Meet your local weeds and wildflowers

I can’t remember a book making me so eager for spring. Others may have given me the feel of that swift, sweet season, but none has given me so much to do when it arrives.

Mind you, I love winter, but now I want things to sprout so I can go out in my yard — and into fields, bogs and woods — looking for all the plants I’m learning about in “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks,” by Donald J. Leopold, a professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and Lytton John Musselman, a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia (published by Johns Hopkins University Press).

I also want to use this guidebook to look up what I find there. It is coded by flower color, like most such guidebooks, but beyond that it looks like I’ll have to flip through entries to see what seems like a match. That’s not always easy, but I’ve never met a wildflower guidebook that makes it easy. Anne McGrath and Joanne Treffs’ 1981 guidebook, also called “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks,” is no better, and it has photos and descriptions in separate sections, which I find annoying. Compared to that slim volume, Leopold and Musselman’s “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks” is more of a “book,” and a better “guide” as well.

This is the first time I have intervened and taken one of the books mailed to the Enterprise for myself, instead of sending it off to one of our reviewers. I’ve loved guidebooks since I was a kid, flipping through the little Golden Guides to fish and stars and reptiles. All I wanted for my 11th birthday was Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds,” and when I moved to the Adirondacks in 1999, one of my first goals was to learn the trees. I have about 20 guidebooks on my shelf at home. This one grabbed me as soon as I opened it.

You could, more or less, judge it by its cover, or at least by its three-dimensional exterior. It’s too big for a mini-guide but not so hefty you couldn’t pop it in a backpack. The wonderful photo quality seen on the cover is inside as well, but as hinted by its bulk, its real value is the text.

It’s a good read. Its entries are mostly short and in large print, but they are packed with information I’m curious about, such as where a plant can be found, whether it’s OK to eat or has medicinal uses, or whether it’s native or invasive. The authors also get into how plants get such interesting names as sneezeweed (which doesn’t, in fact, cause hay fever), beggar ticks (which hang their heads like panhandlers) and viper’s bugloss (thought to heal snakebite venom, and “bugloss” is the corruption of a Latin word for ox’s tongue, which is rough like the surface of this plant.)

Being botanists, Leopold and Musselman put Latin names first and emphasize their importance throughout the book — but the common names are what readers care about. I tried using the Latin names for a while as I read this book, and I learned a bit in the process, but it’s not going to stick. Sorry to say, but this attempt to convert the audience to scientific nomenclature is doomed.

Still, the authors make up for it with their excellent write-ups, showing clear command of the English language. And pragmatic readers with no use for Latin will probably enjoy learning about plants’ practical uses: which ones are toxic, taste great, are valued for healing properties — written in careful language that doesn’t oversell the promise of “home remedies.” This information presumably comes mainly from Musselman; one of his prior books is called “The Quick Guide to Wild Edible Plants: Easy to Pick, Easy to Prepare.”

The book’s layout and typography are simple and elegant, and its photos are beautiful — many of them exceedingly so. A few pictures are printed too small or too zoomed out for easy identifying. Also, as with most guides, each plant only gets one picture; therefore, they show flowers rather than leaves, which last longer and therefore are helpful to identifying a plant. Still, more, bigger photos would mean a bigger, more expensive book. This one hits a pretty sweet spot.

Not that I was disappointed, but when the publisher’s communications rep asked me if she could be of any service, I asked her about the photos. She passed my question on to the authors, and Leopold sent me this reply:

“Interesting observation. I was disappointed that the design/production decision was to make the images so small and maximize the print size, contrary to other wildflower guides and unfortunately minimizing the impact of the many good images. So, we were entirely removed from this decision although I suspect it was driven by printing costs.”

A few compromises to reality are inevitable in any project. In general, this book is very well done.

It also has an intangible quality I don’t get from many other guidebooks: Somehow it motivates me to get out and use it. So if you see me lingering over weed patches this summer, now you know why.

After all, these wild plants are our neighbors, just like the people, animals and trees that surround us. We may as well get to know them a little.


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