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Book Review: Summer Wildflowers of New England

Summer Wildflowers of New England, a Natural History
Written by Carol Garcie
Published by Princeton University Press, 2020
Reviewed by Maureen Sundberg

Carol Gracie’s admiration and affection for the flowers she researches and photographs is evident on every page of her new book Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast. Those familiar with the thoughtfully detailed life histories of plants in Gracie’s Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast will recognize in this companion volume her wide-ranging mix of the natural history of species and spectacular photography.

In Summer Wildflowers, Gracie focuses on 35 summer-blooming wildflower species, most of which can be found throughout the northeast quarter of the United States, though some are found in more restricted areas within that larger range. Each chapter is an essay that provides a very readable plant profile. In addition to her own finely recorded observations, she draws in fascinating detail from a range of sources to complete our understanding of each plant. She references current research, and cutting-edge tools such as DNA sequencing, as well as literature, historical accounts, mythology, and folklore, including traditional medicinal uses. Species selected for the book also inhabit diverse habitats, including alpine, aquatic, bog and swamp, coniferous forest, arid rock and sand, and fields and meadows.

One cannot help but admire Gracie’s commitment to obtaining detailed and aesthetic photographs to illustrate her subjects precisely. In her essay on jimsonweed, she describes her four-hour vigil watching and waiting to witness the plant’s bloom and the arrival of its pollinators. The blossoms open as the sun sets, exude a gardenia-like fragrance, and finally, just as the sky becomes dark, secrete nectar at the base of the flower at which time the first moth appears. Gracie takes a series of photos of the newly open flower and a pink-spotted sphinx moth sipping the nectar, recording a phenomenon few will have the opportunity to observe firsthand.

Gracie delves deeply into the fascinating interactions between the selected plants and the elements of their environment. She explains the lifelong reliance of broad-leaved helleborine and showy lady slipper (both in the Orchid family) on their fungal partners and the complicated relationship of milkweed and monarch. Many essays observe the behavior of pollinators in response to plant physiology and record the effectiveness of various pollinators. And who doesn’t want to know which plant claims the title for “fastest” movement in the plant world? (Spoiler alert: it’s bunchberry.)

Though there is plenty of data and rich detail in this book, it is not intended for only the dedicated horticulturist. Gracie’s generous descriptions incite careful attention and encourage readers to perform their own observations. My own interest is definitely piqued. After Indian pipe appeared in my Massachusetts yard for the first time last year, I wasn’t sure what to make of the strange plant, though I was told it was a wildflower, not a fungus. Gracie’s essay on Indian pipe and magnified photographs of the plant’s flower and its pollinators have set me straight. Also, I learned an enchanting detail about the plant – the gray/black markings on the flower are “bee kisses,” the shadows of footprints left by visiting pollinators. I now look forward to a closer inspection of Indian pipe when it appears in the garden this summer.

Summer Wildflowers is a detailed resource and guide, but it is also an engaging and interesting read. Whether you have recently discovered wildflowers or have an established interest, Gracie offers page after page of beautifully illustrated information. With a magnifying lens in one hand and Gracie’s book in the other, I plan to spend time exploring the wildflowers in and around my home.

Editor’s Note

Princeton University Press has copies of Summer Wildflowers  and will match online pricing and offer free shipping through June 30, 2020. Use the code FREEF.

About the Reviewer

Maureen Sundberg edits the ELA Newsletter and writes from her home in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts.