The Naturalist's Journal

“Plants are more interesting than you think they are,” said botanist, teacher, writer, and photographer Carol Gracie, as she discussed her lifelong fascination with the green and growing world. We were talking, by phone—Carol, from her home in rural Westchester County, New York; your faithful documentarian, from the ridge—about her remarkable career, much of it spent leading education programs at the New York Botanical Garden and directing the NYBG’s Foreign Tour Program, as well as trekking through the rain forests of Central and South America in search of rare flora, several new species of which she discovered and now bear her name. (There are other tropical plants named both for Carol and her recently deceased husband, the acclaimed NYBG researcher Scott Mori, an expert on the Brazil Nut family of plants and Carol’s much beloved traveling companion and collaborator.)

On her assessment of how interesting botany can be I could, of course, do nothing more than concur completely, and if you’re even the slightest bit dubious, I’m quite sure that Carol has produced something to bring you entirely on-board the flora bandwagon. Earlier this year, the Princeton University Press published her newest book, Summer Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History, and after spending many hours with this glorious and endlessly informative and intriguing book—Princeton was good enough to send me a review copy—I’m giving it the highest endorsement possible: five stars, two thumbs up, Triple A, Ten out of Ten... you name it. And lest you think that we’re too close to the advent of autumn for a book on summer blooms to be useful—or, worse, that a volume devoted to the glories of a season about to be history might be downright depressing—buck up: many of the subjects of Carol’s book, the asters and goldenrods among them, are also superstars of the fall. Indeed, one group, the Gentians, don’t really come into their flowering own until after the autumn equinox on Tuesday, September 22 at 9:31 in the morning, and the rising of the Harvest Moon at a little past five on Thursday afternoon, October 1st.

Heck, even if you can’t quite put your fingers on the $29.95 volume until, say, the holiday season—Summer Wildflowers would make a great gift—the book offers fine viewing and reading, to say nothing of its potential to banish any bout of seasonal affective disorder for folks whose dark-times theme song is “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Like Carol’s earlier masterwork, Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History, that I highlighted in the Journal some seven years ago, her summer companion-volume provides a splendid home- and field-schooling education for plant lovers eager to explore 35 groups, from alpine wildflowers to yellow pond lilies, that can be found in our region.

To call the coverage comprehensive would be a massive understatement. To be sure, most of the plants in the book are native Americans, but there are also chapters devoted to “weeds,” such as Queen Anne’s Lace and Chicory (the former, a kind of wild carrot; the latter, the source of my favorite addition to coffee)—introduced species that have become fully naturalized in our area and have, says Carol, “interesting life histories worthy of telling.” There are chapters devoted to single species, such as the show-stopping red Cardinal Flower, but in the accounts of such stalwarts as asters and goldenrods, Carol paints with both a broad brush and the finest-bristled brushes, as she surveys the entire realm and many of the noteworthy players. 

Studying the text will make you a more competent botanist, but the accounts include far more than just a deep dive into the science. What I’ve come to love about this writer’s work is that Carol melds the latest research with a wide-ranging array of stories about how the plants have impacted human history, from the use, of, say, the Wild Leek’s attraction as a food source—think ramps—to a patent medicine and soft drink made from an extract of the roots of gentians—think “Moxie.” American Ginseng gains prominence for its legendary use in Chinese medicine, which Carol is quick to point out has no scientific basis but has nevertheless created a cottage industry devoted to collecting the plant, an endeavor that sometimes threatens to push Panax quinquefolius towards extinction. (Both John Jacob Astor and Daniel Boone, says Carol, were avid collectors, although, we learn, Astor’s efforts led to huge profits of $1.14 million in today’s dollars, while Boone’s ill-fated expedition in the late 1700s came to disaster when the boat carrying his harvest overturned on the Ohio River and forced the pioneer to sell his water-logged ginseng “for next to nothing.”)

For readers perplexed by the Latin and Greek used to denote the scientific names of each species or the more general categories, Carol provides wonderful explanations of how these came to be. Since the arcane and too-often intimidating words “may in fact describe the plant or something about it,” the foreign binomials have a story to tell that can make them “more meaningful and easier to remember.”

Consider, for example, Solidago, the genus name for members of the Goldenrod clan, the flowers that many observers regard as the floral signature of late summer (but not, as the author points out, the source of hay fever misery, which turns out to be caused by the ubiquitous but relatively drab plant known as Ragweed). Solidago, she explains, was coined by the pioneering taxonomist Linnaeus from Latin words that mean “becoming whole,” a nod to “goldenrod’s reputed medicinal properties.” True, it does contain antioxidants, antiseptics, and antifungal compounds that might be worthwhile, but my suspicion is that the best use of the numerous goldenrod species currently gracing our landscape would have to be as fuel for insect pollinators, as well as inspiration for poets, many of whom, including Robert Frost, William Cullen Bryant, John Burroughs, and the Laureate of Flowers, Emily Dickinson, are brought into the chapters. 

Deftly weaving all these threads together is how Carol hooks her audience, both in the programs she’s offered over the years and in this book and others she’s written and photographed. This is, of course, how the best teachers work: find something that connects with the audience and, magically, gets them interested in what they’d formerly dismissed as, to use the chilling words of my ten-year-old-going-on-fourteen grand-daughter, “really boring.”

As you’ll quickly discover with Carol as your guide, plants are anything but. “The next time you pass a field of goldenrod brightening up a [late summer] or fall day, stop not only to appreciate the beauty of the scene, but also to think about all the life supported by the goldenrod plants in that field,” she writes—not only about Solidago, but about all the species she covers. From the June solstice through the killing frosts, Summer Wildflowers is an invitation to fascination, and, I would hasten to add, action, albeit a gentle push, rather than one, too often in this political season, delivered via a club. “I’m certain that as you become more familiar with the natural history of wildflowers, you will want to become an advocate for their protection and conservation,” Carol says. To which I can only add, as I survey the blossoms on the ridge and beyond, amen.

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