Book Review Heading

Flowering Plants of NZBOOK REVIEWS

Flowering Plants of New Zealand

By C. J. Webb, P. N. Johnson, W. R. Sykes
Published by Botany Institute, DSIR Land Resources, Private Bag, Christchurch,1990
$NZ39.95

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.

Horticulture in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1991 2(1): 34

Reviews Main Page


Home | Journal | Newsletter | Conferences
Awards | Join RNZIH | RNZIH Directory | Links

© 2000–2021 Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture
Last updated: March 1, 2021