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Plant Heritage New Zealand
Te Whakapapa o nga Rakau
Interpreting the special features of
native plants

By Tony Foster
Published by Penguin Books / Raupo Publishing (NZ) Ltd
Paperback, 207 pages, 210 × 260mm, New Zealand, 2008
ISBN 9780143009795

Reviewed by Murray Dawson

Tony Foster is passionate about New Zealand’s native plants. He has taught biology and horticulture at secondary schools, developed his own native plant website called ‘bushmans friend’ (www.bushmansfriend.co.nz), and runs a business bearing the same
name taking visitors on interpretive bushwalking tours in Northland.

Tony draws upon this background to write a book sharing his enthusiasm and knowledge of a wide range of native plant species found in the New Zealand bush. He showcases his superb photography and provides brief descriptions of each species that teaches us how to identify and distinguish them.

Many of the native plants covered are widely cultivated in our gardens, such as the iconic cabbage trees, flaxes, and ratas. Others are less well known, but all have stories to tell of their origins and evolution, their traditional and present day uses, and how they have inspired poems and proverbs. These stories, both European and Maori, are brought together to highlight special features of the flora, and how New Zealanders have created a cultural history around these plants.

This book sets itself apart from most other offerings. It is not a strictly botanical field-guide like Poole and Adams (1994), St George et al. (2006) and other guides. Nor is it a comprehensive treatment such as those featuring botanical artwork (Eagle, 2006), cultivars (Metcalf, 1993), divaricating plants (Wilson and Galloway, 1993), cabbage trees (Simpson, 2000), or hebes (Bayly and Kellow, 2006).

Plant Heritage New Zealand seems most allied to an earlier title by the name of Flowering plants of New Zealand (Webb et al., 1990). Both books celebrate the special qualities of the New Zealand flora, are aimed at a wide public audience, and attempt to increase people’s appreciation and knowledge of native plants.

Plant Heritage New Zealand is divided into two parts that contain four chapters each. Part 1, Introduction to New Zealand’s remarkable plants, provides the background and natural history for the native species profiled in Part 2.

This first part outlines endemism, species diversity and distribution, forest and plant associations (Chapter 1, New Zealand plants in the landscape), biostatus (exotic/native/ endemic), ancestry and elements of the flora, features of New Zealand plants (Chapter 2, The characteristics of New Zealand’s flora), taxonomy and common names (Chapter 3, What’s in a name? Classifying plants), and Maori genealogies and insights (Chapter 4, Maori and the plant world).

These are all ‘heavy duty’ topics, and to me the author seemed to struggle with the balance between presenting complex information and conveying it in a simple but accurate manner. Professional botanists and ecologists may feel that more detail is needed to properly explain some of the topics. For the less knowledgeable reader the information could have been more clearly written in places.

Part 2 is the main section of the book and reveals its real strengths, where the authors’ first-hand knowledge of the 110 species that he observes and his 300 or more photographs unfold. Reading through the species profiles, I gained the distinct impression that the author was writing using much of his own keen observations, rather
than rehashing information from floras and other plant books.

Most of the species chosen for this book were derived from the authors’ home area of Northland. This is quite appropriate because (as he points out) much of New Zealand’s species diversity is found in the upper North Island anyway.

The format of each species profiled works well, and green text boxes are used for relevant quotes and explanations from early European writings and Maori oral traditions. These are a delight to read and add much to the interest of the ‘stories’ surrounding each plant. Also, the meanings of the botanical names are usefully provided, and nicely relate to the photos and short descriptions.

Different plant groups are well represented – there is a selection of conifers (Chapter 5), dicotyledons (Chapter 6), monocotyledons (Chapter 7), and ferns (Chapter 8). This book does not include any native orchids, but these have already been dealt with by others (e.g., St George et al., 2006).

Within each major grouping according to chapter, the genera are arranged together in their respective families. The families themselves do not seem to follow any particular order.

The preferred botanical names and treatments used for the plants are generally current. For example, the book places Hebe in the Plantaginaceae family, where it is now considered to belong, rather than its long-standing placement in Scrophulariaceae.

However, some of the recent and generally accepted name changes have not been followed. No explanation is provided for this, which creates an impression that the author has not kept abreast of the botanical literature. Returning to the hebe example, “Hebe hullcana” is presumably a mis-spelling of Hebe hulkeana, which is generally accepted under a different genus, Heliohebe hulkeana. And some botanists now include Hebe (and allied genera) all under an enlarged Veronica. Other names are outdated in the book. Pseudopanax anomalus is referable to Raukaua anomalus, and Pseudopanax simplex is referable to Raukaua simplex. Reinstatement of the name Raukaua (Mitchell et al., 1997) has been well accepted by botanists.

At the family level, Cordyline is now accepted in the Laxmanniaceae family rather than Agavaceae, Leucopogon fasciculatus is in the Ericaceae (along with Dracophyllum, Leptecophylla and other epacrids not covered in the book), rather than Epacridaceae;
Laurelia is in Atherospermataceae rather than Monimiaceae; Phormium is in Hemerocallidaceae rather than Agavaceae; Vitex is in Lamiaceae rather than Verbenaceae.

Some authors will chose not to follow these recent name changes, but they should at least mention them. Many of these changes are the result of DNA sequencing studies. Noticeably absent throughout the book is discussion of the huge impact that DNA sequencing has made on our understanding of the plants – on their names, taxonomic relationships, and evolutionary histories. These DNA and taxonomic ‘stories’ should also be told.

This book is not perfect in other ways – there are a considerable number of typographic errors that should have been picked up during editing. There seems to be a trend in recent years where publishers are not rigorous enough in their copy-editing. As a result, the published work lets themselves and their authors down. I do hope that there will be an improved second edition that removes these minor irritations. The most glaring problem is that much of the index lists page numbers for the main body that are incorrect – they are 1–3 pages out of kilter!

Nevertheless, Plant Heritage New Zealand is a useful book that should appeal to a wide readership from secondary school students upwards. By and large, it does achieve what it sets out to do, and successfully celebrates the diversity, special features, and beauty of the New Zealand native flora.

Bayly, M. and Kellow, A. (2006). An illustrated guide to New Zealand hebes. Te Papa Press, Wellington. 388 p.

Eagle, A. (2006). Eagle’s complete trees and shrubs of New Zealand. Te Papa Press, Wellington. Vol. 1, 544 p., Vol. 2, 592 p.

Metcalf, L.J. (1993). The cultivation of New Zealand plants. Godwit Press, Auckland. 260 p.

Mitchell, A.D.; Frodin, D.G.; Heads, M.J. (1997). Reinstatement of Raukaua, a genus of the Araliaceae centred in New Zealand. New Zealand Journal of Botany 35(3): 309–315.

Poole, A.L. and Adams, N.M. (1994). Trees and shrubs of New Zealand. DSIR Publishing, Wellington. 256 p.

Simpson, P. (2000). Dancing leaves, the story of New Zealand’s cabbage tree, ti kouka. Canterbury University Press. 324 p.

St George, I.; Irwin, B.; Hatch, D. (2006). Field guide to the New Zealand orchids. 4th ed. New Zealand Native Orchid Group, Wellington. 136 p. (First published in 1996.).

Webb, C.J.; Johnson, P.N.; Sykes, W.R. (1990). Flowering Plants of New Zealand. Botany Institute, DSIR Land Resources, Private Bag, Christchurch. 146 p.

Wilson, H.D. and Galloway, T. (1993). Small-leaved Shrubs of New Zealand. Manuka Press, Christchurch. 305 p.

New Zealand Garden Journal, 11(2), 2008, Page 27-29

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