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NZ Coast & Mountain PlantsBOOK REVIEWS

New Zealand Coast and Mountain Plants
Their Communities and Lifestyles


By John Dawson and Rob Lucas
Published by Victoria University Press, New Zealand, 1996

Reviewed by Dr Ross E. Beever, Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research

Recent years have witnessed an explosion in nature photography in New Zealand and Rob Lucas is amongst the most skilled of those focusing on native plants. There are many of his superb images in this book, my favourite being that of two vegetable sheep, Raoulia eximia and Haastia pulvinaris, growing together in Nelson Lakes National Park. However, this book is more than just a collection of photographs, as these are accompanied by a text written by retired Victoria University botanist John Dawson. It concentrates on plants of open spaces, especially the substantial areas of coastline, inland wetlands, and the uplands where forests are absent. As such it complements an earlier book on forest plants by the same team. Like its predecessor, this book will appeal to the layperson as it avoids technical terms and statistics but nevertheless remains authoritative. However, it will frustrate those wishing to delve further into the topics discussed as the reference list is rather general and the index minimal.

Two main themes weave through the book. First the diversity of geology and landform in New Zealand, and how this provides habitats for plant communities to develop, and second the ways in which plants have adapted to the environmental stresses imposed by life in situations which generally do not support tree growth. Indeed, to those more familiar with our forest flora, it is salutary to realise that there are more species of plants in the alpine vegetation than in the forests.

Following a brief historical introduction, the story begins at the coast with an account of the seaweed forests of the sublittoral and the lichens of exposed rocky shores. It moves to a discussion of the problems posed by salt water to most land plants, and the communities of rocky coasts, beaches and sands dunes, and saline wetlands. Human interference has grossly modified coastal New Zealand, and the authors address the question as to whether offshore islands such as the Three Kings preserve examples of 'original vegetation'; they conclude that they are a mixed bag. As a diversion, they describe some of the spectacular endemics found on the northern islands. They then move to the gaps in the forest (and nowadays pasture), i.e. the open places between coast and mountain, from various wetlands and river-bed to short tussock grasslands and serpentine vegetation, concluding with an account of the Chatham Islands. Progressing upwards, they describe the transition between forest and shrubland in the mountains, before emerging onto the tussock herbfields. Here some emphasis is placed on the tussock grasses themselves and the spaniards or speargrasses, before moving to a discussion of some of the many white-flowered alpine plants. The next chapters deal in turn with fellfield with its distinctive vegetable sheep, cushion moorland of the flat-topped Otago mountains, plants of snow banks and cushion bogs, and finally those remarkable plants of shingle scree slopes. Scree species pose a number of intriguing evolutionary questions; one posed by the authors is why they are so well camouflaged as to be difficult to see among the stones. From high altitude, the text moves to high latitude with a discussion of the subantarctic islands, including their spectacular megaherbs, and a discussion of the human impact on the subantarctic. To complete the text a brief account of the evolutionary origins of the alpine flora is provided, along with a list of useful references, a glossary of common names, and an index.

In a book covering such diversity in a relatively small compass, it is natural that each reader will find something to quibble about in the emphasis given different aspects. I would like to have seen a stronger indication of the dynamics of vegetation change. The title page features a sundew growing on a log felled by a Taupo eruption 1 800 years ago, but there is no further description of the role of lava flows and ash showers in moulding plant communities. Also, I would question the ability of text and photograph to adequately convey the essential features of plant communities, and would have liked to see some use of diagrams. The nonvascular plants - important components of many of the communities described - feature only in passing, except for the section on the marine environment, where seaweeds are indeed impossible to ignore. Some photogenic lichens are illustrated (e.g. Figs 7 and 134) but not named, and those in Fig. 7 are incorrectly described as 'erustose' rather than 'foliose' (though admittedly oppressed). However, my major criticism is of the appendices. The 'Glossary of common names' lists only some of the names used in the text. It would have been helpful to many readers to have all names used listed, along with their scientific equivalent and their plant families. Parataniwha is mentioned (p. 74), but there is no indication as to its scientific name. We are told (p. 47) that sea grass (Zostera) is not a grass nor a seaweed but a flowering plant. Well yes, but so are grasses. A more comprehensive index, perhaps combined with a glossary, would have gone some way to helping those readers wishing to delve deeper.

The production of the book is of a very high standard, the colour printing excellent, and the layout pleasing, although it sometimes takes a little time to match caption to photo. Amongst the few errors is the misspelling of naturalist E. G. Turbott's surname (p. 55). The choice of common names is generally excellent, although one I would quibble with is the use of golden tainui for kumarahou (Pomaderris kumeraho).

I suggest that this book, along with its companion volume, will appeal to those beginning botanists wishing to move past providing a name for a plant and wanting to learn something of its ecology. Together they provide an overview of New Zealand plants suitable for horticulturists interested in cultivating the New Zealand flora, and for the visitor from overseas seeking an insight into its many novelties. While primarily concerned with providing an account of the plants and their communities, it addresses the various ongoing human impacts upon these systems, thus providing reasons as to why such systems have to be actively conserved.

(This book was winner of the Natural Heritage Section of the 1997 Montana New Zealand Book Awards).

New Zealand Garden Journal: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1997 2(3): 24

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