#728 West coast natural history tally

The Flora and Fauna of Coastal British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest
by Collin Varner

Victoria: Heritage House Publishing, 2018
$39.95 / 9781772030914

Reviewed by Loys Maingon


As many professional biologists involved in communicating the urgency of our environmental crisis are in the habit of pointing out, possibly the best thing that one can do for the planet these days is to “re-acquaint man with nature.” Trained naturalists who take interested members of the public, or members of naturalist clubs, out for weekend outings quickly learn the low level of basic “naturalist literacy” in our society. This disconnection from our ecological bioregion is in part, as noted by Wendell Berry and others, a result of the dispersion of North Americans who have little knowledge of the flora and fauna of the place they inhabit. Many people retire on the West Coast from vastly different environments where few were ever taught the rudiments of the natural history of their native home.

Chris Pielou. Photo courtesy Twitter

As the late Dr. Christine (E.C.) Pielou often quipped, after decades of teaching mathematical ecology, “No biology student who cannot identify the common plants and animals around their place of study should be allowed to graduate.” Pielou’s logic was simple: those students who graduated without that knowledge are the very people who for the past four decades have gone on to manage our environment and colleges — with predictable outcomes. Yet the sad reality is that most biology students today graduate as statistical specialists in their field, and some go on to be university professors, without being able to recognize the flora and fauna associated with their selected specialty.

Collin Varner. Photo by Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Even specialist groups remain largely ignorant of the biota that structure the ecological niches of their favoured organisms. Birders are often too busy filling their life list to take an interest in the environment that sustains those same birds. It can be a quite disconcerting experience, but a true and often repeated one, for a naturalist (myself) to go out on a bird count with veteran birders and call out a Townsend’s warbler three quarters of the way up on the east side of a cherry tree, only to have expert birders ask, “Which tree is that?” Similarly, fishermen who know their quarry, and even fly-fishermen who buy Chinese tied flies, can remain unaware of the Trichoptera or Plecoptera that move about their feet!

The lack of basic naturalist education throughout BC is real, so there is a definite need for accessible guidebooks that can introduce the public to BC’s rich flora and fauna. In this context, Collin Varner’s The Flora and Fauna of Coastal British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest is a good general introduction. It is an appealing, well-illustrated introduction to some of the more common plants and animals that one is likely to encounter on a low elevation nature walk on BC’s coastal regions. It is a richly illustrated tabletop book that the average person will find useful as a quick reference in identifying the day-to-day species they may notice on the west coast.

Trembling Aspen

The emphasis here has to be on “may notice.” The big drawback of this book is that it presents no guide to the reader to understand or appreciate the subtle differences in the many species about us, and in the environment as a whole. Nothing quite so wrankles a taxonomist as the seemingly effortless identification from genus to species by simple association. Photographs in themselves can be very misleading. Many of Varner’s photos are what would be considered generally nice, but they do not meet the required threshold for good taxonomic photos, and they do not replace good two-dimensional taxonomic drawings for identifying structures. Good taxonomic photos have to present type specimen structures and identifying traits. That means being ultra-sharp and taken from at least two angles to reveal the identifying taxonomic species structures. This guidebook contains no attempt at keying or classification to help the reader understand the sometimes-subtle variations within a genus that differentiate one species from another.

This amounts to identification, or misidentification, by gross association with the photos at hand. Let us take an example of what I mean, at pages 147-8. First, you will be hard-pressed to find page 147 easily because the page number is obstructed by a photo, a frequent problem throughout the text. After presenting a number of members of the Rosaceae family, Varner introduces the cottonwood, a member of the willow family, Salicaceae (Populus balsamifera, subspecies trichocarpa). One would think that for comparison’s sake he would put trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) on the same page to provide at least a visual comparison, but trembling aspen is on the next page, after another member of the Rosaceae, the Pacific crab apple (Malus fusca).

