Plant Systematics
Second edition

Samuel B. Jones and Arlene E. Luchsinger

McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. 1986. xiii+512 pp. ISBN 0-07-032796-3.

Fundamentals of Plant Systematics

Albert E. Radford

Harper & Row, New York. 1986. xiii+498 pp. ISBN 0-06-045305-2.

The book by Samuel Jones (a botanist) and Arlene Luchsinger (a librarian) is aimed at about the same level as the book by Clive Stace - university biology undergraduates who have already had an introductory botany subject. However, the authors also hope to attract serious amateurs, teachers, and professionals in other fields, and the level of exposition would certainly not deter such people.

The book is a revised edition of one first published in 1979, which was well received for its wide scope and readable presentation. It is organised into 14 chapters, plus four appendices; however, the order of the chapters is odd, with both chapter 6 and chapter 10 being more logically located elsewhere. The publication quality is good, but there are still quite a number of typographical errors. There are many line illustrations and photographs to break up the text, which occupies only about three-quarters of the pages. The index is comprehensive, including all generic names; and there is an extensive bibliography at the end of each chapter. The examples used are often wide-ranging, but most of the plants discussed were chosen because they are important elements of the flora of North America.

The writing style is unashamedly "American", which can get on your nerves after a while, although it's a change from the rather more stuffy Britishness of many other texts. The Preface is, fortunately, the worst offender, describing taxonomy as "exciting" (twice), "interesting", "important", "fascinating" (twice), "attractive", "useful", "active", and "stimulating", all within the space of 25 lines. The style settles down a bit after this.

The first chapter is an Introduction to Systematic Botany, a brief (10 pages) coverage of what systematics is and what it tries to do. It starts this with commendable straightforwardness, but then it begins to wander around a bit, and only four of the five stated objectives of taxonomy are discussed more fully. Chapter 2, the Historical Background of Classification, is an account (27 pages) of the phases through which taxonomy has passed, which is far more detailed about the past than about the present. Chapter 3 describes Plant Nomenclature (17 pages), but this suffers from some loose terminology, and from using abbreviations and special words without explanation. It is also interesting to note that the authors blandly state that "nomenclatural procedures were standardized on a worldwide basis" in 1930, without also indicating that this could have happened 25 years earlier if the Americans had co-operated.

Chapter 4, covering the Principles of Plant Taxonomy (27 pages), is one of the greater weaknesses of the book, because it is here that systematics should be presented as a science, but is instead presented as an exercise in pragmatism. The explanations are often vague, with species, for example, being treated as intuitive entities and classifications as "by definition subjective". Statements such as: "Subjective classification is often criticized by biologists whose training does not include a knowledge of the principles of systematics or taxonomic methods" completely ignore the substantial criticisms that also come from those who do have such knowledge. Furthermore, this chapter offers no presentation of the theoretical rationale for any of the techniques discussed, only a description of the processes involved in carrying them out. Thus, phenetics and cladistics are described as being "computer techniques", in spite of the fact that the computers are merely calculation tools, and these techniques are criticized for things that are general failures of systematics (such as character definition, polarity, reticulate evolution, etc.).

Chapter 5 is a good coverage of Sources of Taxonomic Information (32 pages), but there is a definite bias towards chemotaxonomy. Chapter 6, The Origin and Classification of the Magnoliophyta (43 pages), gets off the track by discussing the postulated origins of flowering plants, but recovers by effectively summarizing all of the modern classifications (which none of the other books do). Unfortunately, the scheme chosen for the rest of the book is that of Cronquist, apparently simply because he provides detailed descriptions of each of the families. This choice is based on pragmatism, and thus contradicts their earlier statement that: "Truly phylogenetic classifications are the ultimate aim of taxonomy" (which would seem to dictate the selection of Dahlgren's scheme, of those currently available). This chapter would also make more sense if it was placed between chapters 13 and 14.

Chapter 7 is a good coverage of Evolution, Variation and Biosystematics (31 pages), while chapter 8 is a good exposition of Specimen Preparation and Herbarium Management (19 pages). Chapter 9, Methods of Identifying Plants (9 pages), is somewhat brief given its topic, and the discussion of the use of computers suggests that automated character-set methods will only be useful in difficult situations, rather than any time that information is being made available to non-experts. The Terminology of Flowering Plants (37 pages) is covered in chapter 10, which would be better placed after chapter 7; it uses some uniquely American spellings. Chapter 11 presents a Selected Literature of Systematic Botany (8 pages), which has a useful annotated bibliography.

Chapters 12 to 14 cover Pteridophytes (17 pages), Gymnosperms (15 pages), and Angiosperm Families (158 pages), respectively. Each chapter presents a classification scheme, and then briefly reviews the relevant characters as related to the North American representatives. This is their greatest weakness - the character states discussed are correct in the American context but aren't always so on a world scale, and most of the southern hemisphere families are ignored completely.

Appendix 1 is a useful glossary of Latin and Greek words, Appendix 2 is an extensive bibliography of literature useful for identifying North American plants, Appendix 3 outlines Cronquist's classification, while Appendix 4 outlines Thorne's scheme.

