Memoirs, Reviews, Science.

Of ovules and ovaries

Book Briefly Noted, Title Flora of the Pacific Northwest, Author C. Leo Hitchcock, Arthur Cronquist, Rating 4.0,

Flora of the Pacific Northwest

C. Leo Hitchcock, Arthur Cronquist

Briefly Noted

Flora of the Pacific Northwest is an excellent dichotomous key of indigenous regional flora. It served as one of my texts for a college class in Systematic Botany, which I feared would be deathly dull, and so proved the lectures, but the laboratory unexpectedly turned out to be a rewarding journey exploring the world without and the world within.

That spring my fiancée Cindy and I spent every weekend wandering through some of Oregon’s varied ecosystems, from the beach to the Coastal ranges, the Cascade mountain range, the verdant Willamette Valley, the high desert, and the sparse canyon country east of Mount Hood, seeking out plant variety, learning to identify individual species of various families of flowering plants. 

Together we trod through meadows and forests, along rivers, and around lakes and bogs for many hours and many miles. We carefully examined various plants, preserving some samples, but just as often we simply absorbed the natural beauty, which, since we were focusing on the large and the small of Nature, seemed especially vivid.

Our boon companion in this modest Corps of Exploration was Flora of the Pacific Northwest,  which added the rigor of classification to the pleasure of observing abundant nature.  Even though its heft was not ideal for a field guide it was otherwise indispensable, its clarity and comprehensiveness well-suited for our purposes, a catalog which precisely differentiated one plant from another by proffering binary choices about a plant’s structure: such is a dichotomous key.

-CC0 PD, AnRo0002

Wild strawberry, Fragaria vesca. Attrib: AnRo0002, CC0 PD.


The very first questions in Flora are: Does the plant produce seeds or not? If the plant produces seeds, are its ovules naked, or enclosed in an ovary?  Many of the identifying features turned out to be aspects of the flowering structures, which are the sexual parts of a plant.  Their basic plan is simple, but their emergent structural differences are vast, sufficiently varied to provide vital clues to their specificity.

-Oregon Scribbler,

Oregon Scribbler.


Before this Systematic Botany lab, a daisy, a cultivated rose, or a maple tree, and a few truck garden staples were familiar and known, but not an oak tree or even a petunia, found in every garden on our block, much less what was growing beyond the tended yards of the city.

-CC BY-SA 3.0, Forest and Kim Starr

Everlasting peavine, Lathyrus latifolius. Attrib: Forest and Kim Starr, CC BY-SA 3.0.


After this, the familiar includes various members of the rose family in Oregon, like the apple, pear and cherry trees, strawberries, the raspberry and blackberry bushes; the shiny and slightly burnt yellow buttercups, the larkspur, and the columbines of the buttercup family; the clumps of long-stemmed irises along a river bank; the solitary racemes of foxglove on coastal routes; the everlasting peavine, lupine, and clovers of the fascinating pea family. A pea plant’s butterfly shaped flower, once learned, remains fixed in memory; a lily’s simple symmetry, once learned, retains its now recognizable eye appeal. 

-CC-BY-SA-4.0, Daniel Feliciano

Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium. Attrib: Daniel Feliciano, CC-BY-SA-4.0.


After this, I cannot walk through a vacant lot in the spring without examining it for paper-thin red field poppies, or yellow four-parted field mustards, or tiny square-stalked mints, or nightshades, with their garish yellow and purple flowers, or wild geraniums, so much smaller and simpler than their cultivated cousins, which, at the right moment, will slingshot their seeds from the base of their crane’s bills riotously in the air around you, and bounce off of your legs as you walk through such untended grounds. (see notes below)

-Oregon Scribbler,

ma fleur Cindy pendant notre lune de miel. Oregon Scribbler.


That spring Cindy and I gained  a broader familiarity with Oregon’s plant life. We also gained motes of appreciation for each other in those final days of our courtship, our wedding day nigh, set for the first days of that summer.

Einstein, who could speak of Nature’s workings with great precision and also with great feeling, was often dismissive of  "the merely personal".  Yet as I studied flowers alongside Cindy, I felt the personal grow alongside my appreciation of Nature.  Flora helped to open my initially reluctant eyes to the intricate beauty of trees and flowers; Cindy opened up my theretofore shuttered emotional life in ways I still marvel at these thirty-five years hence.



-CC BY-SA 3.0, MPF

Bittersweet nightshade, Solanum dulcamara. Attrib: MPF, CC BY-SA 3.0.


1. As a boy, I helped my Dad tend a backyard vegetable garden, which always had some tomatoes and potatoes, so I knew that they looked a lot alike. They are indeed classified together in the same genus, Solanum, as are the nightshades I found in vacant lots throughout the Willamette Valley, including in my parent’s yard. These nightshades produce small dark poisonous berries, like their more famous cousin belladonna, rather than edible fruits and tubers.

2. The book includes native, escaped and cultivated species.

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