Botany for Gardeners – A Book Review

Botany for Gardeners: Third Edition BY BRIAN CAPON. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 2010. 268 pgs.

            Most home gardeners, myself included, have a basic understanding of plant names and families as well as plant parts, needs, and reproduction. Few have the scientific knowledge of leaf, stem, and root details or the more complicated dynamics of propagation, environmental adaptation, and biochemical processes inherent and unique in all botanical specimens. Brian Capon addresses the need and desire for the amateur gardener or aspiring horticulturist to have a basic understanding of the science of botany. Without delving into endless scientific jargon, the author shares the basics of plant science with five organized sections of explanations, photos, and diagrams: I. Growth; II. Organization; III. Adaptation; IV. Functions; V. Reproduction.

            In the first section on plant growth, without assuming any previous biological training, the author develops the cell concept and explains the structure of a typical plant cell and the diversity of cell types in a typical garden plant. Root, stem, and leaf cells are introduced and the apical meristem, or sprout tip as I have always called it, is examined in detail. The function and growth of roots, stems, and leaves, as well as their mutual dependence, is explored and a basic familiarity with scientific terminology is gradually developed. Examples of leaf arrangement and the explanation of woody twig development were well illustrated and created interest to jump into the next section.

            All gardeners recognize basic patterns that uniquely define each plant in the home garden. The author leads the reader on a scientific journey inside the leaf, stem, and root to create an understanding of how individual parts and processes unite to create a living, growing organism. In section II, with easily understood photos and diagrams, the reader is introduced to maturing stems   and the development of branches, bark, and heartwood. The development and function of roots and leaves are studied with microscopic renderings showing water conducting systems, photosynthesis methodology, breathing, and food dispersion organization.

            Once the organization is appreciated, the physical and chemical adaptation to environmental factors is studied in Section III. No previous knowledge of chemistry is required as the reader explores intricate details on how plants have developed and exploited environmental niches of desert, bog, prairie, and woodland. Understanding the natural adaptations of each plant species assists the gardener in recreating near the ideal light, soil, and moisture conditions for optimum growth and development. Natural protections such as thorns, gums, and internal poisons are investigated along with plant competition, stem support, food storage, and soil chemistry.

            Section IV., “Functions”, is the most interesting and detailed section of the text as intricate cooperation between plant parts is developed by looking at the influences of light, gravity, and touch. A brief journey to the world of natural hormones is necessary to understand growth, bud development, and the uptake of water and nutrients. The photosynthetic process is returned to and explained in a semi-technical context that can be easily interpreted by the amateur gardener. Interactions with the atmosphere and the soil are shown to be intricate and vital processes.

            The last section, “Reproduction”, gives the reader the reason for gardening in the first place. We love the flowers and fruit products of our gardens but exactly how does it all happen? With expertly labeled diagrams, the author walks us through the intricate world of pollination, fertilization, and seed and fruit development and maturation. A few basics of plant heredity are reviewed and concepts of hybridization are explored.

            Botany for Gardeners concludes with two important sections – Plant Names and a Glossary. As confusing as common names are for our everyday plants, scientific names while being in theory more exact are also constantly evolving as botanists develop new methods and nomenclature for plant hybrids as well as continue inquiry into plant heredity. A Glossary of important terms is essential for basic communications among plant enthusiasts as well as differentiating a plant’s defining physical characteristics and chemical processes. I found myself constantly checking a new word’s meaning and, in this way, expanding my understanding and appreciation of my gardening world.

            Amateur and semi-professional gardeners wishing to expand their understanding of why plants do what they do and don’t do what we want them to do will enjoy this text which will expand a basic botanical knowledge without overpowering our intellectual and educational limitations. The aspiring horticulturist will use this book as a stepping stone to more advanced texts on plant functions and biochemical processes.

1 thought on “Botany for Gardeners – A Book Review

  1. Sounds like a good one, thanks George!


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