Botany for Gardeners offers a clear explanation of how plants grow. What happens inside a seed after it is planted? How are plants structured? How do plants adapt to their environment? How is water transported from soil to leaves? Why are minerals, air, and light important for healthy plant growth? How do plants reproduce? The answers to these and other questions about complex plant processes, written in everyday language, allow gardeners and horticulturists to understand plants "from the plant's point of view."
A bestseller since its debut in 1990, this indispensable and handy reference has now been expanded and updated to include an appendix on plant taxonomy and a comprehensive index. Two dozen new photos and illustrations make this new edition even richer with information. Its convenient paperback format makes it easy to carry and access, whether you are in or out of the garden. An essential overview of the science behind plants for beginning and advanced gardeners alike.
(Thanks to my local public library's budget cuts, I read the second revised edition: there is now a third edition with a better index, an appendix on plant taxonomy and more illustrations. An acknowledgement should be made to the helpful librarian who dug it out of the stacks for me. I hope she keeps her job.)
I've been gardening, to one degree or another, since I was hip high to my mum. One of my earliest memories is of picking up a hoe, and trying to be helpful by hoeing a patch of week-old seedlings. My next earliest memory is of the consequent bollocking. Today, I'm not quite that incompetent, and learned slowly by education and, later, my own inadequate patches or those of other people they were willing to lend me. I also spent a year studying habitat surveying for nature conservation, and much of that course covered botany and plant identification in the wild. Even today, I still consider a plant I can't identify in my home country as a “garden escape”, for the simple reason that I'm familiar with at least most of Scotland's native vascular flora.
When I started out, the language of plant identification was (literally) all Latin and Greek to me, and my smattering of schoolboy grasp of these tongues was of limited help. Even today, having learned the language spoken by field naturalists, I still prefer a picture book than one dominated by text. There are two standard field guides for the UK: one has drawings, and the other does not. The latter shows you are hardcore. I still use the former.
As a gardener, and as someone trained in ecosystem surveying and management planning, I have some grasp of botany. I understand why a graft works (most of the time!), and the limiting factors on the main variants of photosynthetic pathways. That said, most of my knowledge is concentrated at the ecosystem level, at identification and interaction. It's buried in jargon, mostly in Greek. Since even most educated people, these days, do not speak Classical Greek, it's useful to have a book that introduces the details of why and how plants grow, or might not, to the rest of us.
My desire to read this book grew from a desire to develop a better grasp of plants at the level of the individual, as well as at the level of the ecosystem, and what is actually going on when I watch a plant grow and interact with its environment.
We gardeners know that if you stick a seed in some dirt and give it some water, it will grow (usually). We know roots seek out nutrients. We know trees carry water from the ground to their leaves. Most of us don't know how. This book is intended to remedy this situation and many more. The author was Professor of Botany at California State University, and knows his material.
The book starts at the beginning, with the plant cell and its parts. There are long words here, but the author clearly defines what they mean and what the parts of a plant cell actually do. He has taken what could be a complex subject, and made it clear, partly through the means of abundant (to locally common*) drawings. There is even a hint here that the author has had the same insight a few of those of us who study life have: some features of a plant cell are identical to those found in animals such as ourselves, and all our differences are simply ones of degree, with no clear dividing lines: somewhere, there was a common ancestor of me and the cactus on my window sill.
Having told you what a cell is, he tells you how a cell grows. Again, he likes his illustrations. He tells you how and where (and this is important when watching growing plants) cells divide. This is the foundation of the slow, complex process that takes you from seed crack to oak tree. Why and how seeds germinate is the subject of the next section, and he uses an example you can watch for yourself when growing beans. He explains why we as gardeners have to treat seeds in the way we do.
Having germinated your plant, chapter 2 covers roots and shoots. Gardeners tend to pay less attention to roots because they exist in a part of the world alien to us, but this part of the book is particularly useful to those of us growing polycultures because the stratification above ground has its parallels below it. Understanding roots helps us understand some of the requirements plants have, and why one rye plant can have 14 million root segments totalling 630km (380 miles)** in length. Learn why you irrigate a fruit tree in its drip zone. Then you are guided through primary growth in stems, budding and branching, thus showing how things like coppicing work, before moving on to the parts and features of woody twigs and the parts, features and forms of leaves.
