Book review: Plant Systematics, Stuessy et al. 2014

3 minute read

This review originally appeared in the Canadian Botanical Association Bulletin issue 48(1).

Plant Systematics: The origin, interpretation, and ordering of plant biodiversity.

Plant Systematics: The origin, interpretation, and ordering of plant biodiversity
Plant Systematics, Stuessy et al. 2014.

Stuessy, Tod F., Crawford , Daniel J., Soltis , Douglas E. and Soltis, Pamela S. 2014. Koeltz Scientific Books. 425 PP. ISBN 978-3-87429-452-2 $USD 135.70.

Plant systematics is a broad and active discipline, and the rapid development of the field in recent years presents a challenge to instructors. Excellent textbooks are available for survey courses (eg. Judd et al. 2007, Simpson 2010), and Stuessy (2009) provides an encyclopedic treatment of classification. However, for an upper-level undergraduate course on plant taxonomy, covering micro-evolutionary theory, phylogeny reconstruction, and associated data sources and analysis, teaching resources are limited. This is the gap that Plant systematics: the origin, interpretation, and ordering of plant biodiversity is intended to fill.

The book is laid out in five parts, each written primarily by a different author (Pamela Soltis reviewed and edited the entire volume). The first two parts (5 chapters) are written by Tod Stuessy. Part I is a brief overview of the importance of plant systematics to biodiversity. Part II is a survey of the various sources of data employed by systematists. The text is updated and condensed from Stuessy’s (2009) Plant Taxonomy textbook. As in the previous book, the text is thick with citations, providing many opportunities for interested students to dive deeper into the material. The sources include a good mix of classic papers and recent innovations, and include many interesting examples to illustrate the different techniques discussed.

Daniel Crawford takes over for Part III, five chapters covering the micro-evolutionary processes that generate and structure diversity. This includes population genetics, ecological and biogeographic divergence, speciation, hybridization and polyploidy. The concepts are clearly presented, and provide a concise overview of the most vexing problems faced by taxonomists.

Part IV, written by Doug Soltis, covers phylogenetic reconstruction, including support, consensus, character evolution and molecular clocks. Soltis frequently refers the reader to online documentation for the various programs he mentions, reflecting the rapid rate at which the field is developing. I found myself simultaneously wishing he’d provide deeper discussion of the material, and wondering how long it would take before the text was rendered obsolete by the pace of development. Ultimately I think he struck an effective balance, given the constraints of a conventional publication.

Tod Stuessy returns for Part V, which covers classification. As in Part I and II, he has updated and rewritten material from his previous book, with discussion of the different schools (cladistics, phenetics and phyletics), and an overview of issues particular to specific taxonomic categories (subspecies and varieties, species, genera and higher levels).

While each author has provided an authoritative treatment of the topics they cover, the different sections could be better integrated. For example, Stuessy devotes six pages to describe the nuclear, chloroplast and mitochondrial genomes in Chapter 4, including a full-page illustration of the chloroplast genome and a diagram of the rDNA loci. Soltis provides another six pages to describe the same thing in Chapter 16, including a different full-page chloroplast genome map and rDNA diagram. Similarly, Soltis provides five full chapters on various aspects of phylogeny reconstruction. Twenty pages later, Stuessy provides his own, comparatively simplistic example of cladistic analysis. Consequently, the book reads like three different, loosely coordinated mini-textbooks bound together.

That said, there is much to recommend this book for its stated purpose. It provides a thorough and accessible introduction to the practice of modern plant systematics. The content will be accessible to advanced undergraduates who have completed an introductory taxonomy or plant diversity course. There’s enough detail to invite lively classroom discussions, and the references will provide graduate students with useful direction for more detailed exploration of the literature. Were I responsible for delivering an upper-year plant systematics course, this book would very likely be the required text I would be using.


Judd, W.S., Campbell, C.S., Kellog, E.A., Stevens, P.F. and Donoghue, M.J. 2007. Plant Systematics: a Phylogenetic Approach. Third edition. Sinauer Associates.

Simpson, M. G. 2010. Plant Systematics. Second Edition. Academic Press.

Stuessy, T. F. 2009. Plant Taxonomy: the Systematic Evaluation of Comparative Data. Second edition. Columbia University Press.