Lawrence Newcomb

It’s difficult to find any biographical information about Lawrence Newcomb. I read somewhere that he was a New England banker by profession but keen botanist by hobby. One thing I do know however, is that all of us who are interested in the plants of Northeastern and North-central North America owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

When I first became interested in the study and identification of wildflowers, flowering shrubs and vines, the field guides that I worked from focused principally on the flower of the plant. There were often lovely photographs or colourful drawings. This was most helpful for perhaps a couple of weeks time in the life of the plant. But what about trying to figure out the identity of a plant when there is no flower yet or when the flower has faded or gone to seed?

No doubt Mr Newcomb struggled with the same issues as he combed the New England countryside looking at plants. One day, the flash of a brilliant idea must have entered his mind. Instead of only looking at the flower, he would carefully note the arrangement and placement of the plant’s leaves (if there were any) and categorize the type of leaf. Did it have teeth or not? Was it a simple leaf or a compound leaf? Alternate or opposite?

The result was his masterful field guide “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide” with illustrations by Gordon Morrison.

To quote Mr. Newcomb ” This guide provides a new and eminently workable key system, which is based on the most easily seen features that make each species unique, features the untrained eye can distinguish.”

During a field walk one day, I had my copy (now held together with duct tape) open and was showing an illustration to a small group. Afterward a stranger approached me and said “Were you showing them a passage from the bible?”  You know what? I think I was!

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