistencies have crept in
which would be confusing to the reader. Take the description of
new terms: before studying individual families, the reader should
read the introduction in which most of the floral and vegetative
characters are described. They can then study families in any order
using the glossary if necessary. This poses a dilemma for the author:
should terms be defined or should you assume readers will use the
glossary? In most cases terms are defined if they weren't mentioned
in the introduction. This does bring up problems of standardisation,
however. Take the term divaricate: in Pittosporaceae, divaricating
plants are described as plants with small leaved and tangled branches.
In Rubiaceae they are described as small leaved shrubby species
with numerous branches growing at wide angles and interlacing. The
glossary concurs with the latter description but adds that small
leaves are held inside the twiggy exterior. At the other extreme
are new terms that aren't defined, for instance calyx. It was mentioned
in Caryophyllaceae and Avicenniaceae yet there is no description
of it in the introduction or glossary.
The book is aimed at
a wide audience, many of whom have no botanical background. This
means descriptions need to be clear with diagnostic features easily
seen with the aid of a hand lens. This can pose a conflict for the
scientist who has to explain differences in visible terms when the
most important ones may be microscopic or even biochemical. In most
cases the authors have stuck to easily recognisable features although
I felt one or two would be very difficult for beginners to observe.
Take Ericaceae, where the one unifying feature was given as the
way the anthers release the pollen.
Common names are used
throughout the text which I found confusing. In fact the authors
discuss the use of common names in the introduction and suggest
they are best used linked to a botanical name. Unfortunately they
only stick to this in the illustrations. As an example look at the
description of Fagaceae (beech family) which starts by talking about
'beech' trees forming the main canopy of much forest in New Zealand.
No mention is made of Nothofagus until the next paragraph
when the common name becomes southern beech. The description later
mentions 'northern beeches' and 'European beeches'. Are these one
and the same? We are left to guess.
I suspect that the book
was prepared in a very tight frame to fit in with the 1990 celebrations.
The authors are to be commended for putting together a book of this
quality in the time available. It will appeal to a wide range of
people from school students onwards. For me, it will be an essential
reference and one I will recommend to others. I will, however, look
forward to the second edition when many of the minor irritations
can be removed.
in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture
1991 2(1): 34
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