—This review by Marnie Lacouture first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Spring 2021
Carol Gracie’s Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast is not a field guide but rather a natural history—an in-depth look at thirty-five wildflowers along with some of their close relatives. Gracie has organized the entries alphabetically by common name with the Latin name and family following each entry. As she says in the preface, she wants the general public to feel comfortable reading her book while learning to enjoy wildflowers without being intimidated by their Latin names. She does, however, explain to us how plants are named in Latin and why that is important. Gracie also provides a sizable glossary of botanical terms with a few insect-related definitions as well. Her references are extensive.
The wildflowers of summer, she says, often take a backseat to the spring bloomers which capture early-season enthusiasm, but this book makes us eager to explore the summer ones as well. She reminds us that a bonus in the summer months is the greater number of insects that visit the plants. Included in the book are plants from a variety of families and a variety of habitats. Some are familiar such as cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the goldenrods (Solidago ssp.) and the asters (various genera: Symphyotrichum, Oclemena, Sericocarpus, Doellingeria, Ionactis, and Eurybia). But I quickly found that they are not to be taken for granted and that there is much to be learned about them.
Some of the entries, however, are new to me and several are not native wildflowers but were introduced to the area and have naturalized, like Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and the lovely blue chicory (Cichorium intybus) that bloom along roadways. Some, finding hospitable conditions, have even become invasive, such as American lotus (Nelumbo lutea), a beauty which often is planted as an ornamental in small ponds or lakes, and broad-leaved helleborine, (Epipactis helleborine) an orchid that has made itself at home in the northeast and has become a pest in parts of the Midwest.
Every page of the book is filled with color photographs inspired by several decades of Gracie’s interest in photography together with her passion for wild plants. The close-ups of the buds, the flowers, the leaves, the seeds, and the insects that frequent each plant are fascinating as well as stunning.
We learn how each wildflower was used throughout history, perhaps for medicine, as food or drink, for dyeing textiles or in other ways. There is poetry — I was surprised that Emily Dickinson wrote a poem about Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) and that Robert Frost penned one about the rose pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides). There is captivating history such as a story of how British soldiers stationed in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1676 gathered the abundant early greens of jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) — the name is most likely a distortion of Jamestown-weed— to make a stew which, after eating it, left them out of their minds for eleven days. In present-day Jamestown, the only jimsonweed that Gracie and her husband could find on a visit to the historic site was growing in a pile of dirt where the seeds had been unearthed during an archeological dig. And there are also entertaining stories like an amusing account of how in the 19th century Asa Gray had great difficulty, practically to the point of hopelessness he wrote to fellow botanists, in sorting out the asters for his Flora of North America. That frustration continues for some of us today as the asters have been reclassified and renamed.
Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast does not need to be read from cover to cover but may be enjoyed by opening it to any of the entries. I began near the end by reading the chapter on wild lupine (Lupinus perennis). Our property is suitable for this disappearing wildflower because the soil is sandy, dry, and poor and the woods include pitch pine and oak, just the habitat that it likes. Gracie tells us that the Latin word lupus for wolf was used to name lupine’s genus, Lupinus, because it was believed that lupine stole or “wolfed” nutrients from the soil. Today we know that lupine, which is included in the bean family, can fix nitrogen and actually improve the soil. Years ago, I read the book Miss Rumphius, based on a real historical figure in Maine, to my children. I didn’t realize at the time that this female Johnny Appleseed of lupine was actually planting the seeds of the western species (Lupinus polyphyllus) which, although stately and beautiful, has naturalized and become quite invasive in Maine and other places where it has escaped cultivation. Sadly, Lupinus perennis is most likely gone from the wild in Maine and is rare in Rhode Island.
Gracie’s first chapter on a variety of alpine wildflowers is so alluring that I’m eager to head for a New Hampshire mountaintop this summer to see these hardy miniatures. Her descriptions of many of the wetland plants inspire me to want to suit up and tread, lightly of course, into some swamps and bogs when the time is right. I am certain that other readers will be encouraged to explore these wildflowers in their natural habitats this summer as well and to return to the pages of this beautiful, informative book again and again.