Book Review: Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs

by Jenny Peterson on November 29, 2011

in Book Reviews

I am so excited about adding my two cents’ in this week about Michael A. Dirr’s Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs! The book’s publisher, Timber Press, has been hosting a giveaway on their site, and one lucky tree-and-shrub loving reader will win a copy of the Encyclopedia this Friday, December 2–and to celebrate the release, a number of bloggers have been reviewing the book this week.

I’m going to come right out and say that my weakness as a gardener and designer is trees–I’m not super great about identifying them, and I continually need to look up different varieties for both my clients and myself. So this book, all 951 pages of it, just might be my new bible. As I was reading the introduction, it became quickly apparent how profoundly knowledgable Dirr is on this topic–truly, this is a person who really knows what he is talking about. Dirr, a professor of horticulture at The University of Georgia, co-owns Plant Introductions, Inc.,  and through this business, breeds, trials and evaluates plants. In a plant world where new introductions are often shuffled through to the buying public without enough information to ensure the customer of the plant’s reliability, Dirr’s research and knowledge is like an oxygen mask on a turbulent plane. (Wow, that was eloquent, wasn’t it? Score.)

If you need info about a particular tree or shrub, you will find all the specifics you need–sun/water requirements, soil needs, hardiness, growth habits, pest & disease propensities, general availability and comments on ease of transplantability. You’ll also find a bit of plant history, compare and contrast between cultivars, and advice on how to use particular plants.

A really helpful section appears at the end of the book–if you need a suggestion of a good tree or shrub for a very specific use (hedging, urban planting, winter interest), here’s where you need to sit a spell. The usability of this book is really amazing.

So, one of the first things I did when familiarizing myself with the encyclopedia was to look up my tried-and-true favorites as well as some of the shrubs and trees that I hate. I did this simply to see how what I think I know about a plant stacks up to the Master. My faves–glossy abelia, sandankwa viburnum and lacebark elm–were all there, and what I read confirmed what I know about these plants and why I love them. A couple of the plants I hate and won’t use–Arizona ash, Bradford pear–were either not mentioned (Arizona ash–yessss) or were mentioned but with a suggestion to not plant it (the pear–double score).

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking. “Trees and shrubs–yawn.” or “Encyclopedia? No, thanks.” But I assure you, my friend, you are wrong. Might I offer some examples of Dirr’s writing style? It’s a one-two punch to publish incredible in-depth material in a way that is truly readable and enjoyable:

Funny:  Momi fir (Abies firma) p. 25: “Slow to initiate strong growth–kind of stares at the gardener for several years, then decides to leap.”

Poetic: Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) p. 495: “…sweetbay magnolia is at its best on a June day, when the silvery-backed leaves are tousled by the wind and sparkle like diamonds and the lemony sweet floral fragrance rides on every current of air.” I want a sweetbay magnolia now.

Emphatic: Japanese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira) p. 609: “One of the most essential broadleaf evergreen shrubs for souther and West Coast landscapes, growing in sand, seaside conditions, full sun or shade, heat, and drought.”

Blunt: Nandina (Nandina domestica) p. 521: “Although beyond common, it is one of the most serviceable broadleaf evergreens.”

There is nothing “beyond common” about this book. I’ll be honest–I don’t like huge books. I don’t own an encyclopedia. And my tree knowledge is weak. And I love this book. It’s a discovery on every page–superb information written in a real, engaging style–I am totally sold. Thank you, Michael Dirr!

To enter to win your own copy of the Encyclopedia, hop over to the Timber Press site and leave a comment on their post–good luck! The winner will be chosen on Friday, December 2.

To read other reviews about Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, click on the following blog links:

North Coast Gardening

Our Little Acre

Gossip in the Garden

Gardens of the Wild Wild West

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Desert Dweller / David C. November 30, 2011 at 9:37 am

Great quotes! I need to write my book, which will be one of the only (or the only) that will leave out trash trees like Arizona Ash or Bradford Pear, and those even far, far worse! This new Dirr offering does sound great, even though much in it sounds more for wetter places…if anything for great info with wit.

David R. December 3, 2011 at 6:36 am

I agree with David. Dirrs books are better suited for east Texas on. You might consider Benny J. Simpson’s Field Guide to Texas Trees. Although we can’t grow much of the eastern Trees we can grow the ones from west Texas and some from northern Mexico.

D.R.
DFW, TX.

Jenny Peterson December 5, 2011 at 7:47 am

That’s good to know, David–thank you!

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