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An Amateur Naturalist Guide to New England’s Liverworts


Frullania asagrayana leaf photo by Mary S.G. Lincoln

LBJs (little brown jobs), an avid birding colleague once explained to me, are the more obscure birds that to all but the most discerning eye look the same.

I’ve been in the company many times with the birders on the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration. They can hang around beneath a tree for twenty minutes or more while they debate at length whether an LBJ high above them is one or another species.

It can be very frustrating to someone like me who prefers the differences between bird species to be dramatic and easy to distinguish.

Anyone with reasonable eyesight can tell the difference between a red cardinal and a blue jay. To tell the difference between LBJs needs more work: the subtle variance in the shade of the feet, the position of a spot on the throat, the song, perhaps even the way it flies can all be important.

I got to thinking like this when I received an email from the New York Botanical Garden about its new book about liverworts.


Why should the people who read my blog find liverworts interesting, I asked George Shakespear, the publicist for the Garden.

“They’re little known but ubiquitous, tiny but beautiful (and quite striking seen close-up), important but often overlooked components in their ecosystems,” Shakespear said. “They’re also useful indicators of type of habitat, habitat health, and climate change over time,” he added. “Their complexity, diversity, and beauty make them absorbing objects of study and research. Excellent subjects for avid naturalists.”

Liverworts of New England: A Guide for the Amateur Naturalist,” by Mary S. G. Lincoln (The New York Botanical Garden Press, October 2008, $45) is 162 pages crammed with some 100 color photographs, 200 drawings, and 200 location maps.

Billed as an introduction to 195 species of liverworts and four species of hornworts in the six New England states, it is, Lincoln says, a book for “those who are just beginning to look at these fascinating plants as well as for those who didn’t even know these plants existed.”

It is a non-technical introduction to the diverse world of liverworts and hornworts–so small they are often overlooked by experienced botanists–including their reproductive strategies and their place in the ecosystem, she says.

“Liverworts, one of the major groups of green land plants and cousins of mosses, are rarely studied due to their small size and relative infrequency.”

In explanations that do not intimidate or oversimplify, the author describes the nearly 200 species in 62 genera found in diverse habitats throughout the U.S. Northeast

Photos by Mary S.G. Lincoln

Features that can be seen with a hand lens are noted, allowing curious naturalists to study the plants without a compound microscope. A glossary of terms is included for beginners.

“This book by Mary Lincoln is the first of its kind. Never before have we had anything like this in the United States,” said William R. Buck, Mary Flagler Cary Curator of Botany at The New York Botanical Garden and editor of the “Memoirs of The New York Botanical Garden.”

Liverworts book cover.png“With nothing but a hand lens, most species of liverworts in northeastern North America can be identified with certainty. This is the perfect book for the avid naturalist, and the plants are available year round.”

I probably fall into the category of those who didn’t know these plants existed, although I had heard their common name. A quick Internet search found that they got their common name from the days when they were used as medicine for liver problems, based entirely on the fact that some of them seem to resemble animal livers. They have no such healing properties.

I also discovered that liverworts are one of the oldest plant forms. They have persisted much the way they are for perhaps hundreds of millions of years.

So now I am interested in liverworts and will be looking out for them whenever I go hiking in the northeastern woods.

It’s the kind of knowledge detail that adds immensely to the appreciation of being out in nature. And identifying them may be less frustrating than trying to figure out the differences between the little brown jobs.

Lophocolea-heterophylla-capsules-lede.jpgLophocolea heterophylla capsules photo by Mary S.G. Lincoln