Book explores plants of Acadia

Posted July 30, 2010, at 6:10 p.m.

Picture yourself in Acadia National Park.

Look around and what do you see? The ocean? A pond? Rocks? Plants?

Now picture yourself identifying every plant you see around you, from wildflowers to ferns to grasses, sedges, rushes, trees and shrubs.

Can’t do it?

Yes, you can.

Thanks to an impressive new book, “The Plants of Acadia National Park,” 862 plant species have been identified, catalogued and photographed — in more than 2,200 crisp, color images — to showcase the variety that is found within the borders of Acadia. Covered are the more-than-36,000 acres on Mount Desert Island, Isle au Haut, the Schoodic Peninsula and 15 islands adjacent to the parkland, as well as some non-parkland on MDI and Isle au Haut.

Another striking figure is this: 41 percent of recorded state flora is found within the park’s boundaries.

How can that be?

“It is because of the diversity of habitat within the park from mountaintop to coastal wetlands and everything in between,” said Glen H. Mittelhauser, one of the book’s four authors.

With such a vast number of acres and plants filling that acreage, it begs the question of how does one even begin the task?

“You don’t begin, really,” Mittelhauser said.

Instead, it is the result of decades of work and a collaboration of groups and individuals who came together to make it a reality.

And that may be the most impressive piece.

The work began scores of years ago in 1880 by the Champlain Society, a Harvard University group that catalogued the flora of Mount Desert Island. An amateur botanist, John Redfield, started his own study two years later and joined forces in 1888 with Champlain Society member Edward Rand, a collaboration that led to the publishing of “Flora of Mount Desert Island, Maine” in 1894.

A flurry of additions from numerous sources followed over the years, including the work of Edgar Wherry, who compiled the additions and published them. In 1928, Wherry authored “Wild Flowers of Mount Desert Island, Maine,” a guide published by the Garden Club of Mount Desert.

Nearly a century later, that same group is one of the forces behind the “The Plants of Acadia National Park,” partnering with Friends of Acadia and Maine Natural History Observatory, a nonprofit research organization based in Gouldsboro whose director is Mittelhauser. The publisher is University of Maine Press.

Throughout the 20th century, more work was compiled on the park’s plants, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Dr. Craig Greene of College of the Atlantic began a wide-reaching collaboration to create a comprehensive flora of the park, working with botanists, park biologists and his COA students, including some of the new book’s authors.

That work led to several published reports, leading to final publication in Rhodora, the journal of the New England Botanical Club, in 2005, two years after Greene died.

Mittelhauser said that he and his fellow authors — botanists Jill E. Weber and Sally C. Rooney and park botanist Linda L. Gregory — felt that it needed to reach more of the public.

“It dawned on us that we couldn’t just leave the list,” he said.

And that’s when the idea of a field guide took root.

Five years later, the first edition was published.

The book gives a brief but thorough introduction to the history of the park and the study of its flora, then settles into explanations about how to use the guide, including keys and definitions to help narrow the search when you find a specimen to identify.

Then you reach the plant family photographs to look for something similar before you are directed to the pages of the matching family where you should be able to find what you are looking at. There’s even a handy 6-inch “measuring tape” on the last page to gauge the width of flowers and leaves and such in both inches and centimeters.

What if you don’t find the plant that is staring you in the face?

Here’s the fun part. First, don’t pick it. Second, take lots of pictures, record the plant’s dimensions if you can and make note of your location. Third, contact Friends of Acadia or Mittelhauser (it’s in the book) and let them know.

“The work isn’t done yet,” said author Jill Weber. The park is always in a state of change, she said, as is witnessed by the lists at the end of the book of dozens of plants no longer found in the park since documentation began more than a century ago.

Weber also believes climate change will bring different plants into the park as others leave. Some plants that are at the southern end of their range likely will retreat northward as temperatures rise, while plants that are nearer the northern end of their range will move farther north.

Part of publishing this guide, Mittelhauser said, was to get more eyes looking for plants within the park. “You can never say you’re done,” he said, saying he has a folder ready for collecting details on any new finds.

“There are tons of little nooks and crannies in the park,” he said.

All just waiting to be explored, guide in hand.

Finding the book

“The Plants of Acadia National Park” is available for $24.95 at local bookstores, from University of Maine Press, 866-0573, and at www.amazon.com. (As of the first of the week, the book was not yet listed on the UMaine Press website, www.umaine.edu/umpress).

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