Review by David Starkey
It’s spring here in Coastal California, and the atmospheric rivers that deluged our state have resulted in an abundance of wildflowers, which makes the publication of the National Audubon Society’s new Wildflowers of North America a cause for celebration.
Considering its subject matter and layout, it’s not surprising that Wildflowers of North America is a big book: even flexibound, it’s four pounds, seven and a half by nine and a half inches, and more than an inch and a half thick. Focusing on a book’s dimensions might seem irrelevant, but presumably the average trekker with an interest in wildflowers would prefer to bring along a smaller guidebook focusing on flora in the area in which they are hiking. Frankly, I can’t picture stowing it in my backpack even for a walk through the Santa Ynez foothills.
The book is divided by families (orchid, pea, phlox, gentian, etc.), and while there are maps showing where each flower is native, rare/extirpated, or introduced, Wildflowers of North America would be difficult to use if one were primarily concerned with a geographic focus.
However, these quibbles fade when experiencing the book simply as a full-color introduction to the glory and variety of North American wildflowers. In this regard, it is a splendid resource. Multiple photographs not only clearly show the significant elements of each flower, they are also little works of art in themselves.
Each full-page entry contains essential elements for identifying the flower under discussion—habitat, range, flowering season, and a detailed description. Most delightful for the casual reader, though, is the list of alternate names for individual flowers. Orange hawkweed, for instance, is also known as devil’s-paintbrush and fox-and-cubs. Orange jewelweed is spotted touch-me-not. Cleavers is alternatively called sticky-willy, bedstraw, goosegrass and catchweed. The fanciful nature of many of these names suggests just how much pleasure people have taken in interacting with wildflowers.
Other features include very fine distinctions between similar species. Gordon’s bladderpod, for instance, differs from Fendler’s bladderpod in that the former “has slender stems that lie on the ground turning up at the tips. It is not tufted.” Many entries include notes on conservation and where a flower is endangered, and appropriate warnings exist for dangerous flowers. “Ingesting the leaves [of manyflower marsh-pennywort] may cause nausea, especially in children.” “All parts of [pokewood] can be toxic.” Flixweed “can cause livestock to go blind.”
The introduction is blessedly brief, and offers important insights about the survival of wildflowers in the face of climate change: “High genetic diversity increases the likelihood that wildflower populations will contain favorable genotypic variation for environmental selection to act upon, driving adaption of a population to a new environmental context.” The end matter is equally compact and useful. In addition to a glossary and index, it contains two-to-four sentence summaries of each of the wildflower families covered in the book.
With its heft, not to mention its green ribbon marker and glossy finish, Wildflowers of North America may not be one of those torn and smudged guidebooks hauled through the backcountry. However, it will certainly be a handsome addition to any bookshelf where the diversity of flora in the United States and Canada is justly commemorated.