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picture of the cover of the book Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast

Book Review: Summer Wildflowers of Northeast by Carol Gracie

—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 alongpicture of the cover of the book Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast 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.

picture of book cover

Book Review: Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects  By Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson and translated by Lucy Moffatt

–Review by Pat Cahalan

This review first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Winter 2020

picture of book coverEntomologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson really likes bugs. In this book she takes us on a romp through the world of insects, delighting us with tales about these fascinating, curious, and sometimes funny creatures, delving into their anatomy, adaptability, and the myriad ways they make our world livable.

It’s that anatomy and adaptability that has enabled them to survive five rounds of mass extinction, from before the days of the dinosaurs. She tells of flies with tongues on their feet, bugs with ears on their knees (and other seemingly unlikely places), insects with vision ranging from acute to blind, and mind-boggling sex lives. The dragonfly is so well adapted to its mission as a hunter (a 95% success rate) with wings, eyes, and brain superbly suited to its task that the US Army has studied it as a model for drone design.

Svedrug-Thygeson’s point: these tiny fascinating creatures, so often either taken for granted or looked down upon by us humans, are highly deserving of our respect. In fact, we couldn’t live without them. She quotes Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson, who writes: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change . . . But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt the human species could live more than a few months.”

We are all familiar with the contribution of insects as pollinators. But we owe them for so much more.

Just imagine, she asks of us, what life would be like without their janitorial services: As life dies off, the insects move in to clean up, recycling the nutrients to the soil, allowing new life to grow. Without them our planet would soon be awash in dead plants, animal carcasses, and dung.Without them we wouldn’t have beeswax, silk, carmine dye, chocolate, shellac, and Shakespeare’s plays (written with long-lasting iron gall ink derived from oak tree galls).

And that’s not all. Blowfly larval therapy is being used to tackle drug-resistant bacteria, and crickets as pets can improve our mental health. One day it may even be possible to send a cockroach with a microchip in its backpack on a rescue mission in a collapsed building.

And insects may one day provide healthy, environmentally friendly food. The “livestock” reproduces rapidly using little space, food, or water. It provides a high-protein food while emitting minimal climate-changing gas. What’s more, it can be raised on our food waste. Research is already underway on using it as feed for fish, poultry, pigs, and dogs. And with proper marketing and processing, it could even become food for human consumption.

And what about all that “nonbiodegradable” plastic littering our planet? Sverdrup-Thygeson tells of one study where mealworms gobble up polystyrene, leaving behind only some carbon dioxide and a spot of beetle poo. And another where the greater wax moth ate holes in polyethylene, the kind of plastic used in supermarket shopping bags, leaving behind only ethylene glycol, familiar to us as antifreeze. The challenge is finding ways to put this knowledge to practical use.

But insects are in severe decline. Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson’s delightful, and carefully researched book, with 20 pages of chapter-by-chapter citations gives us a new respect for these tiny creatures that accomplish so much for us — and underscores the need to help them survive. She points out that “we never know which species will turn out to be useful next.”

Book Review – Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

— This review by Anne Raver first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2019

Robin Law Kimmerer begins Braiding Sweetgrass with the story of Skywoman, who falls from a hole in the Skyworld, clutching a bundle of branches with many fruits and seeds. She hurtles downward, in a shaft of light, where there was only darkness before, toward the murky water below. Many eyes in the sea are watching, and geese rise up to break her fall, holding her in their soft feathers. A great turtle offers his back for her to step upon, a muskrat dives deep into the water to bring a handful of mud from the depths below. Skywoman spreads the mud on the turtle’s shell, scatters the seeds in her hand, and dances the world from brown to green.

Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizens Potawatomi Nation, combines science and the knowledge of her indigenous ancestors to contemplate the devastation that we humans, particularly descendants of the first white settlers, have wrought since first setting foot in the so-called New World (which, as Kimmerer points out, was only new to Europeans and other immigrants; to native inhabitants, it was as ancient as the creation story).

Kimmerer is a distinguished professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, where she also founded and directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The center works with tribal partners and students to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with scientific research for restoration and sustainability projects.

Kimmerer also is a poet and a storyteller, and Braiding Sweetgrass weaves together many threads– stories of her childhood, of her own children, of her graduate students, of desecrated lands and healed ones—with the page-turning power of a beautifully written novel. At the same time, her mind, sharpened by both science and the observational skills of her tribal elders, is constantly analyzing the particulars of any given situation, be it the near extinction of wild salmon in the Northwest, or the chemical toxins that Allied Chemical poured into Onondaga Lake, or the day her daughter refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. (Kimmerer recalls her own childhood participation in the puzzling ritual, with its reference to God and the republic: “And you didn’t have to be an eight-year-old Indian to know that ‘liberty and justice for all’ was a questionable premise.”)

As a Potawatomi, Kimmerer considers plants and animals her teachers; she was listening to the trees long before scientists discovered how they communicate through pheromones in the air and mycorrhizae, a vast symbiosis of fungi and roots beneath the forest floor. Sweetgrass, or “wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth,” was one of the plants that Skywoman clutched in her hand, the day she fell out of that hole in the sky. It was a gift, just like all the other plants, just like the land itself, to be passed from hand to hand shared but never sold. A metaphor for sharing and reciprocity, rather than taking from the earth and others, Sweetgrass calls for a radical shift in consciousness.

As a teacher and activist, Kimmerer offers many examples of people working together to restore balance to the earth—to bring back salmon to their spawning grounds, to restore polluted lakes and salt marshes, to simply learn to listen to the plants and animals.

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.

Native Plants for New England Gardens

Are you interested in growing native plants in your garden?  Mark Richardson and Dan Jaffee’s new book, Native Plants for New England Gardens, is reviewed by EcoRI News.