New “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks” is more home reference book than field guide

Blue flag, an Adirondack wildflower. File photo by Phil Brown

By Phil Brown

I’m no botanist, but over the years I have learned to identify a number of wildflowers that grow in the Adirondacks. Encountering these old friends in the woods or along a stream always enlivens an outdoor adventure.

Before retiring from the Explorer, I often spent my lunch hours in the spring on Baker Mountain looking for early bloomers, such as spring beauty, trout lily, purple trillium, and the droll Dutchman’s breeches.

My guide in those days was “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks,” by Anne McGrath (with Joanne Treffs), first published in 1981. It has been reprinted many times and still can be bought online and in stores.

Now there’s an entirely new guidebook with an identical title but different authors—Donald J. Leopold and Lytton John Musselman. Leopold is a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Musselman is a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia.

This “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks,” published by Johns Hopkins University, is not a revision of the McGrath book. It’s an entirely different animal. For starters, it’s heftier (386 versus 144 pages) and covers more species. 

“Wildflowers of the Adirondacks”

By Donald J. Leopold

and LyttonJohn Musselman

Johns Hopkins University Press


After a brief introduction, Leopold and Musselman devote nearly 40 pages to cataloging various Adirondack habitats and the wildflowers associated with them. The catalog can help readers confirm a plant identification and inform them what species might be found together. It would have been more useful, however, if the plant lists cross-referenced the species accounts found later in the book. As it stands, if you are interested in reading about a species in one of the lists, you first have to look it up in the index.

Leopold and Musselman devote another 14 pages to an “Overview of Special Groups of Adirondack Wildflowers.” These are orchids, trilliums, violets, and the aster family. It’s hard to fault the authors for wishing to provide more information about these plants, but the space could have been more profitably used for a glossary of botanical terms and illustrations of flower parts—both standard features in other guidebooks.

The authors say they tried “as much as possible to avoid botanical jargon.” For the most part, they succeed, but occasionally I found myself turning to the dictionary or the glossaries in other books to look up such terms as stolon, raceme, panicle, and spadix. What’s more, words alone are often inadequate to convey the details of botany. If you’re wondering how a lobed leaf differs from a dissected leaf or from a toothed leaf, nothing teaches as well as a drawing. The lack of a glossary and illustrations in this “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks” is regrettable.

The meat of the book is the species accounts and photographs. As in similar guidebooks, the flowers are grouped based on color: yellow to orange; red; pink to purple; white; and green. The page edges are colored accordingly for easy reference.

“Wildflowers of the Adirondacks” excels in the species accounts. In good, clear prose, the authors describe the salient features of each plant and, where warranted, throw in interesting tidbits of history, lore, and etymology. Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s mother is thought to have died from drinking the milk of cows that grazed on white snakeroot, which contains a toxin? Or that purple trillium is also known as wake-robin, because it blooms when robins return in spring? 

For a taste of the writing, here is the first paragraph of the species account for partridge berry: “The coffee family, Rubiaceae, is one of the five largest plant families, largely tropical in distribution and a small component of Adirondack flora, with only five genera. The only evergreen member of the family here is partridge berry, a common plant in a diversity of habitats throughout the region. The genus is named after a colonial Virginia physician, John Mitchell (1711-68), best known for his map-making skills.”

Many guidebooks pack into a few lines the measurements of a flower’s petals, leaves, height, and so forth. The authors of “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks” eschew this approach, weaving such details into their prose—and only those they feel are necessary. I like their method, but serious naturalists who enter the woods with ruler and guidebook in hand may disagree. I do think it would have been helpful to indicate the blooming season at the top of each entry.

The photographs that accompany the species accounts vary in quality. Although most are fine, some lack clarity or are too small. This is unfortunate as the photos in a guidebook like this are crucial for identifying species. For comparison, the images are sharper overall in “North Woods Wildflowers “(Falcon, 2001), which covers a broader region stretching from Minnesota to the Northeast.

Despite some shortcomings, the handsomely designed “Wildflowers of the Adirondacks” is a welcome addition to the regional bookshelf, the work of two distinguished scientists. It’s a little too bulky and too prosy to take into the field. I see it more as a reference work to pluck from the bookcase after meeting a new friend in the woods.

About Phil Brown

Phil Brown edited the Adirondack Explorer from 1999 until his retirement in 2018. He continues to explore the park and to write for the publication and website.