Book Review Heading


Wild Flowers of New Zealand

Owen Bishop
Photographs by Nic Bishop
Published by Hodden and Stoughton, 1990

Reviewed by Rob Lucas

Make no mistake about it, this is an excellent little book. Wild Flowers of New Zealand covers over 400 species of flowering plants, both naturalised and indigenous. Many of these plants are weeds to horticulturists, and so the book has two important functions — as a reference text for both wild flowers and our common weeds.

To me the most outstanding feature of the book is, in computer jargon, its "user friendliness". This text has been carefully crafted to suit the needs of the user, not just the reader or browser. The reader is supported by a series of strategies which help guide him to the ultimate objective — the name of a plant he has discovered. These systems include photographs, many of which are of excellent quality; and a text which reduces the complexities of floral classification and structure to simple basic concepts that are directly related to identifying plants. Students prepared to spend a little time studying this text will be well rewarded. They will soon absorb the necessary knowledge and skill to use the simple keys which identify the plants, and they will also pick up invaluable understanding on floral plant structure as well.

Very little previous knowledge is taken for granted. The introductory chapter explains how the book has been planned and the ways it can be used. It includes brief and succinct explanations of plant classification, family features, plant naming systems and how to use the keys. The major part of the book is split into two sections monocotyledons and dicotyledons. The plants are grouped into families. Each family has a precis of its main floral and vegetative characteristics presented as a simple formula — easily understood after checking out the details on the inside of the frontcover.

The species descriptions are unique for their simplicity and brevity. One advantage of the restricted range of plants covered is that the descriptions have been deliberately kept to the bare essentials.

And, should you have a personal computer there is a BASIC programme at the back of the book which you can use to identify the dicotyledons covered. I suspect that the this may easily be a trap for the unwary, though. I have found with similar BASIC programmes that a lot of time can be wasted and frustration engendered when a semi colon is typed in the wrong spot. I would be more impressed with this aid if the programme was made available already on floppy disc with the book, as are other public domain programmes, sold by computer magazines.

The book has some obvious limitations of course. I wonder at the wisdom of including sections on orchids and alpine plants. These groups have been well treated in various other publications. From the horticultural point of view, we would have been better off with a few more "real weeds" in place of the celmisias, raoulias and other alpines. Strangely too, one of our most striking alpine plant groups, the wild spaniards, (Aciphylla spp.), are very poorly treated, with just one species being described along with one of the few unsatisfactory photographs.

I would have liked to see some other widespread and/or ecologically significant weeds included. For example: sweet brier (Rosa rubiginosa), holly leaved senecio (Senecio glastifolius), German Ivy (S. angulata), corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum), wall lettuce (Mycelis muralis), bell heather (Erica cinerea) and heather (Calluna vulgaris).

The descriptions too, whilst excellent overall, omit to mention the threat that several weeds are now causing to our native bush remnants. In particular, Tradescantia fluminensis, Hedychium flavescens and H. gardnerianum. Mycelis muralis deserves a mention too, as it is the only naturalised composite to establish freely within native forest.

But, the most negative feature of the book is the presentation of the photographs. No doubt by publisher decree, these have been arranged in several groups rather than being scattered throughout the text. This in itself is a user frustration, although a relatively minor one. More significant though is their size. Up to nine colour photographs are arranged on one page measuring 160mm x 230mm. The resulting photographs measure 40mm x 55mm — and thereby run the risk of being mistaken for postage stamps. Nic Bishop must have found this particularly frustrating. It is a credit to his photographic skills that most of the resulting figures are still useful. In comparison, the recently published book on NZ ferns (by Patrick Brownsey and John Smith-Dodsworth) has pages measuring 190mm x 250mm, with six photographs per page (75mm x 60mm).

However, the final test of a book such as this is "how useful is it?" I think that it should be on the bookshelf of every practising horticulturist. My copy is already well thumbed. I wish it had been available when I was a student!

Horticulture in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1991 2(2): 29-30

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