A Botanical Library

by Casper J. Ultee, Ph.D. • Winter 2002 (Volume 29, nos. 3 & 4)

 Those fortunate enough to have been exposed to wild flowers at a young age probably first became familiar with the botanical literature in the form of the many picture books of common wild flowers. If the interest persisted, it is a safe guess that, at some point, they acquired either the Peterson (1) or Newcomb (2) wild flower guide, or both. Although they generally overlap in their coverage, there are some differences as discussed by Virginia Magee (3). Both books consist of drawings with only minimal descriptive material. The Peterson guide arranges flowers by color. This is a problem for those with limited color vision, and also has the disadvantage of perhaps scattering a given genus is likely throughout the book. It does, however, have good diagnostic marks to distinguish between similar species. The Newcomb guide has a more systematic approach with a key based on the number of flower parts, with additional keys based on plant and leaf type.

If the interest in botany persists, picture guides wil no longer suffice; a more serious treatment will become desirable. In my case, it was the first edition of Gleason and Cronquist's "Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada" (4) required for a botany course. Since at that time I was pretty well acquainted with the common flowers and trees, I never had to spend much time with the keys.

My real baptism into the mystery of keys came when I became interested in grasses and sedges, at which point frustration started. The keys seemed literally written in some mixture of Greek and Latin with a few English words sprinkled in. There were of course the glossaries, giving supposedly concise definitions of the technical terms, describing the multitude of hair types, serrations, etc. But the definitions often are inadequate for the novice, and many refer to other terms in the glossary. They generally left me with still only a vague idea of what exactly I was looking for. Even when the terms were in English, the botanical definitions often bore little resemblance to their common usage. Becoming desperate, I foolishly thought that perhaps a copy of Gray's Manual (5) would help. The keys in it proved, if anything, more difficult. Besides, M.L. Fernald, its reviser, apparently was a "splitter" and thus increased the choices in many genera. Having said this, I must hasten to add that I have learned to treasure the Manual for its unequalled detailed descriptions, and its explanation and help in the pronunciation of the binary names.

Being of a persistent nature, I next bought a copy of a book on botanical Latin (6). Although it turned out to be a useful book, it was of little help with the keys. The solution to my problems finally came about when I ran across a small book that listed every botanical term I ever needed, defined it, and, more importantly, illustrated most terms clearly. This little paperbound book, "Plant Identification Terminology" (7), has been one of the most useful purchases of the many books I have bought over the years, and at only a fraction of the price of most other books. In the first section of this book, 2400 terms are defined, most with illustrations alongside. In cases where different authors have different interpretations for the same term (not an uncommon occurrence), the multiple definitions are given and illustrated. In the second part, there are specific sections for terms pertaining to stems, leaves, surfaces, inflorescence, etc., again with illustrations and in some cases summaries of such items as leaf forms, serrations, etc. I recommend this book without reservations.

For me, the current standard work on the flora of the northeast is the second edition of Gleason and Cronquist (8), published in 1991. This edition is quite different from the first in the arrangement of the families and the further lumping of species in many genera. There is also a companion volume, "The Illustrated Companion to Gleason and Cronquist's Manual" (9), which has fine detailed line drawings of every plant, arranged in the same order and with the same numbering as in the Manual. Although pictures have been available in the Dover reprint of Britton and Brown's 1913 Illustrated Flora (10), there have been many changes since 1913, making this newer book, although costly, well worthwhile. Unfortunately, it is too heavy and large for use in the field. In addition, the binding does not seem to be robust enough for the weight; my copy after barely two years of use is starting to fall apart.

Gray's Manual has already been mentioned above; it remains a standard for those with a serious interest in the botany of the Northeast and is still the source of the arrangement of specimens in many herbaria.

Recently, there has been an addition to books on the vascular flora of New England flora by Magee and Ahles (11). Although I do not have the expertise to comment on its overall botanical merits, it has quite a few useful illustrations, and occurrence maps for most species. I also have found that many of the keys differ greatly from those in Gleason and Cronquist and Gray's and thus provide some help in cases where a choice in those keys is in doubt. A drawback of the book is that the descriptions of individual species are minimal. However, as an addition to one of the standard works, it would provide an approach and information not readily available elsewhere.

For identification of grasses, sedges and rushes, I have found the keys in Voss' Flora of Michigan, vol. 1 (12) easier to use than most others. Here again, since there is no complete overlap between Michigan and New England, it has to be used in conjunction with one of the other standard works. Another book that is useful for grasses, including those encountered outside the northeast, is Hitchcock's "Manual of the Grasses of the United States" (13). Although out of date, it still is a great source of information, with many excellent figures and detailed descriptions. Any nomenclature changes can usually be detected by checking the genus in more recent books, since most authors of more up-to-date works include older names in their indexes.

Another useful guide, particularly for field use, is the Peterson Field Guide for trees and shrubs (14). It can be nicely complemented by the two large size books by Symonds (15,16) with detailed figures of leaves, twigs, fruits, etc.

