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Tuatara: Volume 31, Issue 1, July 1991

Book Review: — Wetland Plants in new Zealand

page 66

Book Review:
Wetland Plants in new Zealand

This book and Threatened Plants of New Zealand by C.M. Wilson and D. R. Given are the first two in a new DSIR Field Guide series. They are paperbacks of rather unusual size format (15 cm × 25 cm). Presumably, the larger than normal page length, is a device to accommodate more text, in relation to illustrations, in which a page of text is accompanied by a page of illustrations. The latter, in Wetland Plants in New Zealand have been designed for a shorter page length.

This is a substantial book (319 pages) and one is immediately impressed by Pat Brooke's line drawings, which, to quote from the cover blurb, are “superb”. 531 wetland plants (native and naturalised) are illustrated and they are so good that the text is rendered almost superfluous, when one is making an identification. A few plants, which are described in the text, are not illustrated either because of their local distribution, or because they are more typically plants of dry soils, or because they represent “the inevitable afterthoughts”. Although it is clearly not possible to have the plant illustrated always on the page facing the text, when the two are not opposite each other, they are not far away!

Dr Peter Johnson is a plant ecologist at Botany Division (now part of the Department of Land Resources) and Pat Brooke is Botany Division's botanical artist. Her talents as a watercolourist too, are shown in the frontispiece, which depicts the Oioi (Leptocarpus similis) a rush-like plant.

The illustrations and brief descriptions of each family and genus of wetland plants, together with a key to each species and a brief description, including their distribution and any noteworthy features e.g. the toxicity of particular plants, occupies about 85% of the book. As Peter Johnson notes in the Preface: “It seemed that although books were available to allow easy identification of certain groups of plants in New Zealand, especially trees and shrubs, ferns, alpines, common weeds, and selected aquatics, that there was no popular treatment to assist students, land managers, or anyone else interested in “gumboot country” to recognise and name the plants.” The book includes wetland plants of outlying islands in the New Zealand botanical region between 29° and 55°S. Only vascular plants are included, with the exception of the stoneworts, green algae of the family Characeae, which were included because they “superficially resemble flowering aquatic plants”.

The descriptions of wetland plants is preceded by a section entitled “Wetland Habitats and Vegetation” which is illustrated by 39 excellent photos, most in colour. Here one learns the differences between, for example, lacustrine and palustrine wetlands, peatlands, marshes, bogs, lagg, fens and swamps! This section is a valuable addition to the literature on wetland regions of New Zealand, especially as little has been written on this topic. Thus, in little more than a page, Dr Johnson gives a concise and clear account of the characteristic features of a typical New Zealand lowland swamp.

The descriptions of the wetland plants are divided into the following sections — Algae, Ferns and Fern Allies, Conifers, Monocotyledons and Dicotyledons. Within the flowering plants the order of the families “follow approximately the sequence of Hutchinson (1959), adopted also in many other works on the New Zealand flora, whereby families displaying features considered primitive precede those which, in an evolutionary sense, seem more advanced.” My only quibble about this order is why have the monocots preceding the dicots, when it is generally page 67 agreed, with abundant evidence from anatomy, morphology and the fossil record, that monocots evolved from dicots? It is clear that an enormous amount of work has gone into preparing the text for this book and that it contains much new information, particularly with respect to the distribution of both native and naturalised plants.

A comparatively minor criticism of the book is that the illustrations contain enlargements of specific parts of many plants and these are not labelled. One can usually work out what these are, but not always. For example, looking at the two enlargements of parts of branchlets of Sarcocornia quinqueflora (formerly Salicornia australis) one might assume there are separate male and female inflorescences, when in fact, they show male and female phases of what are bisexual flowers. Contrast this with the meticulous descripions of the illustrations in Lucy Moore and Bruce Irwin's classic The Oxford Book of New Zealand Plants (1978). Apart from that I can only heap praise on Wetland Plants! Such a book has been long overdue and the author and artist have done a splendid job. A book of significant scholarship, which will foster interest in a group of habitats which have been called New Zealand's “shy places” and which are far from being inhospitable but rather “contain much to explore, discover, interpret, and enjoy.”

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