An Annotated Bibliography of Reference Materials
Frequently I are 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, there is information on the internet, but aside from a few sites, authoritative plant material information is published in books.
Some Oldies and Still 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 worth mention include Fruits of Warm Climates, Wild Plants for Survival in South Florida (1982), and Exotic Plants (1971). Pictures are poor, however.
Of course, Fred Stresau’s Florida, My Eden (1986) remains the gold standard for reference books with the designer’s point of view in mind. 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. Alas, photos are not good.
George Stevenson’s Palms of South Florida (1974), 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, line drawings are heavily favored by professional botanists because they offer clarity and by far the most effective way to be sure about species identification. 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 as well as for the newcomer trying to make sense of palm species.
And while we are discussing the historical ‘heavy weights’: another must-have would be John V. Watkins and Thomas Sheehan’s Florida Landscape Plants [recent paperback edition 2005], a book described by the Palm Beach Post as ‘the bible of Florida Plants’. Certainly this book has been used for more than 30 years by generations of gardeners. 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.
And surely include Flowering Trees of The World for Tropics and Warm Climates (1962) by Edwin A. Menninger. The importance of this title cannot be over-stated: detailed discussion of species characteristics, flowering periods, peculiarities, and perhaps most useful a thorough rundown that helps untangle the sometimes messy state of botanical names. While some of the data has been updated over the years, this title is nonetheless invaluable for those of us in southern Florida.
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 (2005). Simply sit back and jump into this 465 page story– and that’s how she tells it– a story of how naming 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 why, 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.