Within its limitations this is a good introduction to plant systematics. However, those limitations can be very severe. Firstly, the book is squarely aimed at the North American market, and it therefore presents a bias in its data that is much greater than in either of the books previously reviewed - this makes nearly half of the book of dubious value to the majority of the human beings on this planet.

Secondly, the authors have taken a very traditional approach to the coverage of the topics - learning the characteristics of the various parts of the plant kingdom is apparently what it's all about. Personally I hated that part of my own training, and I'm eternally grateful that I live in Australia, where the majority of the plants are in only a dozen families. I'm not entirely convinced that, for example, biochemists see much use in memorising the structure of all known organic molecules, so why do botanists insist on memorising so many plants? Surely there is more to science than this?

Thirdly, systematics is not really successfully presented as a science. Lip service is certainly paid to such a presentation, but it is unconvincing. No sooner is a sound scientific principle clearly enunciated than it is then ignored in the name of pragmatism. The discussions of recent developments read as though they are insertions into the second edition, rather than being integral parts of the original plan for the text, and they are not entirely accurate.

Finally, the authors make a conspicuous attempt to be unbiased in their descriptions of each of the principles and techniques, thus avoiding the obvious personal biases in, for example, Clive Stace's book, where personal judgements often seem to obscure a balanced presentation. However, in the process their descriptions become rather bland, and they concentrate solely on the practical processes involved in each technique rather than on the rationale for the technique in the first place. Science is as much about rationale as process.

So, in spite of the authors' claims to the contrary, once again this book is not really about taxonomy as a modern science. It is far too traditional in its approach for that. To be successful, chapter 14 (and possibly also chapter 6) should be reduced, and chapter 4 then completely re-written. Still, the book is far more wide-ranging in its scope than its competitors, and is therefore probably the best of the bunch so far.


The book by Albert Radford (with contributions by seven others) is aimed at senior undergraduate biology students, or postgraduate students in related fields. It is deliberately organised as a university textbook, each chapter containing a formal summary of objectives, a synopsis, a list of questions, and suggested practical exercises. It would not be suitable as an introductory text for anyone other than formally-trained students.

The book is a heavily-modified version of Vascular Plant Systematics, a multi-author reference text and source book published in 1974, and many sections are acknowledged to be straight re-writes of sections of that book. It is organised into 13 chapters in two parts (Taxonomic Concepts, Processes and Principles; and Systematic Institutions), plus five appendices in the third part (Taxonomic Resource Information). The publication quality is generally good, although typographical errors are not all that hard to find, and part of Table 6.3 is a real mess. There are not many line drawings or other means of breaking up the text; and the index does not include many taxonomic names. There is a short list of suggested reading at the end of each chapter, while examples are used somewhat sporadically, and are typically North American.

Let me start by saying that the biggest drawback of this book is its organisation and style. The arrangement of each chapter is very formal, with clearly-stated learning objectives for the students, covering definitions, purposes, operations, premises, principles, and guidelines. These can be very useful, but they reduce the whole presentation to a rigid learning exercise, rather than being an enthusiastic exposition (which all of the other reviewed books are). Each chapter ends with a list of theoretical questions and practical exercises, which are also useful but far too reminiscent of unwanted chores.

The worst part, however, is the writing style (with a couple of notable exceptions), which is pedantic to the point of exasperation. Each statement is made with such close attention to unambiguous presentation and formal terminology that each sentence is almost unreadable. To add insult to injury, the writing style also favours using nouns as adjectives, has seemingly endless compound words (e.g. "are presented in this section from a definition / reasons for use / how used / characters used / reference standpoint"), and is full of unnecessary jargon (e.g. "evidentiary information" instead of "evidence"). Making it all the way through this book was a major challenge, and one that I could well have done without.

These presentation faults are unfortunate, because as far as the actual content is concerned the book is mostly very good. The ideas are generally covered logically and thoroughly, and the presentation is well-balanced more often than not. There is the odd place where Radford is dogmatic about things that I don't agree with, but that is a relatively minor blemish. The style, however, means that I wouldn't wish this book on my worst enemy.

The Prologue (10 pages) sets the scene by taking a long time to say almost nothing comprehensible. Anyone who wants a lesson in obfuscation could do a lot worse than read this part. It appears to be about the philosophy of the book itself. Chapter 1, A Foundation for the Study of Plant Systematics (24 pages), follows the same line, and gets so tied up in the formality of the presentation that the actual meaning is almost lost. It is here that taxonomy most notably fails to be presented as a science, just where the reader should be enticed into the subject.

Chapter 2, History of Plant Taxonomy (23 pages), was written by T.M. Barkley, and is written much more comprehensibly. However, it concentrates heavily on North America, has no illustrations, and suffers the usual problem of treating contemporary ideas as a trivial afterthought. Chapter 3, Plant Nomenclature (15 pages), is commendably precise about a subject where precision is paramount, but the discussion of types has no examples and lacks clarity, and the names of varieties are treated as quadrinomials rather than as trinomials. Chapter 4, Botanical Names (29 pages), was written by Laurie S. Radford, and is an interesting but somewhat irrelevant coverage of the formation, meaning and pronunciation of latin names.

