In early July I was hiking on Sauk Mountain near Rockport in a meadow full of wildflowers and was dismayed to find that I couldn’t remember the names of some common plants. I wasn’t carrying a plant list or a book. Once home I rummaged through my book collection trying to figure out which I should put on the top of my “must take” hiking pile.
My bookcase yielded roughly 14 “general” Pacific Northwest plant books, excluding ethnobotany books and hiking guides that comment on wildflowers but aren’t plant field guides in the strictest sense.
Some of my books are specific for native orchids and wetlands; others are area-specific (e.g., a very old National Park Service book, Flora of Mount Rainier by C. Frank Brockman, 1947; reprinted 1956), and Russ Jolley’s Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge). Over the years I’ve occasionally added to my collection.
But which, in general, is best? And what books do other native plant enthusiasts prefer?
I had intended to survey those attending this year’s Washington Native Plant Society Study Weekend on their preferences—but the number attending and the room arrangements made this impractical. On one of my outings, two people packed the “bible”—the enormous Hitchcock and Cronquist, Flora of the Pacific Northwest; two others, myself included, had Pojar and MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
There were more than 150 people at the study weekend in Randle and I suspect there were some copies around of Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson’s Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest and books specific to the Mount Adams area.
After striking out at the study weekend, I’ll confess that I turned to Amazon’s website. I can’t figure out how Amazon arranges books within categories but it does yield a lot of titles. In fact, when I searched “Washington wildflowers” I came up with more than 30 books. Hitchcock was not among them and Pojar and McKinnon’s book was far down the list.
When I changed my search to “Washington native plants,” 27 titles came up with the Pojar and McKinnon book listed first. This list was extremely eclectic. Who would have thought that single copies of the WNPS journal Douglasia would be listed for sale, at a price nearly that of a WNPS membership?
My third search with the key “Pacific Northwest plants” produced 1150 results. This time Hitchcock and Cronquist was a respectable 11 on the list. It even got a rating of 4.5 stars (of 5 possible) with eight reviews.
When I changed my search to focus on “average customer review,” two books were clear winners: Turner and Gustafson (five stars; 21 reviews) and Pojar and McKinnon (five stars; 85 reviews). I own and like both. Both are profusely illustrated with 1240 and 1100 color photos, respectively. Both also have range maps but the similarities stop there.
As the title indicates, Turner and Gustafson’s book focuses on wildflowers. Pojar and MacKinnon’s book is much broader. It covers trees, shrubs, wildflowers (by family), aquatics, graminoids (grasses, sedges and rushes), ferns and allies, mosses and liverworts, and lichens.
However, the books are nearly identical in one way—Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest weighs in at 2 pounds while Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast is 1 pound, 11 ounces. Thus, both are fine for a daypack but you might want to think twice if you are backpacking.
In late July I accompanied 15 native plant experts on a WNPS backpack to the Yellow Aster Butte area in the Mount Baker Wilderness. All knew their plants so well that they didn’t consult books.
I, though, certainly the most botanically challenged member of the group, carried the smallest of my guides: Mountain Flowers of the Cascades and Olympics by Harvey Manning with photos by Bob and Ira Spring.
This Mountaineers publication dates to 1979. It has color photos of 92 flowers and is arranged by bloom color. It gives common and scientific names (although some genera have changed since it was published), bloom times, heights, habitats, distribution, and associates. It is spiral bound and best of all weighs just 3.5 ounces.
This is a very nice general book. In the interest of brevity, no members of the mustard family are listed and most “composites” are omitted as well. Used copies on Amazon start at a penny where two reviewers gave it a combined score of 3.5 stars (one person complained that his/her copy had faded photos, which made the publication useless). A later edition (September 2002) was reviewed by one person (4 stars); used copies of that edition start at $5.98.
I don’t think botanical reference books and field guides are going away, but one person on the backpack trip had the new Burke Museum UW Herbarium app on her phone (a collaboration between David Giblin at the Herbarium and Mark Turner). I understand that once downloaded, you can use the app without connectivity. There is a free trail (not trial) version; the full app is $7.99. I suspect it is in my future.
C. Leo Hitchcock and Arthur Cronquist. Flora of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Manual. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973, 750 pp. 3 lb 6 oz.
Harvey Manning with photos by Bob and Ira Spring. Mountain Flowers of the Cascades and Olympics. Seattle: The Mountaineers, 1979, revised edition, 2002, 96 pp. 3.5 oz. (out of print)
Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, editors. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Vancouver, BC: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994, 528 pp. 1 lb 11 oz.
Mark Turner and Phyllis Gustafson. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2006, 512 pp. 2 lb.