There are two things that easily capture my attention: plants and books. As one can imagine, I’ve acquired quite a pile of both. This is a good thing, because in my correspondence I am frequently asked to recommend “the best plant book.”
Alas, this book doesn’t exist in a single volume, but the thoughtful plantsman can easily acquire fewer than a dozen titles and be assured of authoritative information. Yes, the Internet is an important resource. In fact, though, authoritative plant material information is published in books. I will cover my “essential” titles in two columns, starting today.
Remember: I’m not talking about picture books. The books that I am covering here are regarded as authoritative primary sources about the plants themselves. So, let’s go visit the library.
Some oldies and goodies
Julia Morton’s “500 Plants of South Florida” (2nd Edition, 1981) was one of my first reference books, and for some time was about the only available title; my copy is dated 1982 and is still in use. Plants are described from the view of a botanist with interest in landscape and especially edible plants, quaintly favoring many of the “classic” plants so common in early Florida landscapes. Morton was associated with the University of Miami until her death in 1996 and was an expert on toxic plants. Other titles by Morton not in my library but worth mention include “Fruits of Warm Climates,” “Wild Plants for Survival in South Florida” (1982), and “Exotic Plants” (1971).
Of course, Frederic B. Stresau’s “Florida, My Eden” remains the gold standard for reference books with the designer’s point of view in mind and should be one of the plant lover’s first choices. Stresau takes a very straightforward approach to plant material description, and although you may disagree with his “Use” description, as I frequently do, nonetheless the insights of a very experienced plantsman are invaluable. The book was recently updated (1986). Some photo quality must be overlooked.
George Stevenson’s “Palms of South Florida,” published by Fairchild Tropical Gardens, can be a little deceiving at first; the book depends on line drawings and technical description to help identify palms, rather than flashy color pictures. However, this is by far the most effective way to be sure about species identification, and make no mistake: This title is definitive and authoritative. You will learn, for example, that palm species show a narrow range of fronds and leaflets, and that counting the incidence of either is an important identification point. Also included are a very handy botanical key, as well as a map of Fairchild showing palm location. It is another must-have for the serious gardener.
And while we are discussing the historical heavyweights, another must-have would be John V. Watkins and Thomas Sheehan’s “Florida Landscape Plants,” a book described by the Palm Beach Post as “the bible of Florida Plants.” Organization is very straightforward, and design notes useful. Staghorn fern, as an example: “To cast the spell of the tropics and to add interest to a patio wall, nothing surpasses…”. Watkins belongs right next to Stresau’s book as your earliest acquisition.
A broader view
While these titles satisfy in the workaday world of plant identification and selection, one wants occasionally to dig a bit deeper. Nobody has made the trek into history more satisfying than Anna Pavord in her stunning tour de force “The Naming of Names.” Simply sit back and jump into this 465-page story, and that’s how she tells it: a story of how the naming of plant material evolved, from the earliest days, to binomial appellation and finally to today’s world of DNA analysis and shifting genera.
The book is subtitled “The Search for Order in the World of Plants,” reflecting, in a broader way, the history of mankind as an episodic, feral climb from where we were to where we are now. And one wonders: Why is there magic in the unknown? Pavord wonders, too, and she knows, deliciously moving us through time to the modern era.
Do not expect light reading! It’s absorbing and thorough, best taken in small bites, but do read this book. Pavord won praise for an earlier book on the tulip bubble called “The Tulip.”
So, there you have it: the books that I find useful and that I depend upon, and I look forward to hearing suggestions for other titles from my readers. Sometime next month, we will jump into the world of working scientists. I’ll look at several more titles, including Nelson, Haehle and Osorio, among others.
Please visit my Web site for more: www.msadesign.com, and e-mail me with any questions.
Michael Spencer, ASLA, has been practicing landscape architecture for 25 years and is president of MSA Design Inc. Web site: www.msadesign.com