Book Review

Flora of the Pacific Northwest, An Illustrated Manual, Second Edition

C. Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist
Second edition edited by David E. Giblin, Ben S. Legler, Peter F. Zika, and Richard G. Olmstead
2018. ISBN 978-0295742885
University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.
936 pp. Hard Cover. $75.

Flora of the Pacific Northwest, An Illustrated Manual

The Flora of the Pacific Northwest is the long awaited, fully updated, second edition of Hitchcock and Cronquist’s 1973 classic botanical text for our region. This masterpiece has been revised to include current research in vascular plant systematics, including reorganized family structure and up-to-date name changes. It also includes over 1,000 newly described or documented native and naturalized non-native species, and an additional 1,382 illustrations.

The need for an update is obvious when one considers that 40% of the taxa in the first edition have new names. The scope of this update is enormous. The editors are to be congratulated, along with the many others who helped both in time and money. However, the revisions are not just in names and taxa. The editors’ experiences in field taxonomy shines throughout the volume. To my surprise, the keys and descriptions were improved in ways that would only be possible by expert botanists well versed in the original edition.

I have been using the Flora of the Pacific Northwest with students for more than 30 years. Steven Yeager, Heron Brae, and I teach a 300-hour class that focuses heavily on field taxonomy as a skill. We read the family descriptions and keys out loud and define every term. I have compared keying in both versions for all the plants we identify in class, plus many more, for a total of over 100. The results exceeded all my expectations in that almost every plant keyed as well as or better than in the first edition.

Many keys in new floras use computer-generated statistics to design couplets that separate out the highest number of taxa. Although this makes the key shorter, sometimes a distinctive, easy-to-see characteristic for a taxon is not mentioned until its description. Hitchcock and Cronquist realized that humans are good at seeing “which of these are not like the others,” and often used couplets that easily separated distinctive species from the others, a process that works particularly well in condensed floras that do not include descriptions. The new version of their keys continues this approach. For example, on the first page of the family key, branch parasites and cacti are distinguished from other families by their unique characters, simplifying the rest of the key.

The new edition maintains the style of the original edition in which each couplet contains more than one characteristic and numbers are used instead of relative terms like large vs. small. The editors further improved the keys by selecting additional characters to couplets that were difficult in the first edition. For example, in the first lead, the new edition adds the character whether the keel is pubescent or glabrous, which quickly distinguishes Collinsia sparsiflora from other Collinsia species. This small addition makes a great difference in a couplet that was often difficult for me.

When we teach how to use the family key, after reading a family description, we teach supplemental information, such as particular terms and techniques for measuring floral parts specific to the family. The editors made our work easier by adding this information to the family descriptions (and other places, as needed). For example, the editors describe how to measure the corolla of a bilabiate tubular flower in the Lopseed Family (Phrymaceae).

We use the buttercup family to teach our students about flower morphology and how to recognize each of the four floral whorls. For example, students often mistake the showy sepals for petals. The revised key clarifies this common error, and shows a much-appreciated attention to detail.

  Old version:
  1a. Fl(lower) strongly bilaterally symmetrical, showy
  1b. Fl(ower) nearly or quite reg(ular), often not showy

  New version:
  1a. Fl(ower)s strongly bilaterally symmetrical, sepals showy, > petals.
  1b. Fl(ower)s radially symmetrical, sepals showy or not, petals various, occ(asionally) absent.

The authors also go to great trouble to help the reader understand technicalities not evident, or of concern, to non-professionals. For example, some new taxa are morphologically identical to, but differ genetically from, the original taxon. The authors describe the diploid variant of Youth on Age (Tolmiea diplomenziesii) and group it with the original taxon in the key. Also, the Liliaceae has been split to several new families, which is confusing at first. Along with keys for each of the new families, understanding that lilies in the traditional sense are easy to recognize as a group, the editors include a lily key that encompasses all the original taxa.

A current trend in contemporary keys is to use a simpler vocabulary, the “dumbing down” of botanical language. Academic botany is moving away from the traditional field approach; young botanists are immersed in genetics. Some newer keys are written primarily as checklists and descriptions of taxa, and the actual keys are of poor design. I have been told that within the next decade, keys will be obsolete. I guess we will have hand-held iPhone-size “gene-machines” that identify the plants for us. Thus, I was concerned that the rich vocabulary of the original Flora of the Pacific Northwest would be lost, as well as the skill of field taxonomy, much like the art of celestial navigation, “hands-on” physical assessment by doctors, and the language and music of indigenous cultures. With this second edition, the editors have re-vitalized and preserved the tradition of field taxonomy for the enjoyment of future generations.

This book is the most up-to-date, comprehensive reference of vascular plants for the Pacific Northwest, except the southern part of Oregon where botanists will continue to use The Jepson Manual and the Intermountain Flora until the remaining volumes of the Flora of Oregon are published. Unlike field guides illustrated with color photos of flowers, this is a technical manual, replete with dichotomous keys, line drawings, and botanical terminology. The University of Washington Press website states it will be of interest to (and I would add “a must have” book for) “professional and amateur botanists, ecologists, rare plant biologists, plant taxonomy instructors, land managers, nursery professionals, and gardeners.”

—Howie Brounstein, Columbines School of Botanical Studies, Emerald Chapter.

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