Pacific Crab Apple
Star-flowered False Solomons seal

Before the cottonwood description, we have the Sitka mountain ash (Sorbus sitchensis), our native mountain ash that is only occasional at lower elevations in bogs and stream-sides that provide cold water environments, but common at middle to high elevations. Varner’s discussion is somewhat confusing because most of the trees in this section are low elevation. The Sitka mountain ash is introduced without a clear contrast with the invasive European rowan, which is commonly found at lower elevations near urban centres. The rowan is extensively referred to because Varner expects the reader to be more likely to encounter it than a Sitka mountain ash on walks. However, the taxonomic differences are not explicitly made, nor is a visual comparison provided.

False Solomons Seal

It is not clear that Varner is following any particular pedagogical, ecological, or taxonomic logic in the presentation of the flora. The grouping is too general and haphazard. Generally, one tries to group species around their general habitat, particularly where some of the plants have “look-alikes.” No such effort seems to have been made here. Plants such as Hooker’s fairybells (Disporum hookeri), false solomon seal (Smilacina racemosa), star-flowered Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum), and twisted stalk, (Streptopus amplexifolius), which are easily confused by novices, are scattered throughout a section of the book without cross-referencing, and with photos that represent the specimens in different growth stages from one another, thereby making a clear differentiation more difficult.

Some of the groupings do not make it easy for the reader to look up the plants. While there is a separate section for marine plants, there is no section for fresh-water aquatics. A few freshwater aquatics such as yellow pond lily (Nuphar polysepalum), buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata) and water smartweed (Polygonum amphibium) find their way into a general “Flowering plants” section that curiously does not include berries, shrubs and bushes, trees, or invasive plants. Are some angiosperms more privileged than others? This is chaos to the evolutionary mind and one that would make Linnaeus and Darwin roll in their graves.

House Finch
Coopers Hawk

Birds are summarily covered, but with convenient omissions and potential confusions. Thus, Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperi) is presented, but heaven help the novice birder who is confronted with a Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus)! There is no comparison of the two similar hawks in this flora and fauna. Similarly, there is a common American Wigeon (Anas americana), but for the reader who has just seen a Eurasian wigeon (Anas penelope) — or worse, a cross between a European and an American wigeon — his default will be a green-winged teal (Anas crecca). And there is a nice photo of the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus — now renamed genus Haemorrhus), which is only seasonal, but no photo of the more common purple finch (Haemorrhus purpureus). When considering the assemblage of the fauna, one finds common species and common morphs to have been omitted, such as the rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa). The presentation of a beige morph of the normally green Pacific tree frog (Pseudacris regilla) comes with no reference to its ability to mimetically change colours in response to predators.

Notably, in its BC flora this book does not include grasses, bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), or lichens. These are strange exclusions given both the ecological importance and the prevalence of these organisms throughout the province’s ecosystems. Among their many important functions, bryophytes and lichens regulate hydrological flow and water acidity. Were it not for their presence, water velocity would erode much of our forest soils, and the acidity of the natural rainfall, which is formed around a sulphuric acid nucleus, would rapidly rot our forests. And without our native grasses, where would be the nitrogen of our grasslands? Surely these species deserve inclusion.

Pacific Tree Frog

The title of this book is generally misleading. It does not present “the flora and fauna of Coastal BC and the Pacific Northwest,” but only a subset of the more commonly observed species. In this respect one of the more heartening aspects of the book is its section on “invasive species,” which will undoubtedly help many readers evaluate the extent to which much of the flora they see around them are a product of our apparent lack of care or respect for the native species that have shaped this ecological place we call “home.”

While The Flora and Fauna of Coastal British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest presents a useful introduction, or preliminary access, to our very biodiverse west coast environment, it also poses some important problems. First, at a relatively bulky  two and three-quarter lbs, it is not advisable to follow the author’s advice to “put it in your packsack for a day’s hike.” Notwithstanding the many reliable apps available on an iPhone, such as Sibley’s Birds West, if one is to pack a book-form guide, the pocket series of the Royal BC Museum — wisely produced with public funds — remains a lighter, more uplifting, and detailed guide to BC’s flora and fauna. Second, one’s heart sinks at the suggestion that “academics and those working in the field will find a useful, general overview of species….” This book contains only what I would expect a typical graduating student of biology in BC to know already. If any professional is in need of this level of guidance, then it is a wonder that he or she would have the required knowledge base to legitimize private or public support and funding.

