Book Review

A Naturalist’s Guide to Plant Communities of Pacific Northwest Dune Forests and Wetlands

George Poinar, Jr.
2019. ISBN 13:978-1-889878-54-6.
Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) Press, Fort Worth, TX.
321 pp. Softcover $25.00

A Naturalist’s Guide to Plant Communities of Pacific Northwest Dune Forests and Wetlands Cover

Poinar’s 2016 book on dune ecology (A Naturalist’s Guide to the Hidden World of Pacific Northwest Dunes) covered dune grasslands and ocean beaches. As a companion to that book, this guide expands into the area immediately east (inland) of those areas: the dune forest plant communities and associated wetlands. Poinar is an entomologist and writer, known for popularizing the idea of extracting DNA from insects fossilized in amber. Upon retirement, he moved from California to Oregon, and clearly enjoys walking the dunes near Waldport. Dunes are of particular interest to me also, so I looked forward to each book with great eagerness.

According to the title, this is a book about plant communities; the first section addressing forests and the second section, wetlands. At first glance, I thought that this book was organized around key plant species, but on closer inspection, I saw that this is not a guide to coastal plant communities and their key species. The author chose plants from each habitat and called the plant species a community, for example a heading reads “Klamathweed Community.” Rather than highlighting key species of the forest or wetland communities (based on dominance or crucial ecological function), the author presents an arbitrary series of both native and introduced plant species and other categories (lichens, liverworts, mosses, mushrooms, orchids, vertebrates, etc.) with headings using common names. The order of appearance made no sense, until I realized that they appeared mostly in alphabetical order by genus or category name (however, ferns appear between Pseudotsuga and Rhamnus, and mushrooms appear just before vertebrates). Each “community” heading is followed by a list of herbivores, detritivores, predators, parasites, omnivores. At this point I realized that the book is not about plant communities. The communities are the guilds of insects and other invertebrates associated particular hosts. The diversity of invertebrate species on native plants is indeed truly fascinating. It provides support for Douglas Tallamy’s observations that native plant species provide habitat for native insects, which in turn provide food for native birds and other wildlife (Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. Timber Press, Portland, OR. 2009).

The author made several unfortunate choices for common names, instead of following the Oregon Flora Project checklist of accepted common names. This is likely to confuse some readers, although most NPSO members will probably go straight to the scientific name. Lay people who prefer common rather than scientific names could easily be distracted by the use of the name snakeberry, which normally refers to the toxic Solanum dulcamara, for Maianthemum dilatatum. It is also confusing to list species that are native to California (which is not part of the Pacific Northwest). For example, Ceanothus gloriosus (which is planted as an ornamental and appears at one location at the visitor’s center at Cape Perpetua) and Heterotheca sessiliflora have not naturalized in Oregon.

I was eager to read the wetland plants section, wetlands being of great personal interest, and was dismayed to find vernal pools not mentioned by name, instead being called “temporary inland pools.” He did not mention their winter inhabitants, Oregon fairy shrimp, or three-spined sticklebacks, the commonest fish of coastal wetlands. Coastal sloughs were not even mentioned. I expected more on several keystone species of wetland plant communities, which can ring marshes, ponds and lakes in great belts, including willows, crabapple, sweet gale, and floating sphagnum mats, but these species/plant communities were not included. Of the numerous sedges that occupy these plant communities, only one was featured.

Unfortunately, while Poinar gives significant space to vertebrate species that may be seen in both dune forests and wetlands, it remains a mystery as to what criteria were used to include or exclude any given species. For example, beaver got a mention, but muskrat and river otter did not. Pacific chorus frog was included, but not red-legged frog. Western (terrestrial) garter snake was included, but not common or northwestern garter snake, the latter two of which are common along the central and north coast of Oregon into southern Washington, while the former species is common only on the south coast of Oregon. Also omitted was a well-known inhabitant of the marsh/forest edge, Pacific jumping mouse.

This review is primarily from the perspective of botanists, but two misidentifications are not reassuring for the accuracy of the other information. For example, on evergreen huckleberry Poinar lists “Indigo butterfly,” named as Lyceaides sp. [sic], illustrated by a photo of what is clearly a female Echo Azure, Celastrina echo echo (I confirmed this with Dr. Robert Michael Pyle). On page 224, Poinar introduces a bird he calls a ringed turtledove, identifying it as an escaped African turtledove. This would make it extremely uncommon, as E-bird reports no sightings outside several cities across southern North America. Unfortunately, the bird in question is not the least bit rare; it is the Eurasian collared dove, a recent introduction into North America, widely known for the speed with which it colonized the continent.

Thus, what this book comes closest to being is a guide to the suites of insects associated with particular plant species. He should have left vertebrates out and focused on gathering information of insect use of key plant species. If he had done a thorough job of that, I’d have written a totally different review. The guide would then have been an extremely useful local interpretation for Tallamy’s book and particularly good for anyone looking to improve habitat for insects with the goal of benefiting native birds. A fatal flaw is that he did not include critically important common plants; most egregiously, willows were left out. Tallamy lists Salix as number two for insect diversity among hardwoods in eastern North America, thus it is a keystone species in its native habitats here in the West as well. A friend of mine identified more than two dozen insect species on Hooker’s willow, a common coastal willow. The large guild of insects on flowering willows provide crucial food for Anna’s and rufous hummingbirds in early spring.

This is a nice book to promote curiosity. If a copy of this field guide falls into your hands, use it to encourage the grandkids to explore those grand rolling waves of sand we call the dunes.

—Kathleen Sayce, Filipendula Chapter.

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