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Book Bullet: Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr

DirrTreesShrubs9780881929010lI mentioned a couple of weeks ago how I’d been reading this book, by flashlight and candlelight, when the power was out during the storm. But I’d also been using it as regular reference for some time before that. And a big fat reference book needs time to prove its value.

This is a huge, large format book, generally with three or more pictures on each page – often with more pictures than text. Set out as an A-Z by genus, the entries are written in accessible language with the minimum of botanical terminology with thoughts on culture and use integrated with the descriptions.

As ever with Mr Dirr, the text is very readable partly because through his decades of research he has never taken anything for granted, but always looked and thought and then decided - and all that is in evidence here. There is also a welcome emphasis on newer introductions. Thank goodness for his prodigious note-taking and/or his prodigious memory.

But the problem with covering trees and shrubs for all climates in one book is that, well, it’s impossible to do so comprehensively. For example, choosing two genera which are very important to British gardeners – the book is of course published in Britain as well as the North America - Erica gets just two pictures and one column of text, while Hebe gets two pictures and half a column of text. American readers will appreciate twenty pages of hollies (but only a page and a half is devoted to those mainly grown in Britain) and Lagerstroemia, important in the US, gets seven pages (they're hardly grown in Britain at all). Strangely, Salvia is excluded altogether.

It’s a bold enterprise, publishing a 950 page full colour book on trees and shrubs. But it makes up for its gaps with its intelligent opinions, excellent illustrations and Michael Dirr’s breadth of experience and insight.

Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs by Michael A. Dirr is published by Timber Press at $79.95/£50.00
  • An easy read, pleasingly opinionated and packed with information
  • Very well illustrated
  • Welcome focus on recent varieties
  • Plants for American gardeners are dominant