Book review: The Vascular Plants of Bruce Peninsula, by Joe Johnson

The Vascular Plants of Bruce Peninsula (Photo by Bill Moses)

The Vascular Plants of Bruce Peninsula (Photo by Bill Moses)

June 20, 2016 | by Bill Moses

The Vascular Plants of the Bruce Peninsula, by Joe Johnson, is a landmark book in the history of botany on the Bruce Peninsula — a place described as being Ontario’s most well-known botanical destination.

The first person to attempt to conduct such an intensive botanical survey of the whole region was P. V. Krotkov, who spent four summers on the peninsula from 1936 to 1939. (This is a story in itself!) Since that time, much botanical work in various sections of the Bruce has been conducted and compiled into updated plant lists.

On the other hand, Joe Johnson has lived for 40 years on the peninsula (in Wiarton). He very early on became recognized as the regional plant expert for that area. For more than 30 years, he has been collecting data based on personal observations, with few distractions from his personal life. His working life provided more opportunities to collect data.

An unusual attention to detail, along with a concern about being correct to the point of obsession, is reflected in his book. Based on his personal observations, the book thoroughly reviews botanical information published by others about the Bruce; even his own work. All species previously reported on the peninsula have been either accepted or rejected with the reasoning for doing so.

What information does this book offer readers?

This book is great as a distribution guide, but is not a book about identifying plants. When used in conjunction with other botanical books, it sets out a regionally unique and thorough discussion of plants growing in the wild on the Bruce Peninsula. It kind of answers the question, “Hey, what do you know about this plant?” The answer has enough non-technical content to assist anyone wanting to know more.

Some parts of the book are very technical, but the main thrust is a discussion of each of the plants growing in the wild on the Bruce Peninsula, their flowering dates, where they are found, degree of occurrence, habitat and so on.

Scientifically, it is a snapshot of what plants were on the Bruce Peninsula in 2014. The previous snapshot (by P.V. Krotkov) was taken in 1940. Any botanical study of a plant growing in the wild on the peninsula will now include information as to if it was reported to be there in 2014 as well as (as is currently the case) if it was reported to be there in 1940.

Who should read this book?

Esme Batten, acting assistant of conservation biology with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, says she might not recommended it to a new botanist, but the book is really useful in understanding plant distribution on the Bruce, and in what general habitats you can find both common and uncommon plants. Although geared towards more experienced botanists, anyone with an interest in plants on the Bruce Peninsula would benefit from reading this book.

A publishing dream come true

Joe Johnson (Photo by Bill Moses)

Joe Johnson (Photo by Bill Moses)

This book became a gleam in the author’s eye in the mid to late eighties. By the late eighties, the local naturalist community was well informed that Joe Johnson was writing a book and that as soon as it was finished he was moving back to Nova Scotia, to his boyhood home. To a certain extent Joe was then seen less in the naturalist community, and the understood reason was that he was working on his book.

After a few decades this became a bit of a joke.

Question: “Where is Joe Johnson these days?”

Answer: “He’s working on his book (chuckle).”

At some point in 2013, Joe and I started to work together on the book. Another person had started inputting Joe’s handwritten copy but then left the country (presumably not just to get out of helping Joe with the book).

I must state at this point that I only provided my knowledge of computers to this project. Joe would tell me what he wanted, and it was up to me to make the computer do his bidding. He was a stickler for detail and (as he admits in the book) constantly changing his mind about things. In the end, we were able to present a “camera ready” file to the printer and three weeks later we had a book.

In the last few months Joe could see that his dream of returning to Nova Scotia was in sight, which reminded me of a horse at the end of a long day being energized by the sight of the barn and anticipation of the comforts within. Without the dream of returning to Nova Scotia, this book might never have been completed!

The book is available and well received by academics and lay people. The only question remaining regards whether Joe is really going to go back to Nova Scotia and if so when.

For information about the book and the author, Joe can be contacted at

Bill Moses

About the Author

Bill Moses is a volunteer with the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

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