Part 2 move on to how plants organise themselves, the science of plant anatomy. He starts with stems, first herbaceous ones, before using that grounding to discuss wood. I found this was where the combination of diagram, and macro- and stained microphotography became useful in relating an ideal to how things actually look in plant tissue, perhaps with a hand lens. Once you can see this it makes the tissue continuity required for successful grafting much easier to both understand and perceive. There is a separate section on monocot stems, such as palms, which follow somewhat different rules, but which gives plants such as bamboo their amazing strength and flexibility.
Chapter 4 covers the anatomy of roots and leaves. Again, the ability to compare diagrams with photographs is a real strong point of this book. Leaves contain cells of different types carefully arranged to maximise the efficiency of photosynthesis.
Part 3 is about adaptation, beginning with adaptations for protection. The first habitat he talks about in relation to adaptation for protection is the garden habitat.*** Much of this will be familiar to the gardener, who knows that plants have environmental and photoperiod requirements (the latter may be behind, for example, failures to grow quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) here in Scotland). In some cases we can modify the environment, and much of permaculture at its best is effectively boss-level environmental modification, perhaps coupled with some boss-level plant breeding. The trick with the former is creating the right environmental conditions and overcoming the limiting factors in growing a plant. Plants themselves do have many adaptations to extreme conditions, from winter to drought, and many of course have learned to protect themselves from animals, one way or another, some with mutualistic relationships with other animals, such as the bullhorn acacia (Acacia sphaerocephala) with ants. The section on wound healing is of particular importance to the gardener, and there is a lot of detail on chemistry (which affects edibility in many species), although there is an odd confusion here between plants and fungi, which makes little sense to me.
There is also adaptation to fulfill basic needs (chapter 6), which includes competition between plants, the processes by which they optimise (not necessarily maximise) exposure to light, obtain and store water, and store food. While some extreme examples are only likely to be encountered in botanical gardens, the variation involved in these processes is well worth knowing about – even applying – in polycultures, because of the wildly varying niches available. We also need to at least be aware of and potentially how to tackle saprophytes and parasites. Mutualisms such as rhiziobium and mycorrhiza are more likely to be familiar.
The next section, on function, covers plant physiology. Of great interest to science, this is probably a niche field to the gardener, but there is much to be learned here, and the requirements for close observation in permaculture may offer opportunities for the advancement of plant science. This chapter is a summary of how plants use their various senses – of which they have more than we do. Theory – going back to Darwin - about gravity seems to be more nuanced than we thought (see https://theconversation.com/taking-plants-off-planet-how-do-they-grow-in-zero-gravity-45032) and the question of plant senses and gene expression seems to be much more complex than is suggested in this book, but this is recent research. Chapter 8 covers the uptake of water, minerals and light. Some of this is well known to the gardener, but some of the details, about precisely why it's so hard to grow plants in clay, is often fascinating in itself. There is also a rundown on photosynthesis and its assorted products.
Section 5 considers reproduction. Flowers, let us not forget, are all about sex (except it's not, really, but this book explains it). While there are purely vegetative keys to some groups of plants, in the field good identification requires you to know the parts of a flower and the various forms that might take. Something a permie needs to remember is that the shape of an inflorescence relates to the morphology and related behaviour of the pollinator. There are plenty of generalised flower shapes out there, but there is no point growing a non-native plant in the absence of a required specialist pollinator. This is also a strong argument for creating habitats with extended flowering periods in order to support as broad a range of pollinators as possible. Chapter 10 covers strategies of inheritance, including some basic plant genetics (Carol Deppe covers this in more useful detail: https://permies.com/t/51209/books/Breed-Vegetable-Varieties-Carol-Deppe). In order to explain these processes the author uses the (by mammal standards strange) life cycles of a moss, a fern and a flowering plant. I wasn't keen on his brief but overwhelmingly positive treatment of genetic modification, which fails to consider all its implications and deliberate misuse. Again, Deppe, the experienced geneticist, gives a much more cautious view in her book on plant breeding. Capon must know about pleiotropy, but ignores it.
That said, in summary, this is an excellent book, aimed at someone with some knowledge of how to grow plants but little of the actual botanical processes involved. It may not be worth a place on a limited book shelf, but is definitely worth a read. It assumes you know very little, defines and describes everything from the molecule to the entire plant, and leaves you having learned something (and gives you an excellent glossary into the bargain). You certainly can grow plants without it, but you will have much greater insight with it.
** This author gains kudos for using both metric and archaic methods of measurement.
*** Another warm spot I have for this book results from the fact that he talks about habitats, including “the garden habitat”, not “property”.