Sunday, December 7, 2014

Untangling The Mystery of Hawthorns

I encounter hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) on a regular basis while exploring wild landscapes in Georgia. Often I am in the company of other folks and we examine the tree together in order to determine what we have found. Usually the pronouncement of identity is simply “It’s a hawthorn, I don’t know which one.” Satisfied that we have done all we could, we proceed on our way.

Crataegus uniflora, native to my yard and the first to pique my interest

According to the USDA database, there are just over 50 species of hawthorn found in Georgia, all of them with white flowers in the spring and thorny twigs year round. While some of them - like the parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) - have rather unique leaves, most of them look pretty similar to the average person. The southeastern region has been sorely been in need of some assistance in understanding this large and confusing group of thorny plants.

Finally there is a resource to the rescue. North Carolina native Ron Lance has studied southeastern hawthorns for over 20 years. He published a booklet in 1997 and an article on Georgia hawthorns in the Georgia Botanical Society’s 2006 Tipularia publication, but those treatments were far too shallow for this genus and his intent to publish a book was understood by those who know him. His long awaited comprehensive book is now available: Haws: A Guide to Hawthorns of the Southeastern United States.

With my bookshelves now overflowing, I decided to try this book in the eBook format to explore the concept of using identification resources in that format. This review is as much about that experience as it is the book itself. I expect to enjoy the ability to use the find function on the computer (I’m using the Kindle Reader app for the PC which I will refer to as "eReader.").

The book starts out with a series of helpful chapters on distribution, anatomy, taxonomy and natural history of hawthorns. While most of these are informative and easy to read, I will say that you’ll want to break for a fresh cup of coffee before you dive into the chapter on taxonomy.

The information is wonderfully thorough and after each chapter you feel like you got to spend a fascinating couple of hours with someone that really knows the subject. The author has a comfortable style for communicating the details.

The author provides the following guidance for using this book:

“For those starting totally “green” it is recommended that Section 1 , the keys to series, be a starting point. From there, one can hopefully find the associated species described and illustrated in Section 3 .  For those slightly familiar with the hawthorns and series, going directly to Section 3 may be sufficient.  For the technical-minded hawthorn student who is accustomed to dichotomous keys, Section 2 may be the best option, leading directly to a species identification.”

I’m more familiar with using dichotomous keys than grouping species into a series so I focused on Section 2. And here is where I encounter my first eReader disappointment. The key is not cleanly displayed on the reader and is a bit hard to follow. This is a factor of the reader; I know this is not a problem in the printed version. Also, the eReader software offers no ability to print; that would have been a plus. There is a search function.

Moving on to the species details in Section 3, the treatment of each species varies from brief to comprehensive depending on the author’s personal experience. The vast majority of species have extensive descriptions, distribution maps, and numerous photos of foliage, flowers, fruit as well as bark, thorns and habit. There are also occasional drawings which render the botanical details very precisely.

In some cases there are details that include specific locations (such as parks) of individual plants. It looks like I can check out Little Mulberry Park in nearby Gwinnett County to find examples of several different species of hawthorn. This is truly a book that has been compiled after years of work and careful note keeping.

In addition to the early chapters on anatomy, taxonomy, history, etc., this book is rich in resources such as tables, a glossary and references. From the casual to the studious user, everyone should find a level of usage to his (or her) satisfaction.

Note: Another downside to the eReader version is the inability to upsize the tables. You can adjust the “words per line” setting, but that can cause the table to break across pages and sometimes lose the headings. And it only enlarges tables so much and no more (plain text enlargement works great).

So my final analysis is that the resource is excellent but the eReader is not up to the challenge. I will be returning the eReader version and ordering the print copy after all.

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