Botanical terms – in words and pictures

The Kew Plant Glossary - Kew Publishing
The Kew Plant Glossary - Kew Publishing

How often have you come across a new – to you, the reader, that is! – term in a botanical text and wondered what it meant? Well, OK, maybe not that often, but when you do, how frequently have you then looked up that term to be confronted with a word-only description and longed for a more helpful illustrated one? Well, if that’s the case, then with Henk Beentje’s The Kew Plant Glossary (published in 2010 by Kew Publishing, £18.00 in paperback; hereafter referred to as KPG) you need worry no more (or, at any rate, worry a little less…).

Although entitled ‘plant glossary’, it is not a fully comprehensive and exhaustive listing of all terms from the complete range of botanical knowledge. Rather, KPG culls its terms from those used by botanists to “describe plants in textbooks, scientific papers, floras and field guides” [back cover]. Nevertheless, it contains 4100 such terms [no, I haven’t counted them – here I have relied on the book’s own declaration] ranging from ‘a-’ to ‘zygomorphous’, and >730 of them (from ‘abaxial’ to ‘zygomorphy’) are illustrated. (no, I didn’t count them either – Christmas holidays can be a little tiresome, but not so boring that I resort to counting pictures…or dictionary terms…). All letters of the English alphabet are represented, except Y [for completeness KPG could have listed ‘yarda’ – a peaty bog –]. KPG also includes 18 plates illustrating ’grouped terms’, which are themselves defined – and often illustrated – elsewhere in the book. Although this may seem like ’double-counting’ or redundant repetition, grouping such terms together is useful for comparing such features as venation of leaves, inflorescence types, and surface indumenta. KPG is not exclusively restricted to seed plants – it has a separate plate for specialised fern terms (though does strangely consider ’sporophyte’ to be a term that only applies to pteridophytes – p. 111). And – lest there be any lingering doubt – the terms covered are those used in English plant descriptions (but which are themselves borrowed from numerous sources – not just Latin: Although you could be forgiven for thinking they were judging by the long list of Latin abbreviations on pp. 3-4!). KPG helpfully indicates preferred terms (where what pass for synonyms in the English language exist) and those which are of uncommon usage (but which may still be encountered…hence their inclusion). Although laudable, that latter strategy may ultimately be self-defeating since the mere act of repeating those defunct terms only serves to acknowledge their existence and prolong their life.

Sub-titled an illustrated dictionary of plant terms, KPG is certainly illustrated. But, and disappointingly, the beautiful full colour images on the front and back covers are neither reproduced within nor matched by the other illustrations inside the book, which are black line drawings on a green (’pale citrine’ – p. 159 – to my eyes) background. Proof again – if such were still needed – of the old adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But it would have been nice to have a few illustrations in colour, and ideally photographs, showing real structures as they appear in life. Nevertheless, the included llustrations do their job – and probably in the way that only drawings can in, i.e. not only illustrating, but also exaggerating, the relevant feature(s). Still, KPG is not entirely monochrome because it contains a colour chart on pp. 159-160. This is an extremely useful inclusion because colour words are used in some of the glossary’s terms, and can be checked against the colour chart to aid comprehension.

Accepting that there are limits to the words that are included, how well does KPG work for those that are there? Take for example the entry for ’catkin’ on p. 25, which is described as “a slender, often pendulous, cylindrical racemose or spicate inflorescence with crowded (sub)sessile unisexual apetalous flowers, falling as a whole after fruiting; = ament(um)”.

