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All in the family

Las Crucens travel afar to document sunflowers


LAS CRUCES - Las Cruces authors, artists and retired biologists and husband and wife Richard “Rich” Spellenberg and Naida Zucker have published the definitive guide to sunflowers.

“The Sunflower Family” is “the only comprehensive guide to the sunflower family of North America that is aimed at the non-professional, although professional botanists should also find the book very useful and informative,” Spellenberg said.

Spellenberg and Zucker spent thousands of hours and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles taking photographs of sunflowers, which are part of the diverse colorful Asteraceae family that also includes thistles, artichokes, ragweed and daisies.

“At the start we questioned whether this project was feasible,” Spellenberg said. “Once we realized it was, we certainly took to heart that adage derived from a Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step.”

“We enjoyed this project tremendously, the main goal is to attempt to bring understanding of the Sunflower Family to wildflower enthusiasts, students, land managers and anyone interest in plant diversity,” he said. “As we worked on the project, we saw the marvelous diversity and beauty of our huge and varied country.”

Spellenberg conceived the idea for the book in the late-1980s, he said, when he was participating in organizational meetings for the technical compendium of all the plants in North America north of Mexico, which he called “a huge project still under production.” The project was tentatively begun in 2009, with “several stops and starts as difficult-to-find species were missed, then found,” he said. The book was completed at the end of 2018 and published in July 2019.

The multivolume “Flora of North America” provided species information, along with massive online databases from plant museums, said Spellenberg, who curated the herbarium at NMSU for 32 years. It now has more than 85,000 specimens, he said.

Spellenberg and Zucker drove more than 200,000 miles through most U.S. states, northern Mexico and eastern and western Canada to obtain photos, with about 15 photos of uncommon species obtained from other photographers. “All genera in the continuous U.S. are covered” in the book, he said, which includes about 425 genera and about 2,400 species.

“Throughout the U.S., people were helpful in locating plants, reading the manuscript, rendering opinions on classification and helping with computer programs,” he said. The project also received support for publication from the estate of Maxie G. Templeton in El Paso.

“The book aims to help a user identify any particular genus of Asteraceae north of Mexico, using one or more representative species as examples,” Spellenberg said.

A California native, Spellenberg came to Las Cruces in 1968. Zucker, a native of New York, arrived in 1973. Both were biology professors at New Mexico State University, Spellenberg in botany and Zucker in zoology. He retired in 2000, followed by Zucker a year later, and both pursued their interest in art at Mesilla Valley Fine Arts gallery.

Zucker also enjoys home design and drafting, as well as computer programs. She learned InDesign from scratch so that she could design and lay out the sunflower book.

Spellenberg has written plant books for amateur gardeners, including “Field Guide to Wildflowers, North America Western Region,” “Sonoran Desert Wildflowers” and “Trees of Western North America.”

“The Sunflower Family” is available from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas at shop.brit.org/products/sunflowerfamily.

Contact Spellenberg at spelly@zianet.com and contact Zucker at naida@zianet.com.

Mike Cook may be contacted at mike@lascrucesbulletin.com.






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