Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book Review: Encyclopedia of Northwest Native Plants for Gardens and Landscapes

My reaction when I first picked up this hefty book, was “Finally!!” I have long thought that a comprehensive guide to the landscape-worthy plants of our part of the world was overdue. The book is attractively produced and covers over 500 species native to the west coast of North America from southwestern Alaska to Oregon and east to Idaho.
Authors Kathleen A. Robson, Alice Richter, and Marianne Filbert set themselves an ambitious task, to identify the garden worthy species from this area describe their hardiness, propagation and culture.

My initial enthusiasm for the book was soon checked however. My first foray into the book was to check on how they dealt with some plants I had in pots ready to go into the garden. The first was Sanguisorba menziesii (Menzie’s Burnet) a red-flowered Burnet that I had just purchased (at a local supermarket!!). Not only was the species not mentioned in the Encyclopedia there was no mention of the entire genus, which contains several garden- worthy species. My rooted cuttings of Luinia hypoleuca (Silverback Lunia) were also ready to go into the garden, and again there was no mention of this attractive drought tolerant species in the book. Cypripedium acaule (Pink Ladyslipper) also had no entry in the book, although there is mention in early parts of the book that they had purposely not dealt with the more difficult to grow hardy orchids because they were not widely available – this despite the fact that there are numerous commercial nurseries now producing Cypripediums through laboratory culture.

The two pots I had of Spiraea splendens (S. densiflora var spendens) (Mountain Spiraea) fared much better, there was a brief description of possible uses, a heartening note that although it was a plant of higher elevations it fared very well in low elevation gardens and, bonus, that it is a good source of nectar for butterflies. Also useful was a note that the red and orange fall colour is stronger in sunnier locations.

This prompted me to look at some of the entries for other species that we grow in the garden. The descriptions for several of species, while perfectly accurate, were missing important information that would be useful for gardeners and landscapers - the intended audience. For example Darmera peltata (Indian Rhubarb) has no mention of the spectacular fall colour that the big leaves attain when grown in full sun. In general there was a lack of the prose and descriptions that one would expect of a gardening book, especially one that has set out to encourage folks to use native plants in the landscape - (all sepals and styles but no sizzle).

This flaw is exacerbated by the choice of photographs. The photos used are the work of a single photographer, and while they are mostly technically sound, many of them illustrate single flowers or worse, depauperate specimens. These do little to show the ornamental potential of some of the species illustrated. For example, the photo of Mimulus dentata (Tooth-leaved Monkeyflower) is of a young recently transplanted individual and gives the reader no idea of the ground cover potential of this wonderful plant. The twig of Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Kinnikinnik) on page 387 likewise does not inspire the use of this species; Given the extensive use of this species in landscaping there is little excuse for not illustrating a vigorous plant or, better yet, a planting . Sourcing photos from a number of photographers and looking for photographs of good specimens would have made for a much better book.

Also missing from the book are sources of native plants, public gardens and landscapes that use natives, mentions of seed sources, native plant gardening societies and web resources. While many of the entries would eventually date the book, they would have made useful chapters for gardeners interested in this topic.

Is the book worth buying? Definitely, it’s the most comprehensive volume out there and is a great companion to go along with Krukenburg’s Gardening With Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest and Pettinger’s and Costanzo’s Native Plants In The Coastal Garden: A Guide For Gardeners In The Pacific Northwest. Have we got the definitive text on gardening with our native plants?…not yet.