Pacific Willow Salix lucida ssp.lasiandra

In BC, many naturalist organizations are currently engaged in urgent drives to catalogue many still unregistered floral and faunal species and their distribution, at a time when we are experiencing a biodiversity crisis in our much-battered ecosystems. Much of this work is done under the auspices of “inaturalist.org,” which Wikipedia defines as “a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe.” It enables naturalists to register specimens by photographing, geo-locating, and identifying them. Unfortunately, this effort is already posing problems and has led to the corruption of some important databases because quality control has sometimes not been rigorous enough. Too many people, untrained in taxonomy, claim expertise by relying on photo-based guides such as this one. It is therefore increasingly important that field workers have access to rigorously designed field guides to enable them to do good taxonomic work, and it is important that people understand the difference between rigorous taxonomic work in ecology and less meticulous recreational information.

While The Flora and Fauna of Coastal British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest is a handsomely published recreational guide, and notwithstanding the good intentions of the author and his lovely photographs, it is unfortunately not up to requisite professional standards. Despite these reservations, it may still be regarded as a useful introduction to common floral and faunal species in BC for the general public.


Loys Maingon

A graduate of the universities of St. Andrews, UBC, and Saskatchewan, Dr. Loys Maingon first taught environmental studies in 1986. An avid naturalist and a registered professional biologist, he is past president of the Comox Valley Naturalists and current webinar host for the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists. From his home on the Tsolum River near Merville, he owns and operates an endangered plant nursery and oversees a number of regional conservation and heritage programmes. He is also Research Director of the Strathcona Wilderness Institute and does environmental consulting. Arrested at Clayoquot Sound in 1993, Loys remains a strong advocate for social, economic, and environmental change. He contributed a chapter to Clayoquot & Dissent (Ronsdale Press: 1994).


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

4 comments on “#728 West coast natural history tally

  1. Loys Maingon: Your unflinching critique is welcomed. The road to natural history enlightenment is littered with the pulpy pundits of popular field guides.

    It was that eminent ethnobotanist and naturalist, Gary Nabhan, that coined the term, “landscape illiteracy” at least 30 years ago in the introduction to his Native Seed/Search catalogues. Nabhan was discussing how settlers had not only overlooked but crushed awareness of beans and grains that had been developed by Indigenous peoples over the centuries. His quest was to identify and recover the species of beans and grains used by the Southwest tribes. Such was the persuasiveness of his book, Gathering The Desert (1985) that he was awarded with a $ 500K MacArthur Foundation grant to do this work. He could just as easily been discussing the lack of holistic natural history being taught in universities.

    In BC, over the last 50 years or more, there have been some notable attempts to provide books that would help people identify plants, amphibians, and birds.

    Standing apart and above all of these, on the plant and shrub front, is what was the “bible” to naturalists like myself as a cub and scout in the 1950s and 60’s: Chess Lyons, Trees and Shrubs to Know in BC. The JM Dent imprint saw at least 10 editions and was popular enough for Lyons to say goodbye to his job with the BC government in 1963.

    The incomparable Chess Lyons, who died in 1998, provided black and white sketches and keys to differentiate between species in this book. What a concept! I’m not sure why it hasn’t been updated and/or amended with current taxonomic nomenclature and more information, to simply build on Lyons’ “gold standard.”

    More recently, Chris Brayshaw wrote the handbook, Trees & Shrubs of British Columbia, an imprint of the Royal BC Museum. One need look no further than this book with its diagnostic keys, etc. But is it too technical? It really depends on the person.

    If the Ormsby Review readers want info electronically, the best source is E-Flora BC.

    The best guide to amphibians is undoubtedly the Introduction to Canadian Amphibians and Reptiles (Ottawa: National Museum of Natural Sciences, 1984) by the very recently deceased giant of herpetology, Francis Cook.

    As for the birds, obviously the Cannings’ books on birds are de rigeur but Stokely’s guides are invaluable.

    Bulking up on the reviewed book and these that I have mentioned might load up the knapsack, as you say Loys. However, some good field notes and pics with either telephoto or macro should enable one to make some decisive determinations once back in the office and in front of a computer. Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This