For ferns there are the Peterson Field Guide (17) and a book by Tryon and Moran (18) that includes distribution maps for the New England states. Two shirt-pocket size booklets (19,20) with keys covering the northeastern ferns are also available. These, in spite of their small size, generally lead to the correct identification.

Two other booklets, published by the University of Waterloo, on the Goldenrods (21) and the Asters (22) of Ontario can be quite helpful. Both have excellent illustrations of the various plant parts, but again they do not cover all the species occurring in New England.

There are also a number of books covering plants in special habitats: wetlands, coastal areas, forests, alpine habitats, bogs, and others. Although some of these maybe helpful, in many cases, more complete coverage of the plants can be found in the standard manuals. One exception is the books that specialize in identification of plant remnants in the winter. Two come to mind, both written by CBS members. Carol Levine's A Guide to Wildflowers in Winter (23) and Lauren Brown's Weeds in Winter (24) make it possible to extend the field season throughout the fall, winter and early spring.

One additional book I would recommend is Dowhan's Checklist of the Vascular Flora of Connecticut (25). It lists all the vascular plant species found in Connecticut. A short list of additions was published in 1995 by Mehrhoff (26). Although the binding of this book is strong, I would recommend that some kind of spiral binding is substituted, (most print shops will do this for a few dollars) so the book can kept open at a selected page. Another booklet of interest is Connecticut's Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species published by CT Department of Environmental Protection (27).

This is only a sampling of the many wild flower, trees and fern books available, but it should make at least a good start for those with a serious interest in the New England flora.


1. R. T. Peterson and M. McKenny, "A Field Guide to Wildflowers, Northeastern and Northcentral North America," Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.
2. L. Newcomb, "Newcomb's Wildflower Guide," Boston, Little Brown and Co., 1977.
3. Virginia Magee, Newsletter of the Connecticut Botanical Society, 29, No. 3, p.5, 2001.
4. H. A. Gleason and A. Cronquist, "Manual of the Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada," New York, D. van Nostrand Company, 1963.
5. M. L. Fernald, "Gray's Manual of Botany," vol. 2, Portland OR, Dioscorides Press, 8th edition, 1950.

6. W. T. Stearn, "Botanical Latin," 4th edition, Portland OR, Timber Press, Inc., 1992.

7. J. G. Harris and M. Woolf Harris, "Plant Identification Terminology," Spring Lake, Utah, Spring Lake Publishing, 1994.

8. H. A. Gleason and A. Cronquist, "Manual of the Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada," 2nd edition, New York, NY, The New York Botanical Garden, 1991.

9. N. H. Holmgren, "Illustrated Companion to Gleason and Cronquist's Manual," New York, NY, New Yok Botanical Garden, 1998.

10. N. L. Britton and A. Brown, "An Illustrated Flora of the Northern United State and Canada," New York, Dover Publications, Inc. 1913 (original), 1970 (Dover reprint).

11. D. W. Magee and H. E. Ahles, "Flora of the Northeast," Amherst, MA, University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

12. E.G. Voss, "Michigan Flora, Part I," Bloomfield Hills, MI, Cranbrook Institute of Science and University of Michigan , 1972.

13. A. S. Hitchcock, "Manual of the Grasses of the United States," 2nd edition, revised, Washington D. C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1950.

14. G. A. Petrides, "A Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs," Boston MA, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2nd edition, 1972.

15. G. W. D. Symonds, "The Tree Identification Book," New York, William Morrow & Company Inc., 1958.

16. G. W. D. Symonds, "The Shrub Identification Book," New York, William Morrow & Company Inc., 1963.

17. Boughton Cobb, "A Field Guide to the Ferns and Their Related Families of Northeastern and Central North America," Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963.

18. A. F. Tryon and R. C. Moran, "The Ferns and Allied Plants of New England," Lincoln, MA, Center for Biological Conservation, Massachusetts Audubon Society, 1997.

19. A. C. Hallowell and B. G. Hallowell, "Fern finder," Berkeley, CA, Nature Study Guild, 1981.

20. F. A. Wiley, "Ferns of the Northeastern United States," second edition, New York, Dover Publications, Inc.,1948.

21. J. C. Semple, G. S. Ringus and J. J. Zhang, "The Goldenrods of Ontario," 3th edition, Waterloo, Canada, University of Waterloo Biology Series 39:I-90, 1999.

22. J. C. Semple, S. B. Heard and C. S. Xiang, "The Asters of Ontario," Waterloo, Canada, University of Waterloo Biology Series 38: I-94, 1996.

23. Carol Levine, "A Guide to Wild Flowers in Winter," New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1995.

24. Lauren Brown, "Weeds in Winter," New York, W.W. Norton, 1976.

25. J. J. Dowhan, "Preliminary Checklist of the Vascular Flora of Connecticut," Hartford, CT, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, 1979.

26. L. J. Mehrhoff, Rhodora 97: 37, 1995.

27. "Connecticut's Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species 1998," Hartford, CT, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.