Book Review: New Flora of Vermont by Arthur V. Gilman. 2015. Memoirs of The New York Botanical Garden, Volume 110. The New York Botanical Garden Press, Bronx, New York, USA.
It is a delight to hold in one’s hands the sum of expert knowledge on the flora of a place. Some of us were born to create such masterpieces, others, like myself, to use and love them. Arthur V. Gilman, in producing the New Flora of Vermont, is one of the former group and his work, published by The New York Botanical Garden Press, will be a beloved resource for botanists – practitioners and amateurs – for a generation or more.
It is through exploring a flora with plant specimens in hand that one discovers its strengths and weaknesses. My copy of the New Flora has duly been baptized. That is, it contains some pressed samples bookmarking their corresponding page. Specifically, four different Equisetum species that have been used to trial the Equisetaceae key. These samples, E. arvense, E. fluviatile, E. scirpoides, and E. sylvaticum, are likely to remain pressed in the New Flora long after this review is read for the last time.
It is a boon to have the flora in a single volume and, despite being large, the book is convenient to use. Text is concentrated yet easy on the eye due to its orderly arrangement. Having said this, the New Flora is an academic piece, and appears to be fastidious in its tracking of plant naming, synonyms, and origins. In line with the distinctly academic nature of this work, there are many technical terms (e.g. fugacious, sobol, strigose) used in the keys that even a relatively experienced botanist would have to turn to the glossary for – but there is no glossary provided… Yes, I repeat, there is no glossary. So, what does fugacious mean again? While all good flora send you flicking through the glossary, there is unnecessarily-academic language used in this New Flora in places where the simple words would be just as concise, for example, ‘epipetric’ rather than ‘on rock’, and ‘ochroleucous’ rather than ‘yellowish-white’. More figures would be most welcome too, there are just four, plus a frontispiece, in the whole book! Also, there is no scale bar in the book, a fact that along with the lack of a glossary makes one wonder whether it has been designed to be used in the field. Probably not.
In line with the academic nature of the New Flora is the fact that statewide distributions of plants have been determined by herbaria specimens. A plant must have been collected in a county to be listed as present in a county. While I can see the utility of a consistent methodology for determining plant distributions, I do question the accuracy of this. For example, it has given rise to the odd listing of Acer negundo (Box Elder) as “specimens seen from all except Orleans County.” It is assuredly alive and well and regenerating like mad in Craftsbury, Orleans County, VT. However, this criticism is more a comment on botanical recording in the United States as a whole rather than the methods of this flora in particular. Coming from the United Kingdom (which has probably the most detailed recording of flora of any nation on Earth), the lack of a detailed comprehensive geographic system of plant recording came as an unpleasant shock to me when attempting to orient myself in the States. We need hiking boots on the ground, maps in hands, New Flora in the pocket (backpack actually, it’s a bit big for the pocket), and a coordinated grid-square system (preferably metric, but I guess miles will work) to really get a grip on Vermont’s floral distribution.
One feature that I personally appreciate in this New Flora is the listing, for each genus, of the numbers of species within that genus worldwide, within North America, and within Vermont itself. For Vermont, it also details how many of these species are exotic or hybrids. Being an international botanist, and one who teaches general principles of biodiversity, this detail pleases me. It puts Vermont’s share of the global Plant Kingdom in perspective at a glance, educating you about global diversity at the same time as you focus on a species under your very nose (or rather, hand-lens). Information as to how these global numbers are attained, however, is not clearly described; perhaps they are collated from the “four major references [that] have been used for families and genera”? In addition, some of the numbers do not clearly make sense. For example, the genus Tragopogon (Goat’s Beard) is listed as having World ~100, N.A 0, VT 2. How can there be none in North America but two in Vermont? Is it because the two in Vermont are exotic and the North American count is of natives only? This is not clear. On the plus side, the global estimate of species within the genus Hieracium (Hawkweed), that notorious damned yellow composite (DYC for polite society), stands at “>90” – we are dealing with a lumper, not a splitter, hooray! And thank goodness there are only eight Hieracium in Vermont.
So I will finish with a contemplation on the purpose of a flora. Is it a snapshot in time of the actualities of plant distribution, or at least, our current knowledge of it? Is it a field guide for the active botanist: a friend in our navigation of the natural world? Is it a challenge sent out to the naturalist community? Test this if you will! We sally forth to find plants not yet listed in the flora, hoping they will be listed in the Appendix 1 of the Newer New Flora. Or is it a work of art? I would argue that this New Flora of Vermont is a bit of all of these things. And it works as a plant press too, of course.