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ASBS Newsletter – Book Review

Flora of Australia Volume 1: Introduction 2nd Edition

(From ASBS Newsletter Number 102, March 2000)

Melbourne: ABRS/CSIRO Australia (1999).

The first edition of the introductory volume was released for the Sydney IBC in 1981, and the developments in Australian botany since that time have seen the need for a carefully revised and updated second edition. In this second edition of the Flora of Australia Volume 1, the editors have endeavoured to produce a book which not only introduces the Flora and its history, but which covers a much wider range of topics, including the vegetation of Australia, its fossil history, environment and conservation biology. In doing this, the new edition is more like a text book for the Flora than just an introduction.

The first section is an overview of the history of taxonomic research in Australia, including a detailed and well justified explanation of why the Cronquist (1981) classification is retained for pragmatic reasons when more phylogenetically supported systems have been developed since that time. A flora which is produced over such a time frame as the Flora of Australia project needs to be anchored to a stable framework, and where there are major dpeartures in family circumscription from Cronquist, these have been addressed on a family by family basis by the authors of those treatments. This section also provides a useful bibliography of major taxonomic works on the Australian flora, divided into convenient periods, the early sections of 50 years, the last two decades each listed separately, reflecting the dramatic increase in taxonomic activity as a direct response to the establishment of the Flora project.

Section 2 sees an updated exposition by Prof. Frakes of the geological history of the continent and the effects that past climatic changes have had on the flora, as well as a subsection by Marilyn Fox covering the present major floristic divisions across the continent and the effects of soil, fire and anthropogenic influence, both pre and post-European. Although this section is a potential book in its own right, the authors of the two subsections have between them provided a balanced and easy to follow review of the current knowledge of the factors which influence vegetation types and distribution through space and time in Australia.

The third and largest section covers the vegetation of Australia, both using the fossil record and modern techniques in biogeographic studies, as well as examining present day patterns of vegetation types and with sections on specialised aquatic vegetation types, both freshwater and marine. The fossil subsection uses the expertise of several palaeobotanists specialising in both macro- and microfossils, and uses the data from both of these fields to complement each other and produce a story which is well supported from all the available evidence. This section is a major revision on the earlier volume and corrects a number of omissions as well as updating the history of major lineages based on much more and better evidence from the work of Australian palaeontologists over the last two decades. Similarly the discipline of biogeography has undergone a methodological revolution since the previous edition was published, and the coverage provided here by Crisp et al. is not only broad in representing the different approaches favoured by various researchers, but balanced in its review of these techniques. Using some of their own and other's research, the authors present some of the major biogeographic regions into which Australia can be divided and which appear to have been stongly influential on the evolution and diversification of the flora.

The review by Groves of the division of the flora into major structural and associative floristic vegetation types underscores the two different strategies used to create vegetation classifications in Australia. In addition, he presents a good summary of the complex topic of the contributions of aridity, salinity, fire and anthropogenic influences on the present day vegetation around the country. By combining information from the structural and floristic studies, he suggests that better conservation strategies which preserve both vegetation types and distinctive species associations can be developed. Similarly, the sub-sections on the major components of the aquatic floras are very detailed and underscore the wide diversity, floristic richness and significance of the water-based ecosystems, reminding the reader that these systems are far more important for biodiversity than their apparent low coverage of the continent would suggest. As these systems also represent sources of water for many anthropogenic activities, understanding their diversity and significance is crucial for their preservation in the face of increasing demand for water and near shore coastal environments.

In the fourth section, the significance of the Australian flora to horticulture, forestry and other economic uses is covered. There is a very brief mention of the use of native plants by indigenous peoples, and the subsequent commercial development of bush foods and medicines by restaurant and other interests Although genera such as Eucalyptus and Acacia are of major economic importance to forestry for timber, paper and essential oils, there is a significant range of taxa being developed for other uses - floriculture, apiary, dyes and other chemicals as well as some construction materials. The chapter covers all of these, listing the main taxa used for each purpose as well as indicating the potential for further development in these areas. Similarly, the utilisation of the flora by artists throughout the history of white colonisation is covered nicely by Helen Hewson. The section by Ian Creswell on conserving the flora has to cover an extremely wide topic in limited space. It covers the main legislative protections on a state by state basis, with maps showing the conservation reserves in each state. Although there is no comparison of the different approaches between the states, it does provide a good mechanism for researchers working to conserve taxa which extend across state boundaries to see the extent and nature of the conservation issues before them.

For many readers, the most important sections of the volume are the Key and Glossary chapters. All families of flowering plant represented in Australia are identified using a numbered artificial keying procedure. Particularly appreciated is the listing with each couplet of the couplet number from whence you were referred. This makes back-tracking in the event of suspected error a much simpler process. Although many readers will probably want to use instead the interactive CD-ROM version of the key (not provided here for evaluation), those who prefer the traditional hard-copy style key should have their needs amply catered. The characters are mostly easy to interpret, and the glossary is lavishly illustrated and provides clear, concise definitions.

In summary, this 2nd Edition of the Introduction represents the closest thing so far to a text book of Australian plant systematics for undergraduate-level students. The text is well written and concise, and the sections make interesting reading - a feature not always shared by texts covering such a broad range of topics from so many authors. The latter and the editors are to be congratulated for the level of internal consistency within and between the sections. There is good coverage of the range of views found in each of the subjects covered and for the most part, where there is controversy, the authors have been very balanced in their approaches. I commend this book to anyone interested in a good overview of the history, nature and diversity of the Australian flora, regardless of whether they are systematists, ecologists, physiologists or interested non-botanists.

John Conran

Department of Environmental Biology
The University of Adelaide