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Henningsen: The Botanist's Bible

When I began work as a Green Mountain Club caretaker on Mount Mansfield, way back in 1971, my boss issued me something he assured me I’d use frequently. I didn’t think I’d still be using it all these years later.

It was a small book, bound in green leather: the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mountain Flowers of New England , first published fifty years ago this past spring.

In those days, land above 2500’ was under assault, particularly the fragile areas above treeline sheltering rare arctic-alpine species. Alpine plants are biologically tough – they survive amazingly stressful climatic conditions - but they have a hard time resisting disruption of their habitat, especially the soil compaction that occurs when tens of thousands of summer hikers clomp through alpine meadows and bogs. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump were particularly threatened, because they had small arctic-alpine zones with very high visitation. In the early 1970’s, UVM, the state division of parks, and the Green Mountain Club launched a cooperative effort at resource protection – a venture that continues in today’s GMC summit steward program, widely copied elsewhere. Cabin caretakers and ranger-naturalists on Mansfield and the Hump began to enlist the hiking public in a collective effort to preserve endangered wildlands.

Doing that required explaining the nature of the problem, which meant identifying specific plants and examples of damage. That’s where Mountain Flowers came in. We used it to identify plants along the high trails, step by step. Because there are usually fewer than 150 alpine species on any one peak, it was like learning birds in winter. Once we figured out what was where on our regular walks, we could identify plants anyplace else on the mountain, permitting on-the-spot ecology lessons that are still a regular part of the visitor experience on those summits.

Although it contained pictures of the major species, Mountain Flowers was a traditional guide, requiring readers to use a key, involving as many as 57 steps, to positively identify anything. This made us extremely close observers, and our collective efforts to decode particularly confusing specimens helped build the teamwork necessary for success in our mission.

It also turned us into dedicated amateur botanists. To this day my heavily-annotated copy of Mountain Flowers enriches hikes in our high mountains the way that knowing the language enhances visiting a foreign country.

Other books have come along since. Charles Johnson’s Nature of Vermont is a must for anyone venturing outdoors here. The Appalachian Mountain Club’s Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits is a user-friendly update of Mountain Flowers , including geology, animals, and better pictures, but no key. Beyond Ktaadn’s Eastern Alpine Guide extends coverage to Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland. But for purists and old-timers, Mountain Flowers of New England – now fifty years old – remains the botanist’s bible.