Taken at face value, that definition may be difficult to understand – particularly if you are new to the world of the botancial glossary and/or English is not your first language – because it contains many rather technical term(s), which often raise further questions about their precise meaning(s). So, in reality, and to penetrate the essence of catkin, you’d probably need to refer to other explanations/definitions – which are hopefully also in KPG. Thus, your true path through the catkin definition will more likely meander as follows:
a slender [= ’long and thin’, p. 109], often pendulous [= ’hanging’, p. 84, which is used synonymously with ’pendant’ (illustrated on p. 84), and ’pendent’ (also on p. 84), although pendant and pendulous are more usual…], cylindrical [= ’like a cylinder…’, p. 36 – and illustrated thereon] racemose [= ’in the form of a raceme…’, p. 97; raceme = ’a monopodial inflorescence…’, p. 97 (and illustrated); monopodial = ’branching system with the main axis…’, p. 73 (and illustrated); inflorescence, defined on p. 62…] or spicate [= ’spike-like..’, p. 110 – ’spike’ defined and illustrated on p. 110] inflorescence [= ’the part of the plant that bears the flowers…’, p. 62; flower = ’an axis bearing one or more pistils…’, p. 49; pistil = 3 definitions: 1, for apocarpous (defined and illustrated on p. 13) flowers; 2, for syncarpous (defined on p. 118; ’syncarp’ defined and illustrated on p. 118) flowers; 3, ’the female organ of a flower, consisting when complete of ovary, style and stigma (Jackson, 1928)’, p. 89 – and also illustrated thereon; ovary defined and illustrated on p. 80; style defined and illustrated on p. 115; stigma defined and illustrated (in truth, the same image as used for ovary and style, but different parts arrowed in each case) on p. 113; Jackson, 1928 = the 4th edition of that author’s own Glossary of Botanic Terms – which is cited in Beentje’s Bibliography] with crowded [= ’close together’, p. 34] (sub)sessile [subsessile defined and illustrated on p. 115; sessile defined and illustrated on p. 107] unisexual [= ’having only male parts or female parts’, p. 126] apetalous [= ’without petals’, p. 12; petal = ’a single, usually free (= ’not attached to other parts, neither adhering nor united’, p. 50), unit of a completely (a potential problem here; whilst completely is not listed, complete is, and is defined as ’with all parts belonging to it, as expected’, p. 31) divided (= ’of a structure that is not entire, but split into two or more subunits…’, p. 41; entire = ’not divided (! – Ed.), smooth, unbroken by serrations, teeth or other irregularities (of margins)’, p. 44 (and illustrated thereon); smooth defined on p. 109; serrations not listed, but serrate is defined and illustrated on p. 107; margin defined and illustrated on p. 70) corolla (= ’the second whorl of floral organs, inside or above the calyx…’, p. 33 (and illustrated); whorl = ’a set of similar organs arranged in a circle around a central axis’, p. 130 (and illustrated) = a verticil (itself defined and illustrated on p. 128); floral defined on p. 49; organ = ’any definite part of a plant structure (e.g. a cell (!! – Ed.), a leaf)’, p. 79; calyx = ’the outermost whorl of floral organs, often divided into sepals’, p. 24 (and illustrated); sepal = ’a single part of the outermost whorl of floral organs…’, p. 106 (and illustrated)] flowers [= ’an axis bearing one or more pistils…’, p. 49], falling [another potential problem here in that, whilst falling is not listed, fall is, and is defined as ’one of the outermost perianth segments which is narrow at the base but expands into a broad pendulous blade (in Iris)’, p. 47] as a whole after fruiting [fruiting is not listed, but fruit is – on p. 50, as follows, ’the seed-bearing organ, with or without adnate parts’; seed = ’the structure produced from a fertilised ovule…’; ovule = ’the immature seed in the ovary…’, p. 80 (and illustrated thereon); ovary defined and illustrated on p. 80 (and already encountered previously…); adnate = ’attached to, surface to surface;… on p. 7]; = ament(um) [which itself is defined – and illustrated – on p. 9 as ’a slender, often pendulous, cylindrical inflorescence with (sub)sessile unisexual apetalous flowers, falling as a whole after fruiting; also (preferably) called a catkin’…].

