Two outstanding plant books, Kerry Carman

Flowering Plants of New Zealand
Colin Webb, Peter Johnson and Bill Sykes
DSIR Botany, Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1990, $39.95

Wildflowers of New Zealand
Owen Bishop
Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, 1990, $39.95

‘Wildflower air is the sweetest air’, wrote Richard Jeffries and indeed the fresh sweet air of our countryside lingers around both of these books. The titles are similar not only in this respect but in the fact that they were written for laymen by erudite botanists and that both deal with the flowering plants growing wild in the highways and byways of our land. But there the similarities end. The Flowering Plants of New Zealand, from an experienced scientific team (two of whom, Sykes and Webb, gave us the definitive Flora of New Zealand) is a crisp and comprehensive guide to many (they do not claim all) of the plants, both native and introduced, that flourish in New Zealand.

This book will do much to popularise its often difficult subject. Its simplicity of layout and clarity of content make for easy and informative reading. On the one hand it is a serious monograph that will satisfy fastidious botanists while also proving equally pleasing to practical-minded amateurs. The layout is exceptionally attractive (full colour on glossy pages) with taxonomic details clearly set forth in a simple format. Perhaps the book would have been more appropriately titled The Great Plant Families of the World and Their Incidence in New Zealand, as the plants are tabled under family headings ‑ Fuchsia Family, Gentian Family etc, each occupying a double-page spread. The botanical name follows with a handy phonetic guide to pronunciation for the uninitiated. Categorising plants by family in a book layout is a splendid idea, once you overcome the preconditioned notion that botanical books must follow an alphabetical or similar format. Take, for example, the Violet Family. The information is interestingly and concisely presented: thus we learn that there are 930 species in the world; that there are two native genera in New Zealand, 15 native species (which includes plants not usually identified with violets, such as whiteywood and porcupine bush) and that there are seven naturalised species in New Zealand. Unfortunately these are not named. The accompanying text is an enjoyable read in simple language with botanical nomenclature reduced to a minimum. One of our native white violets, V. cunninghamii. is depicted and all three are described but, paradoxically, not named. As most native plant books describe only two it would have been useful to see V. lyalli and Vfilicaulis named. (All three are described in Bishop’s wildflower book).

On the pages devoted to the ivy family I discovered a plant (new to me) from the Auckland Islands. Stilbocarpus polaris would not have attracted me by name but the photograph of the delicately-veined large umbrella leaves, not unlike Gunnera certainly did. This plant could have a great future as a landscape plant if it could be persuaded into our gardens.

This book makes no claims to be a comprehensive reference text, rather it is a crystal clear discussion of many of the plant families of the world and their representation in our country. The text is both informative and entertaining and the superb photography is a major feature. 250 full-colour photographs show not only individual details to aid identification, but evocative habitats as well. The authors, photographers, DSIR and Caxton Press are to be congratulated on a very beautiful and useful book.

A degree in botany coupled with scientific and ecological field experience may not be necessary to the authorship of plant books but it obviously helps. Wildflowers of New Zealand is another recent title begotten by a botanist. The author makes no claim that this is the definitive guide but it is – almost – that. Owen Bishop, whose botanical career was based in Britain (he became a permanent New Zealand resident as recently as 1987) sets out before us, in plain language, over 400 of the wildflowers, both native and introduced, of New Zealand. Past books of this kind have tended to he weighty analytical tomes or concentrated on either native or introduced species, the endemic plants being treated as some sort of holy grail which must not be permitted to mingle with the introduced plants, all too often regarded as interlopers. While this may be true of such muscle-flexing triffids as Clematis vitalba, the tenacity and longevity of many of these species must be admired, and now that most of them have been here for a century or more it is refreshing to see them given equal footing as the wayside plants of our country that they all now undoubtedly are.

The description in such a reference book could have been boring and overly technical. Bishop has avoided this by incorporating passages of interest on the origin or history of particular plants and keeping necessary information to a minimum. Thus we learn that bedding lobelia Lobelia erinus was the subject of experiments by Charles Darwin who proved that bees locate flowers by sight, not smell, by cutting the blue petals from these flowers and discovering in the process that the bees would no longer visit the ‘deflowered’ blossoms.

I was pleased to discover a listing for Senecio elegans (purple groundsel), an annual purple daisy that proliferates around Wellington’s southern hills among other localities. It also appears in white, pink or purplish-pink and is a very pretty sight in early summer. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to identify this wilding until an article by Sheila Natusch (New Zealand Gardener, December 1988) satisfied my curiosity. Natusch also mentioned S glastifolitis, a perennial South African herb that grows up to a metre tall around Gisborne and Wellington, among other places. Interestingly the New Zealand forms of this plant are usually pink, whereas they are purple or mauve in their native land.

The Oxalis family is well-represented, including that shining wonder, Bermuda buttercup Oxalis pes-caprae and what we, as children, called sourgrass, Oxalis artictulata.

Several other plants I have found and sketched over the years, but been unable to identify because of the inadequacy of available texts, are now accurately labelled thanks to this comprehensive book. One is Lobelia anceps from Ohope Beach, another Selliera radicans from Castlepoint.

After such praise it seems churlish to criticise but I do wish more than one species of the commonly found pratias had been included (only Pratia angulata is shown). The descriptions and photos of herb Robert, Geranium robertianum, threw me into confusion as it appeared that the plants I grow and encourage as a living mulch (not that they need encouragement!) might not be herb Robert after all. My doubts sprang from the fact that Bishop says the plants have only three leaflets (mine have five). Was my plant G. purpureum then? No, for the leaves on my biggish plants were broad and the flowers larger than the smaller narrow-leaved plant called little Robert. Confusion reigned while I checked other Floras and finally found the definitive answer in an American wildflower guide. Herb Robert may have from three to five leaflets and the terminal one is also well stalked. A quick check proved mine to have this feature and put my mind to rest as to the name of my aromatic herb. Apart from such minor quibbles I found the book to be the best wildflower guide yet produced in this country.

Both works represent landmarks in the publishing of New Zealand plant books. Wildflower air is the sweetest air and these significant titles which complement each other, deserve a place on every bookshelf in the land.


Kerry Carman has had three gardening titles published in New Zealand and has been a Listener columnist since 1988.



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