Digital image book of flora aims to answer ‘what is that?’

A hiker sees an unfamiliar plant while walking on native prairie and pulls out her smartphone, on which she has downloaded Common Coulee Plants of Southern Alberta, to quickly identify it.


This is what the authors of a new book envision with the release of a free electronic version suitable for use on tablets and smartphones.


University of Lethbridge biology professor John Bain and botanist and photographer June Flanagan have updated seminal work done by former U of L professor Job Kuijt.


Kuijt, an expert botanist, published a book by the same name in 1972, featuring line drawings of native prairie plants. 


The new version, released earlier this month, features Kuijt’s line drawings and Flanagan’s colour photographs of 124 species of flowers, grasses and woody plants.


Southern Alberta is in the title, but many of the plants can also be found across the prairie provinces, said Flanagan.


“It was John’s idea to re-release the book as a digital book,” Flanagan said about Bain, who is a plant taxonomist and botanist, as well as director of the U of L’s digital herbarium.


“We knew many of the plant guide books that are done on flora, done by professional botanists, they’re quite expensive, so (Bain) thought it would be great if some of these guide books could be digitized so they could be more affordable and accessible for students,” Flanagan said.


“And in this case, this book is very popular with the general public.”


The book features smooth blue beardtongue (penstemon nitidus) on the cover, the same wildflower that was featured on Kuijt’s original cover.  


Flanagan said descriptions are written in “friendly language” rather than technical references.


“When you read the descriptions, it’s just as if Job Kuijt was with you, out in the coulees looking at the plants and describing the differences between them and describing what they look like.”


Flanagan spent months taking photographs for the book, a process that took her across southern Alberta. Finding the plants and photographing them at their most visible growth stage is a challenge, she said.


Some bloom in early morning, like blue flax, some bloom in late afternoon, like the prickly pear and pincushion cacti, and some bloom after sundown, like the 10-petalled evening star.


As well, some were best photographed when bearing fruit or seed pods.


Flanagan said she wanted the photographs to reflect what was contained in Kuijt’s drawings.


“He had a great knack for recognizing when you and I would be most likely to recognize the plant.”


Bain digitized the material, and the free download is available through the U of L at www.uleth.ca/dspace/handle/10133/3376.