Book Review – Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History

by Carol Gracie, Princeton University Press 2012
This review by Pat Cahalan, originally appeared in WildfloraRI, Winter 2018

To say this book is a collection of essays on spring-blooming wildflowers of the northeastern US and adjacent Canada, while accurate, doesn’t begin to capture its appeal. Unlike so many others, this book seamlessly blends the science, culture, and beauty of these plants, illustrating it all with photographs that are almost like being in the field with a 10x lens.

The author looks at 30 or so flowers from a botanical viewpoint, letting us in on what is happening in the plant’s life and why. What’s that insect doing on that plant? Why is that bloom shaped the way it is? What’s its pollination strategy? She delves into the life stories of not just familiar favorites like trillium, columbine, and lady’s-slippers, but also less popular ones like skunk cabbage and false hellebore, saxifrage, featherfoil, and fringed polygala (also known as gaywings or bird-on-the-wing). Throughout, she relates how a particular flower compares to others in its family, citing examples not only in the northeast and other parts of the U.S. but also in far- flung lands around the world.

Gracie talks about how these wildflowers got their names, both the common and scientific, and why the scientific names are changing—how new methods of studying plants (e.g., DNA sequencing) have led to a better understanding of the relationships between plants and their subsequent reclassification. But as she says in her essay on early saxifrage, now Micranthes virginiensis, “. . . there is generally good reason for such taxonomic changes, but it can drive one crazy—a saxifrage that is not a Saxifraga!”

In many of the essays she discusses the plant’s cultural history in folklore and literature. She mentions how these plants have been used medicinally and as food by native American tribes, ancient cultures, and colonial herbalists. However, she by no means endorses these uses, pointing out the very real possibility of disastrous results from such experimentation.

In each chapter Gracie discusses the latest scientific research on that plant, and for the reader who wants to pursue the science further, she includes an extensive list of references in the back of the book. While she does use botanical terminology throughout the text, those of us who are unfamiliar with the terms will have little trouble following her, as her easy-to-read style makes clear the meanings of words within the context of the text. In addition, she includes an extensive glossary in the back of the book.

More than 500 of the author’s color photographs illustrate the book. They include both plant portraits and plants in their natural settings, and give us an intimate look at what is going on in each plant’s life. Particularly fascinating are the many close-ups highlighting the botanical details she discusses and giving us a glimpse of nature at work, including the seven photos showing interior details of a Jack-in-the-pulpit flower, a native bee hanging upside-down from the stamens of a trout lily as it collects pollen, and an ant grasping a seed of Dutchman’s breeches by its edible appendage to drag it back to its nest.

This is not a substitute for a field guide to identifying plants, nor will it tell you how to garden or landscape your property. Rather, it is simply a collection of delightful, botanically accurate stories about our spring wildflowers.