Which little exercise takes a comparatively short – 22 words (shown in red in my ’expanded’ definition above) – but perfectly manageable definition and expands it to an unwieldy >600 words (!!! – Ed.) But, although much longer, arguably the fuller ’definition’ is more useful to the uninitiated. In practice it may not be quite as tedious as described because the reader may already be familiar with some of the terms used to define catkin and so will not have to follow too many tributaries and backwaters in negotiating the river that is the definition. However, to help users navigate KPG, it might help to embolden terms used within the descriptions that are themselves defined elsewhere in the glossary. Currently, this is only done for alternative words for the term being defined, as for ament(um) in the catkin definition (but – bizarrely – which is not reciprocated for catkin in the ament(um) definition…). Interestingly, although Beentje is happy to indicate preferred terms, he baulks at the idea of proposing ’recommended terms’ (p. vi), a semantic nicety if ever there was. [As an aside: Although catkin may be the preferred term, amentum may make more sense – not least to old-school botanists brought up with such terms – because it relates to Amentiferae, the name which was previously applied to a group of catkin-bearing plants.]

Those failings – and they are obstacles that bedevil most – if not all – such technical ’dictionaries’ – are not Beentje’s faults alone, but merely indicative of the problems inherent in trying to describe technical terms in words. Painting – and ’painting’ is the operative word here – accurate, unambiguous word pictures is extremely difficult – as any lexicographer will attest. But Beentje does the job well, and doubtless the illustrations – even though they be mere line drawings – do help! [Readers will no doubt be relieved to know that catkin (and ament(um)) are both illustrated in KPG.]

In terms of ’competitors’, Beentje’s 4100 terms are dwarfed by the – but still comparatively modest – >7,600 in the forthcoming 3rd edition of Michael Allaby’s A Dictionary of Plant Sciences. But both books aim to do different things: Allaby’s seeks to cover “all aspects of plant sciences, including biochemistry, plant physiology, cytology, ecology, genetics, evolution, biogeography, earth history, and earth sciences”, whilst Beentje’s is much more tightly circumscribed. And Allaby’s has only 47 line drawings to aid “clarity and accessibility of the text”. However, more meaningful comparisons are with Harris and Harris’ Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary (2nd ed’n, 2001), and with Hickey and King’s The Cambridge Illustrated Glossary of Botanical Terms (2000; 2400 terms, number of illustrations not disclosed by publisher). Whilst I know a little of Harris and Harris (with its c. 2000 illustrations, section on ’grouped terms’ and useful keys to such features as common leaf surfaces, common fruit types, and common inflorescence types), I’m not familiar with Hickey and King’s tome. So, in the spirit of ’let the people decide’ I note that 33 out of the 36 reviews for Harris and Harris were 4- and 5-star rated on Amazon’s USA site (the book was not rated on the UK site when I checked), whilst all 5 reviews for Hickey and King’s book were 4- or 5-star rated on Amazon’s UK site (and its single review on the USA site was 5-star rated – which may also indicate that American Amazon users are more cosmopolitan in their botanical reading matter than UK users?). Interestingly – and with far fewer years than those two competitors to build up a following – both reviews for Beentje’s book on the UK Amazon site were 5-star rated (it is not yet rated on the USA site) [all reviews’ data as at 31 December 2011 – 14.25 GMT]. My own mild reservations notwithstanding, KPJ is highly regarded by others, in addition to its two fans on Amazon. For example, it was the Garden Media Guild Reference Book of the Year 2010 (which awards are apparently regarded as the ‘Oscars’ of the garden media world), and was described as “catnip for the garden geek” by Dominique Browning in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, which is a good thing (I think).

In conclusion, I like the Kew Plant Glossary (though – depending upon your level of prior knowledge – you may have to do a little extra work to glean the full meaning from some definitions). I certainly found it useful (and not just for the almost guilty pleasure of exploring the rich lexicon within which somehow persuades us that we are thereby connected with our more erudite botanical forebears – the more important now that Latin is virtually dead as the language of botanical taxonomic discovery), and wish it well. [For a peek inside KPG, visit]