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A Naturalist's Guide to Wetland Plants: An Ecology for Eastern North America

A Naturalist's Guide to Wetland Plants: An Ecology for Eastern North America
Donald D. Cox
Syracuse University Press
Publication Date: 

paper, 194 p., $19.95

This book is aptly titled. It is truly a "naturalist's guide" in that it provides information on wetland plants of eastern North America suitable for the modern-day naturalist. Today's naturalists are primarily educators in environmental science and are often employed at nature centers to develop and conduct outdoor nature studies for a wide range of age groups. This book is also appropriate for those who choose to study nature as an avocation. Written as a popular guide, devoid of technical jargon, the book can be enjoyed by both professional and amateur naturalists.

A Naturalist's Guide to Wetland Plants covers a wide range of topics associated with wetlands, their ecology and plants. Topics include the rationale for conserving wetlands and the important role they play in cycling and storing water and nutrients. The author provides a general, but extensive, description of vascular and nonvascular plants and their mechanisms for survival, i.e., sexual reproduction and seed dispersal strategies. He devotes several chapters to describing the common wetland types in eastern North America and representative plant species of each.

Plants chosen for discussion are often those that have human interest appeal and are appropriate for developing a nature study curriculum. In fact, the author devotes an entire chapter to ethnobotanical plants of wetlands. For the most part, this chapter provides interesting information, such as determining whether or not a plant is poisonous based on the quantity ingested or the importance of a specific plant part or its preparation in terms of edibility. However, I think the author strays beyond the scope of his topic when he discusses the dosage of ipecac required to purge the system from ingestion of a poisonous plant. Instead of ipecac dosage rates, I would have preferred information directly related to wetlands, such as the ability of plants to cope with an anaerobic soil environment or the effects of "draw-downs" on a marsh plant community.

Also included was a chapter on seasonal changes in wetlands that contained an important section on aquatic weeds. The author ends the book with information on collecting and preserving plants and provides a few suggestions for some field investigations in wetlands. An important section on plant collecting ethics is included here. The investigations in the field may be of interest to amateur naturalists, but I think that most professional naturalists will use other sources to build their curricula.

This work is a well-written guide with a wealth of general information on many aspects of wetland ecology and plants. However, I did discover a few errors in the text. The author reports that although the giant reed (Phragmites australis) is circumpolar in distribution, indigenous plants have become weeds in areas of human disturbance. Recent studies have shown that plants introduced from overseas are in fact the weeds to which he alludes and that native strains are restricted to high-quality wetlands. Also, I take issue with the section of the book where the author lists the conditions for contracting poison ivy (Toxicodendronspp.). He states that a person cannot get the rash by just touching the plant, but must damage the plant to release the offending oil. I do not contest the validity of the statement (I have no knowledge to the contrary), but as a long-time sufferer from the effects of poison ivy, I suggest that he recommend avoiding the plant altogether as a prudent course of action.

The parameters of this book, as set by the author in his "Introduction," suggest that this popular guide was never intended to be a comprehensive treatment of wetland flora or wetland ecology, but to "serve as a supplementary field guide." The author's addition of the words "Further Reading" in his bibliography attest to his intent. In this regard, Dr. Cox has succeeded in providing the reader with an interesting and engaging guide to this important natural habitat. Anyone who studies the natural world is aware of the breadth of the topic and the importance of having multiple field guides. This is a welcome addition.

— David Sollenberger, Ecologist, Chicago Botanic Garden