ASBS logo

ASBS Newsletter – Book Review

Contemporary Plant Systematics. Second edition

written by Dennis W. Woodland.

(From ASBS Newsletter Number 97, December 1998)

Andrew University Press, Berrien Springs, Michigan. 1997.
xiv+619 pp. + CD-ROM.
ISBN 1-883925-14-2.

Price: $85.

This is the last book in this renewed series of reviews, at least for a while. The previous reviews (A.S.B.S Newsletter 93: 53-57; A.S.B.S. Newsletter 95: 18-21) considered some books on biological systematics in general, rather than botanical systematics in the strict sense. They were very different from each other in style and content, and this book differs even more from them.

So, this review basically continues the series started in earlier reviews, assessing the ability of the contemporary crop of botanical textbooks to present systematics as an exciting modem science, rather than as simply being a traditional scholarly exercise. The six books that I have reviewed vary widely in intent, including generalist introductory ones, taxonomy-based ones concentrating on the practice, and more systematics-oriented ones focusing on the principles. As an introductory comment, the book by Dennis Woodland fits into the second category, currently occupied by the books by Samuel B. Jones & Arlene E. Luchsinger (Plant Systematics, second edition) and Albert E. Radford (Fundamentals of Plant Systematics).

Consequently, this is a "scholarly" book, in that it tries to be a formally correct textbook for "the undergraduate student and serious amateur gardener-botanist who has taken at least a beginning biology course". However, the author is at pains to stress that "the field of systematics is... not static, but dynamic, moving, ever changing. Developments in plant systematics, therefore, warrant a contemporary synthesis of a progressive and exciting field." Unfortunately, the formal textbook nature of the presentation prevents any of this excitement from reaching the reader.

So, the flavour of the book is academic rather than exciting. There are continual references to the "beginning student", but the book is rather intimidatingly thick for a beginner. It is also organized with all of the boring bits of systematics at the beginning - you would need to be interested in systematics already in order to make it very far into this book. Modern teaching has moved away from boring the students into submission, but this book has not moved very far.

The book is organized into 15 logically-arranged chapters, plus three Appendices and a Glossary. The publication quality is generally good, although there are far too many typographical errors for a good textbook. The Index is mainly concerned with plant names, and only selected topics and people are included.

The stated aims of the book are "to (1) teach basic botanical facts as applied to vascular plants, (2) relate these facts to systematic principles, (3) show how systematic principles are important to contemporary botanical and environmental issues from a global perspective, and to (4) allow the student access to digitized color botanical images." The first two of these aims are probably achieved, while the CD addressing the last aim is less successful. However, it is the failure of the third aim that lets the side down.

For example, there is no phylogeny of plants presented, although there are several classification schemes. If contemporary systematics has contributed anything to modern biology it is the explicit approach to phylogenetic analysis, and the emphasis on the role that phylogeny plays in comparative biology. However, you would never learn about this advance from reading this book. In addition, the role played by molecular systematics is underplayed, with only 5 of the 29 references related to that topic being post-1990. The "global view" is also stressed, but it is a rather token effort - the book is very much about North America, with rest-of-the-world asides. For example, Table 5.2 lists the "Largest herbaria in the world" but Table 5.3 also lists the "Largest herbaria in North America", and the list of Floras in Appendix II is arranged by continent, except for North America which is arranged by country and by state within the U.S.A.

The book starts with a brief exposition on The Significance of Systematics (5 pages). This is basically a set of boring definitions, plus some history. Apparently, systematics has only an academic use; and this view is hardly likely to entice anyone to enter this field as a profession. The next chapter concerns How Plants Get Their Names (12 pages), and it provides a very correctly-worded review of the topic, ultimately making it sound rather uninteresting. Furthermore, some of the information appears to be inaccurate (e.g. "the nomenclatural type of a genus is the species"), and there is no consideration of contemporary topics, such as the proposed Biocode, registration of names, etc.

The Literature of Systematics (14 pages) is basically a commented bibliography of books, which is quite helpful. However, the frequent use of "et al." for multiple authors is less useful (and this arrangement continues into Appendix 1).

The fourth chapter, How Plants are Identified (5 pages), is brief and not particularly good. For example, computerized polyclaves are mentioned but not discussed; and even the concept of each couplet in a key dividing the taxa in equal-sized groups is not suggested. By contrast, the next chapter, on Collecting, Handling, and Preserving Specimens (17 pages), is very detailed, and I get the impression that Woodland is most at home with this sort of topic. We even learn that a fork is a spade!

The next series of chapters concerns Families of Ferns and Their Associated Plants (Pteridophytes) (28 pages), Families of Pinophyta (Gymnosperms) (20 pages), Terminology of Flowering Plants (Magnoliophyta) (34 pages), Families of Flowering Plants 1. Magnoliopsida (Dicots) (201 pages), and Families of Flowering Plants II. Liliopsida (Monocots) (47 pages). These chapters contain descriptions of morphology, a suggested classification scheme, and descriptions of key or representative families (usually one family per page, with the exception of the Asteraceae and Poaceae), along with line drawings provided by Anita Riess. If nothing else, this section will convince you that systematics is about memorizing names. It will also convince you that with this level of detail few people can get it correct. Thus we encounter odd errors like 'Sydney [is] a city of over 2.5 million people" (this is strictly true, but only in the sense that it is also a city with more than 1 million people, and more than 100,000 people,...), as well as a reference to the largest eucalypts occurring in southwestern (as opposed to southeastern) Australia. There are also inconsistencies such as illustrated characters that are not defined in the text (e.g. attenuate and clasping leaf bases). More problematically, the 1988 version of Cronquist's classification is used for the flowering plants, but there are inconsistencies between this classification and the descriptions of the families and orders. The distribution of the asterisks supposedly indicating which families are discussed and illustrated is also very inaccurate (there are at least 10 errors); and the typographical and other errors don't improve the clarity of this section (e.g. what is Acacia visco?).

