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Book Review

Syllabus of Plant Families - Part 1/2 Ascomycota

By Walter Jaklitsch, Hans-Otto Baral, Robert Lücking,H. Thorsten Lumbsch
Edited by Wolfgang Frey
A. Engler’s Syllabus der Pflanzenfamilien, 13th ed.
Schweizerbart and Borntraeger Science Publishers
322 pages, hardcover; €119
ISBN 978-3-443-01089-8

Gustav Heinrich Adolf Engler, 1844–1930, was a German botanist and plant geographer. His best known publication (with Karl von Prantl) is Die natürlichen Pflanzenfamilien (The Natural Plant Families) published in parts from 1887 to 1911. In this work, Engler and Prantl provided a comprehensive system of plant classification that became widely accepted and was the principal one used in herbariums and elsewhere worldwide until the 1970s. Engler's Syllabus der Pflanzenfamilien, which first appeared in 1892 under a different title, is essentially an outline summary of the larger work. Taking on a life of its own, many subsequent editions of the Syllabus appeared, and it was continued by others after Engler's death. The most recent edition was the 12th in 1954. The 13th edition, the first in English, began in 2009 with the publication of Part 3, Bryophytes and Seedless Vascular Plants, and has continued with the release of additional parts in 2012 and 2015.

So why are we interested in a book about plants originally written by a botanist? Because, until rather recently, fungi were considered to be plants and so they, along with cyanobacteria, algae, and lichens, were treated by Engler.

This is the second of three (sub)parts of the Syllabus that deal, fully or in part, with fungi. Part 1/1, published in 2012, covered, along with a variety of nonfungus things, the Chytridiomycota, Zygomycota, and Glomeromycota. Part 1/3, forthcoming, will treat the Basidiomycota. The Ascomycota is, by far, the largest of the phyla of Fungi, comprising about 60% of all species in the kingdom. Of the roughly 65,000 known ascomycete species, about 18,500 are lichens. The others span the entire range of fungal life styles, including saprotrophs; parasites on plants, animals, and other fungi, including lichens; endophytes and endoliths; carnivores; and mutualistic associations with plants such as ericoid mycorrhizas and ectomycorrhizas.

The authors are well aware of the difficulty in producing such a comprehensive work when the classification of fungi, as well as that of other organisms, is undergoing such a rapid and widespread change as a result of the accumulation of data from molecular sequencing. Thus, they view this as nothing like the final word, rather as a snapshot of a work in progress. In the Preface, the editor of the series (Frey) describes the new edition of the Syllabus as “Following the tradition of Engler, and incorporating the latest results from molecular phylogenetics and phylogenomics, this completely restructured and revised 13th edition provides an up-to-date evolutionary and systematic overview of the fungal and plant groups.” The authors of this part further state that “phylogenetic revisions have revolutionized the systematic classification of taxa from phylum to species level and a new understanding of fungal evolution and species delimitation has emerged. These new insights are here treated in an integrated context of morphological and molecular data, providing an up-to-date synopsis of this phylum while acknowledging that the systematic classification of this group of Fungi is not yet fully settled.”

Be forewarned, this is not an enthralling page-turner. It is a reference work that will sit on your shelf until you need to learn something about an ascomycete whose name you have encountered for the first time or find out who is thought to be close cousin of whom. Following a onepage introduction, Chapter 2 provides a succinct summary of the phylum, Ascomycota, its modes of reproduction, ecology and distribution, evolution, and importance to humans. Chapter 3 consists of a 14-page synopsis of the classification of the Ascomycota. Chapter 4 makes up the bulk of the book (more below), Chapter 5 gives us two new order names, and Chapter 6 slips in some late additions and updates. An index to taxa completes the book.

Following the outline provided in Chapter 3, Chapter 4 cycles through the subphyla, classes, orders, and families, providing brief descriptions of each taxon, numbers of genera in each family, (often) numbers of species in each genus, and reference citations (there is a huge number of them). Other than for the three subphyla (Taphrinomycotina, Saccharomycotina, and Pezizomycotina), the entries are arranged alphabetically. Scattered throughout the book are 8 line drawings, mostly of life cycles, and 16 color plates. Fifteen of the plates consist of multiple images (8–12) of macroscopic or microscopic features. They are mostly of high quality and my only reservation is that, in some cases, providing a close-up of a small feature prevents one from getting a picture of the whole organism or fruiting body. This book will be a necessity for anyone making a serious study of the ascomycetes and will no doubt find a place in most university mycology labs and libraries. Although it could well come in handy for many folks, the price is likely to prevent it from finding its way into the personal libraries of most amateur mycologists.

— Review by Steve Trudell
— Originally published in Fungi