Book Review Heading


New Zealand Native Shrubs and Climbers

By John Smith-Dodsworth
Published by David Bateman Ltd., Auckland, New Zealand, 1991

Reviewed by Alan Esler

The practical value of any botany book depends on what has gone before. Floras and taxonomic papers have laid the foundations for more readable plant books. These popular books, embellished in different ways, give descriptions and distributions, and there the narrative usually stops. For many people, identification is a satisfying end in itself, but should be the starting point for understanding how plants live their interesting lives. Perhaps we should not blame the writers of popular books for these shortcomings, for where are they to get ecological and other information beyond their own experience? A well-intended series under the general title "Biological flora of New Zealand" gathering together all that was known about individual species began in the New Zealand Journal of Botany in 1966, but soon conservation issues took more of the time of field botanists, a significant diversion from basic field research. If you think that taxonomy has fared better, consider the hundreds of New Zealand plants that have no adequate names. This is the present state of botanical research in this country, and not a strong base for downstream publications.

Also gone before are many other identification books, particularly about woody plants. It must be difficult for another author to break into this well-worked field with most forms of embellishment already exploited. Then there is the problem of giving even treatment when some of the species are well known and others hardly at all.

Well, how does John Smith-Dodsworth present his "New Zealand native shrubs and climbers"? The introduction defines a shrub as well as anybody can, runs through some morphological terms, and makes a summary of shrub and climber habitats. It might have been appropriate to put the appended glossary and locality maps here too. The plants are treated by families in alphabetical order. The main features of each family and genus are given briefly and simply. Species notes give description, distribution and habitat with a ring of personal experience about them. A degree of acquaintance with most of the 380 or so species is evident from the black and white photos with the text, and colour plates in a separate, cross-referenced, central section. Many photos show the plant in its natural setting, others are "twig shots". The species that are not illustrated are described briefly.

The author's claim to have covered all the shrubs and climbers must be a good selling point. In the foreword to this book, Tony Druce says that this is the first to concentrate solely on the shrubs and climbers, and he comments that the completeness comes as close as possible to the ideal at the present time. The scrutiny by Tony Druce and Rhys Gardner is some assurance of accuracy and clear presentation.

The introduction seems to be adequate preparation for venturing on the main text, but on the first page of the next section the reader meets such terms as receptacle, strobili and dioecious. They are explained in the glossary at the back. However, introduction and glossary aren't going to help the amateur botanist stumbling through this awkward statement: "It is one of only 2 species of fuchsia to have erect trioecious flowers which are of 5 forms; male, producing pollen and having either short or long styles, and with inoperative stigmas; female, having anthers without pollen and either short or long styles, and with functional stigmas; and perfect flowers, having pollen and operative long stigmas". The glossary does not define trioecious, and such terms are properly applied to a taxonomic unit, not to flowers.

The pictures are variable in quality because the sun did not always shine at the right time, and some species were not easy to photograph, e.g. Scandia geniculata growing on Coprosma propinqua. However, there is a degree of excellence that few plant photographers achieve.

While "Trees and shrubs of New Zealand" by Poole and Adams, in my view, is the most valuable book of its kind in this country, John Smith-Dodsworth's book has a place. If you require colour to aid your identifications, this is the book for you, but you will have to pay nearly three times as much for it. This is a splendid book and I will be using it to identify plants in some of the larger genera.

Horticulture in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1992 3(1): 17

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