Chapter 11 concerns the History and Development of Classification (35 pages). It covers the early history quite well, but then the "natural" classifications of the 19th century are treated as being phylogenetic, which they couldn't be because the proponents had no method of reconstructing the phylogeny, and the contemporary classification schemes are all seen as minor variants of each other. The discussions of phenetics and cladistics are abysmal, and I won't say anything about them or I will start foaming at the mouth.

The next chapter, Contemporary Views of the Origin of Vascular Plants (17 pages), is good within its limitations, but it is very conservative. For example, it is based very much on fossils but it never quite gets to the work of Doyle and Hickey. Contemporary ideas based on phylogeny are not discussed at all.

The chapter on Contemporary Methods of Studying Plant Systematics (31 pages) is quite variable, because it was written by a range of people. It covers Anatomy (Nels Lersten), Morphology (Rolf Sattler), Molecules (Loren Riesberg), Palynology (Cliff Crompton), and Cytology & Genetics (Woodland). Most of these parts are about characters, but Sattler's is also about theory and processes (as one would expect from his other published work). The part on molecules is very naive (e.g. morphological classifications can be incorrect but classifications based on one gene are not), and the one on pollen is incomprehensible.

The chapter on Endangered and Threatened Species (15 pages) is quite good, but world problems are apparently seen as being caused by increasing population growth per se rather than by the consequent increased use of non-renewable resources (the latter case implicates the westernized countries rather than the third-world countries, because the per capita use of resources is greater in those countries).

The Role of Botanical Gardens in Society (31 pages) covers the topic well, but there is no clear rationale for including this chapter in the book. It is also contradictory in places regarding which particular gardens were established at what times. The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney and the Christchurch Botanic Garden are the only Australasian representatives.

The Epilogue (3 pages) concerns itself with The Relevance of Systematics to Society, and Job Oppurtunities and Qualifications. These are the most enthusiastic parts of the book, but also the most unconvincing.

Appendix I - Selected References (23 pages) reflects the main text itself - where the topic is covered well in the text then the selection of references is well-balanced and helpful, and where the topic is covered poorly then the references are also poor.

Appendix II - Floras of the World (37 pages) could potentially be quite useful, but if the rest of it is as poor as the Australian section then this is a doubtful proposition. For example, there is a reference to the 1972 edition of the Flora of the Sydney Region, the Students Flora of Tasmania and the Flora of Victoria are incomplete, and the Flora of Central Atistralia and the Flora of South-eastern Queensland are missing entirely.

Appendix III - Classification of the Division Magnoliophyta (Flowering Plants) (12 pages) is a summary of the 1988 version of Cronquist's classification. It is quite accurate, but the distribution of the asterisks supposedly indicating which families "are discussed and illustrated in the text" is very inaccurate, even more so than the similar arrangement in the main text (there are at least 31 errors here).

The Glossary is mostly good as far as it goes, but it is very biased in its content. For example, it is mainly concerned with morphology, etc. and there is very little about processes. Thus, we have the bizarre situation where the word "repand" is defined but the word "phylogeny" is not. Furthermore, there are some rather odd definitions, such as: "Cladistics - a modem system of classification in which the only groups formally recognized are those that distinguish the group from other groups (called clades)"; I am still at a loss as to how to translate this into English. Finally, "i.e." is used throughout, whereas "e.g." would be more appropriate.

The accompanying CD is a sensible idea that doesn't come off. It is basically a collection of digitized images of plants (primarily Mike Clayton, Robert Kowal, Elizabeth Parnis, Kenneth Systema, and Woodland, with images from the Royal Botardc Gardens Kew provided by Marilyn Ward) designed to complement the descriptions in the text. However, there has apparently been little care and attention to detail in its preparation. So, there are no printed instructions for the disk, and you have to blunder around about a bit on the disk itself in order to find the "electronic" version of the instructions. Furthermore, the catalogue is almost unusable, and finding a particular image is very much a trial-and-error process. There are almost no images from Australia, and those that do exist are mostly from Western Australia (mainly credited to Dennis Woodland himself). The proof-reading is very poor, and mis-spellings abound. For instance, there are pictures of "Austraian flowers" (an Acacia), "C. liioralis" (= Casuarina littoralis), and "Leschenaultia superloa" (= Lechenaultia biloba). There are also unexplained abbreviations, such as "B serrata" (= Banksia serrata); and given the technical correctness of the book, the description of Proteaceae follicles as "B sp cone" is a let-down. All in all, the CD contributes little to the book.

So, in the final analysis, this is a fairly dry academic book, which is probably quite acceptable as an introductory textbook for botanists in North America, provided that its limitations are acknowledged. However, you will never entice any students from elsewhere in the world into botanical systematics by showing them this book. The wish expressed in the last sentence of the book has not been fulfilled.

Reviewer: David Morrison

Department of Environmental Sciences
University of Technology, Sydney