The next six chapters form the heart of the book. Chapter 5, Plant Description (39 pages), has lots of practical detail about types of plant characters and their variation, and is therefore rather boring to read. Chapter 6, Plant Classification (13 pages), manages to discuss its topic without describing any of the current classification schemes. Furthermore, it equates modern classifications with phenetics (citing Charles Jeffrey as the source of the natural = phenetic argument), indicating that these are "generally accepted as fundamental assumptions for modern taxonomic and classificatory research". The phylogeny is then stated to be derived from this phenetic classification.

Chapter 6, Plant Identification (11 pages), is a somewhat cursory coverage, and the uses of computers (in particular) are glossed over. Chapter 7, Taxonomic Evidence (24 pages), is rather interestingly arranged, with very little discussion, being mostly just lists of examples. There is no mention of modern genetic sequencing techniques, and there is a tendency to prefer quantity of characters over quality. Chapter 8, Variation and Speciation in Plants (19 pages), is a very sensible coverage, although the variation part is a bit skimpy on genetics, and the speciation part is just a summary of Verne Grant's book.

Chapter 10, Phylogeny and Structural Evolution of Plants (32 pages), was written by Michael G. Simpson, and stands out like a beacon among the surrounding pedantry. Not only is it written in normal English, it is far and away the best presentation of cladistics in any of the books that I've reviewed so far. This is not to say that there aren't occasional lapses (such as treating branching as being superimposed on the presentation of the cladogram rather than being the fundamental basis of the production of the cladogram in the first place), as well as odd terminology (such as calling a "transformation series" a "morphocline"), but what the hell. Needless to say, the principles expounded in this chapter are at complete odds with those presented by Radford earlier in the book.

The remaining three chapters, The Botanic Library and Taxonomic Literature (17 pages), The Herbarium (11 pages), and Botanic Gardens and Arboreta (13 pages), are all effective summaries of their respective topics, and even Australia gets a mention in chapter 13.

The appendices are intended as reference sources. Appendix A (15 pages) covers Data Analysis in Systematics, by James Doyle. This has a good coverage of the collection of data for numerical analysis; but the analyses are only phenetic, and only selected techniques are discussed (z transformation, euclidean distance, correlation, PCA, UPGMA). Appendix B (15 pages) covers Phenetic and Phylogenetic Classification, by Michael G. Simpson, which has worked examples of how these classifications are actually produced.

Appendix C (78 pages) has descriptions of some of the Families of Flowering Plants. This is based on Cronquist's classification, and (as for the Jones & Luchsinger book) only covers families common in the U.S.A. The families are arranged in alphabetical order, and the choice of which families to include is rather idiosyncratic. Appendix D (47 pages) covers the terminology used in The Structure of Vascular Plants. This is arranged by topic, rather than simply alphabetically, which makes it more useful than other such presentations, and it also covers gymnosperms and "lower" vascular plants. Appendix E (8 pages) covers Collection and Field Preparation of Plant Specimens. The only quibble that I have with this appendix is that it insists that insect-damaged plants should not be collected - this can limit the usefulness of the specimens to, for example, ecologists studying these very insects.

The book ends with an Epilogue (15 pages), partly contributed by Gloria Caddell, Deborah Qualls, and Duane Isely. This has a very good general summary of the practical processes involved in being a systematist, as well as a neat historical summary of more recent intellectual developments (which makes up for the lack of this in chapter 2).

This book is ultimately a rather unfortunate failure. Radford has clearly thought very carefully about the book and about how it should be presented, and the aims of the book are to be commended. From some points of view it is the most impressive of the books covered so far:- it tries to follow the theoretical ideals developed for good educators, it tries to be very precise about the intellectual foundations of systematics, it tries to present taxonomy as a scholarly pursuit, it tries to be thorough about techniques, it tries to organize information logically, and it tries to be a good reference source. Unfortunately, it tries too hard, and it falls flat on its face because it's mostly unreadable.

Furthermore, in spite of this over-stated concern with effective learning, there is almost no explicit mention in the book of systematics as a science. The book concerns itself almost exclusively with a description of the details and the foundations of the processes involved in doing taxonomy, but it doesn't present them as part of an exciting scientific enterprise. Taxonomy is presented solely as a scholarly exercise, which may or may not also be part of science. The reader could easily come away with the impression that systematics is really part of the arts.

Finally, the book is not coherent enough. It has many good features, but there are unexplained lapses that seem to be inexcusable. The contradictions between Radford's exposition of classificatory techniques and that of Simpson is just one example of unexpected inconsistency, as is the lack of coverage of modern classifications, sequencing techniques and computers. These need to be addressed for the book to be effective.

However, the only way to meet the stated aims of this book would be to completely re-write it. This is an enormous pity, given the obvious effort that has gone into producing it.

David Morrison
Department of Environmental Biology & Horticulture
University of Technology, Sydney

Originally published in Australian Systematic Botany Society Newsletter 71: 32-36 (1992).