Wildflower Books


(This column was first published in the May 28, 2001 Buffalo News.)


     I have spent several pleasant hours reviewing two botany books: Wildflowers of New York in Color by William K. and Valerie A. Chapman, Alan E. and Arleen Rainis Bessette and Douglas R. Pens, published by Syracuse University Press, and North Woods Wildflowers: A Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada by Doug Ladd, published by Falcon.


     Both are excellent and I will use them regularly to supplement my two basic Newcomb and Peterson wildflower field guides. Each contains superb photographs of many of the common flowers of our fields and forests together with brief descriptions of the pictured species, where and when they bloom, and occasional comments.


     I always enjoy the comments offered in books like these. For example, New York says of the purple trillium, "a form with greenish-yellow petals is fairly common. Odor unpleasant, like a wet dog." And North Woods adds that delightfully descriptive folk name -- stinking Benjamin.


     Some local readers might hesitate to use the North Woods book as the range shown on the cover does not include Buffalo, but the boundary is close -- passing about through Batavia -- and I can find few included species that don't occur within Erie County. In fact, there are also species in the New York guide that are not found here -- like the rare and endangered wild hydrangea that is restricted to the region south of the Finger Lakes.


     As anyone like me who sets out to learn to identify wildflowers knows, thousands of species occur here, far too many to include in books like these -- each includes only about 350. (In fact, although they contain many more species, neither Newcomb nor Peterson is comprehensive.) Choices must be made. The focus in New York and North Woods then is on what the authors decide are the most commonly occurring species and possibly also on which ones they have in their picture files.


     Because of this, I decided that it would be interesting to compare the two books to see how they overlap. To do this I went through part of their indexes of Latin names -- from A, Achilles millefolium(yarrow) to C, Cypripedium reginae(showy lady's slipper). This gave me a sample that would suggest how the whole books are similar. In fact, because so many of the wildflower Latin names begin with A and C, this represented about a fifth of all the species represented in each book.


     Before I did my analysis, however, I thought for a few minutes about what I should expect. If you and I went out into the fields and forests of New York and separately listed the wildflowers we found, how would our lists compare? It seemed to me that surely our inventories would be 80 to 90 percent the same. We might find the odd flower here or there but our lists would be much alike.


     To my surprise then, I found that the two books overlapped only 55 percent; just over half of their species are shared. (Of course, this makes a strong argument for adding both books to a botanical library.) In a few cases the differences were minor -- different species of wormwood or thistle, for example -- and the species in common do include most of those you and I -- assuming that you are as much a novice as I am -- would have found, but I still found the difference striking.


     When even the experts differ so much in their choices of common wildflowers, we amateurs are faced with an even greater learning task.-- Gerry Rising