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Botany for Gardeners, 3rd Edition

Botany for Gardeners, 3rd Edition by Brian Capon. Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2010. Paperback; 268 pages. ISBN 978-1-60469-095-8. $19.95

All life depends on plants—they are amazing, and understanding how they grow, reproduce, and respond to a range of factors is an essential part of knowing how to work with and appreciate them. Botany for Gardeners is not only a reference book, but a great read as well. The book provides a way to refresh one’s knowledge of how plants work even as it maintains an interesting, current, and comprehensible tone. It is not a how-to book; rather, it is a book about understanding the complexities of plants and why they do what they do. The third edition is essential as it keeps pace with our knowledge of the new discoveries and research on plants.

The English-born author, Brian Capon, PhD, a retired professor of botany at California State University, compiled this book based on lecture notes he used to teach botany for non-science students. Not only is the text engaging, the illustrations and photographs help clarify and visualize the descriptions. The book begins with explanations of plant growth, cells and seeds, roots and shoots, followed by travels inside plant stems, roots, and leaves. Next is an exciting focus on plant adaptation—an area of amazing revelations and survival techniques—then an overview of plant functions such as growth, development, uptake of water, minerals, and light. In the final sections, the focus is on flowers, pollination, reproduction, and strategies of inheritance, all filled with fun facts about plants while providing clear descriptions.  

Botany for Gardeners opens with detailed accounts of the structure and function of plant cells, featuring outstanding drawings and photographs that help distinguish cell structures and demonstrate the processes of cell division. The description of seed germination that follows will help any gardener trying to understand seeds’ behavior, needs, and responses to a variety of settings. 

Much of the book gives the reader a sense of actually getting inside a plant. The author clarifies how water and minerals move through the plant and how roots, stems, and leaves operate. For example, the author explains the concept and power of transpirational pull—the process of water’s entering the roots, moving through the plant’s interconnecting xylem, and up through and out of the leaves in the form of transpired water vapor—with enjoyable crispness.

It is thrilling when a book captures the excitement of photosynthesis. In the process of photosynthesis, plants absorb light and transform it into food. Plants can be considered large-scale storers of sunlight in the form of energy-rich food molecules and are the intermediaries between the sun and all other creatures on earth. This knowledge reinforces our appreciation for the critical importance of plants to humans and the environment.

Appropriately, there is extensive information on plant adaptation. Since plants can’t move like animals, they have developed some extraordinary abilities to attract pollinators, to defend against attackers, and to survive in extreme environments. Plants send signals and have complex relationships. The bullhorn acacia (Acacia sphaerocephala, Fabaceae) is a great example of a complex symbiotic relationship.  The plant produces a nutritious liquid from specialized glands that attracts ants.  Ants live inside the large thorns of the acacia so that if the plant is disturbed, the ants rush out in a frenzy, thereby protecting the plant from attack by other insects. 

From the intrigue of roots and mycorrhizae to the steps from flower to fruit and plant genetics, the complexities of plants are made clear and brought to life in this text. Additionally, brief sections throughout the book on topics such as plants as food, implications of global warming, genetic engineering, and electron micrography of pollen grains and diatoms—which reveal the exquisite hidden beauty of plants—are welcomed additions.

Written by a plant lover, Botany for Gardeners creates a sense of awe about plants and provides accessible language, photographs, and drawings describing the mechanics and the magic of plants. This book should stay close by as a handy reference as well as a friendly guide to both the botany and physiology of plants.

–Holly H. Shimizu

Executive Director

US Botanic Garden