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Botany in a Day (APG): The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, 6th edition

Botany in a Day (APG): The Patterns Method of Plant Identification, 6th edition by Thomas J. Elpel. Pony, Montana: HOPS Press; 2013. Paperback, 235 pages. ISBN: 978-1-892784-35-3. $30.00.

As a professional plant taxonomist often saddled with teaching duties, I have used texts such as Zach Murrells Vascular Plant Taxonomy (Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2010) to introduce my students to the diversity of plant families. For research purposes and when I require a broader spectrum of plant families such as when I constructed a LUCID online key to imported botanicals for the florist industry ( I often turn to books like Vernon Heywood et als Flowering Plant Families of the World (Firefly Books, 2007). However, I have long lamented that there is no introduction for the general public, particularly for the forager and medical herbalist. A prime example of the consequences of inadequate knowledge of plant families is that of Christopher McCandless who was played by Emile Hirsch in the 2007 Sean Penn film Into the Wild, based on Jon Krakauers 1996 book of the same title. McCandless forages to survive in the wilderness of Alaska and ultimately poisons himself as a result of misidentification. One takeaway message from this film is that you shouldnt eat any plant unless you know what it is, and for that you need to know plant families. But how can an amateur learn this easily? A few years ago, I accidentally came across a previous edition of Botany in a Day and was delighted.

Thomas Elpel has written Botany in a Day to cover the vascular plant families, from ferns to flowering plants, most likely to be encountered across the northern latitudes of North America. However, as he explains, the basic approach he presents is also applicable worldwide and is not limited to what he terms the frost belt.

The amateur immediately jumps in to try to match the living plant with keys, often forcing an identification that does not actually exist (the Into the Wild example immediately comes to mind). Instead, Elpel uses the same basic approach that I teach my students, which is to familiarize oneself first with the characteristics of the basic plant families (he mentions eight: the mint, mustard, parsley, pea, lily, grass, rose, and aster families). With a familiarity with basic plant families, one can then start identifying genera and species and learn more families.

Elpel provides basic introductions to plant naming, evolution, and how plants fit into the scheme of life. He then provides fundamental information on plant anatomy and morphology so that the reader can utilize the basic keys to families. This is followed by the main content of Botany in a Day: brief discussions of the major plant families. If this approach is too difficult, Elpel also has written Shanleyas Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99 (HOPS Press, 2005). He maintains that with this childrens book, he can introduce all eight plant family patterns to adults and kids in about two minutes. He also introduces card games, including Memory, Slap Flower, Crazy Flowers, Wildflower Rummy, and Shanleyas Harvest, a game based on the story. The next time I teach Systematic Botany for my college students, this is one trick that I will have to try to motivate my students, who increasingly come from an urbanized world and could care less about plants (sad but true).

Botany in a Day, 6th edition, is well and amply illustrated with both black-and-white and color drawings. In addition to the standard botanical descriptions for each family, he discusses medicinal and culinary characteristics, a welcomed addition that is lacking in standard botanical introductions. He also provides a sizeable bibliography and highlights books on foraging.

The errors are, thankfully, few and far between. For example, he writes of the mint family: Medicinally, this family is rich in volatile oils, especially menthol. Actually, only two plants in the entire world have an appreciable content of menthol: peppermint (Mentha x piperita, Lamiaceae) and Japanese peppermint (M. canadensis). Apparently he has confused menthol, an alcohol, with the more common ketones, menthone and piperitone, which have similar odors but are not as cooling, and which are more generally distributed in the Lamiaceae. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Elpel is amazingly current in many areas of plant science, such as studies of symbiotic relationships, and he evinces a background in paleobotany (something that is unfortunately absent from the education of many botanists today; see Life Begins on pages 6-7).

In short, I recommend Elpels publications to any burgeoning botanist, horticulturist, forager, medical herbalist, or those simply interested in learning how to identify plants. In addition to the publications listed above, Elpel has authored or co-authored Foraging the Mountain West (HOPS Press, 2014) and Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills (HOPS Press, 2009), or, as he puts it, Get in touch with your wild side! Today, survival in the wild or in a post-apocalyptic world is strangely popular, so I thoroughly recommend getting to know plants first Elpels books are a perfect fit.

Arthur O. Tucker, PhD

Emeritus Professor

Agriculture & Natural ResourcesDelaware State University, Dover, Delaware