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Mabberley’s Plant-Book: A Portable Dictionary of Plants, Their Classification and Uses

Mabberley’s Plant-Book: A Portable Dictionary of Plants, Their Classification and Uses, 3rd edition by David J Mabberley. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 2008. Hardcover; 1021 pages. ISBN 978-0-521-82071-4. $90.00. Available in ABC’s online store.

Most readers will not have heard of the “herbarium crawl.” That’s this tired old retired taxonomist’s (JAD) jargon for trying to identify an unknown specimen by searching for a matching named specimen in the herbarium. Most of my herbarium crawls were in the herbarium of the Missouri Botanical Garden between 1959 and 1963, when I was trying to identify specimens among collections from Panama and Peru. Later, on my move to the US Department of Agriculture, I crawled at the Smithsonian Herbarium, trying to identify some of the thousands of specimens I had collected in Latin America for the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and other entities. The New York Botanical Garden’s Michael Balick probably did many herbarium crawls in his role with the NCI’s cancer screen as well. These are all important herbaria. In them, there were usually multiple copies of various indices that were often vitally useful in guiding the “crawl.” Lamentably the “new taxonomy,” based on molecular evidence, has changed many such assignations; nearly half of the family names in a recent flora of Maine are different from what they were in my herbarium crawl days. If the herbaria have been reorganized to conform to the new classifications, I’ll really need my Mabberley’s Plant-Book, 3rd edition, which conforms to the new molecular classifications.

Last March, author David Mabberley, PhD, moved from the University of Washington to become keeper of the herbarium, library, art, and archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Kew Gardens embraces, of course, one of the world’s best herbaria in one of the world’s greatest botanical gardens.

Mabberley’s 3rd edition, I predict, will be strategically located in most major herbaria as a compact tool to facilitate the neotaxonomists in their more modern herbarium crawls, maybe even assisted by bar-coded evidence.

We (the authors of this book review) thought so highly of the volume that we recommended it to the nominations committee of the American Botanical Council for the eponymous James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award for the year 2008.

Few, if any, books get as much use in our libraries as previous editions of Mabberley. This new edition includes the best explanation of the taxonomic shifts resulting from the introduction of molecular data (what we call the new taxonomy) for lay plant enthusiasts.

Though I’d (JAD) like to have the Plant-Book 3rd edition in my office, I’m going to leave it in the Green Farmacy Garden office so that the garden director, interns, visitors, and volunteers can consult the book before coming to me with questions about the family placement of the 300 species in the Green Farmacy Garden. They raise vexing questions these days.

For example, is Callicarpa still in the Verbena family or has it shifted to the mint family? It shifted to the mint family! Is Sambucus (elderberry) in the Caprifoliaceae or is it relocated to a different family? It is in a different family, indeed—the Adoxaceae! Mabberley provides answers to these and other questions in the moving target that is botanical taxonomy. Be prepared to relearn everything you thought you already knew about plant families and their evolutionary relationship!

To get a generous aliquot of useful information on more than 24,000 entries (mostly common names, families, genera, and tribes), Mabberley has skillfully constructed some very useful shortcuts and necessary abbreviations, all concisely included in the back of the book. An Appendix, “system for arrangement of extant vascular plants,” incorporates the latest findings from molecular systematics in the classification of flowering plants. “Acknowledgement of Sources,” a polite British phrasing for “references,” begins on page 939 and includes an extensive list of floras, handbooks, Web sites, and periodicals consulted by the author. Pages 957–1019 have extensive listings of abbreviations and symbols used in the book, including the names of botanists truncated in botanical authority abbreviations, with year of birth and death (if applicable). One may want to bookmark this essential key to Mabberley’s Plant-Book’s content. The final page of the book is a brief list of new plant names introduced within the pages of the book. New users are advised to study page xvi, “How to use this book,” to understand some of the shortcuts Mabberley employs.

We will use bay as an example, since bay is the International Herb Association’s Herb of the Year designee for 2009. On page 95, we find bay laurel assigned to Laurus nobilis. On page 471, under Laurus we find Lauraceae (II) for example, which sends us to the Lauraceae entry, in which the genus Laurus is placed in: “II” referring to Laureae the second of two tribes under the Lauraceae.

Similarly, on the same page, the entry for Lavandula is “Labiatae (VIIa),” which sends you to the entry for Labiatae, and the subfamily: VII “Nepetoideae,” under which Lavandula is placed in the tribe “3. Ocimeae” followed by “a”—the subtribe Lavandulinae. So all those Roman numerals in parenthesis after the family name are simply referring to the family entry in the dictionary and the relevant subfamilies, tribes and subtribes within the primary family entry. Of course, nobody except a working taxonomist cares much about subfamilies, tribes, and subtribes, but the information is there. The specific “condensed styles” of the entries are expanded in extenso in the genus and family examples given on pages xvii-xviii. The sample entries on these 2 pages are absolutely key to understanding the condensed style of Mabberley’s entries throughout his new plant-book. Some readers may be tempted to skip the introductory material in a book (the “front matter”) or the back sections (the “back matter”), but don’t do that with this edition of Mabberley or your gray matter will be vexed with confusion.

This book contains over 24,000 entries and “information on every family and genus of seed-bearing plant (including gymnosperms) plus ferns and club mosses,” combining taxonomic details and uses with English and other vernacular names. We have no reason to question the introductory note that “Mabberley’s Plant-book continues to rank among the most practical and authoritative botanical texts available,” aptly deserving the ABC Excellence in Botanical Literature Award for the year 2008, and a place on your book shelf for 2009 and beyond.

—James A. Duke, PhD Economic Botanist Fulton, MD Steven Foster President, Steven Foster Group, Inc. Eureka Springs, AR