Mabberley’s Plant-book, the book about plants

Mabberley’s Plant-Book A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses, 4th Edition by David J. Mabberley. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Some awe is what I felt when reviewing the 4th edition of Mabberley’s Plant-Book A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses [hereafter referred to as MBP] by David Mabberley. Although I was barely aware that MPB existed – and had neither looked within its pages nor even seen it before I opened my review copy – I was all too aware of its reputation from reviews of previous editions of this multi award-winning tome from the publisher’s website. In fact so highly praised and revered is MPB that it felt a little like reviewing the sacred text of some mighty religion. What if my view ran counter to those of its legions of devotees who had heaped such praise and accolades upon this might tome? Fortunately, that was not the case. Spoiler alert: MPB – in my view – is brilliant, and deserving of its iconic status, accolades and praise.

So what is this publishing phenomenon?

According to the book’s blurb, MPB is “internationally accepted as an essential reference text for anyone studying, growing or writing about plants. … this comprehensive dictionary provides information on every family and genus of seed-bearing plant (including conifers), plus ferns and clubmosses, besides economically important mosses and algae. The book combines taxonomic details and uses with English and other vernacular names found in commerce.” MPB is essentially a dictionary that attempts to present a review of, and introduction to, plants, from Aa, an orchid genus, to Zyzyxia, a genus in the Compositae [which family is also known as the Asteraceae…], in terms of what I’d consider to be good, ‘old-fashioned’ botany (i.e. plant biology in its more traditional, narrow sense).

MPB proudly boasts 26,000 entries (from the book’s back cover), and we are told on p. xv that almost every one of the original entries has had to be checked or updated in the light of new taxonomic discoveries. Such attention to details – which is necessary if MPB is to continue to do the job to which it aspires – is also a mark of the degree of scholarship that pervades MPB. The hallmark of which scholarship is arguably the extremely concise entries that form the bulk of the book’s dictionary section of nearly 1000 pages. Reading those entries requires of the reader a certain amount of patience and persistence to enable their decoding, which is why there is a ‘How to use this book and get the most out of it’ section on pp. xvii – xix (and HAS to be read by all who are new to MPB before reading further). Some indication of the degree of conciseness achieved can be gleaned from p. xviii where MPB’s entry for Adinandra (approx. 15 words) is contrasted with an in extenso version of 94 words. Now, that’s conciseness! However, to get the best out of MPB you also need access to a good botanical glossary.

For those familiar with previous editions of MPB, new to this edition is inclusion of commercially important algae and certain bryophytes of economic importance. But, according to the author, so much is new to this 4th edition that earlier editions of MPB are now obsolete. For example, it includes some 1400 additional entries (cf. 3rd edition). And there is an increased number of vernacular (i.e. non-scientific binomials) names, in particular for plants of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

The marriage of the old and the new is a lovely example of MPB’s uniqueness. Up-to-dateness is exemplified in its taxonomy of angiosperms, which largely accords with the findings of APG IV (An update of the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group classification for the orders and families of flowering plants: APG IV – Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 181: 1–20, 2016; doi: 10.1111/boj.12385) (and 413 families are recognised in MPB). Respect for the traditions for Botany is evident in use of – and justification therefor – the older of the permitted family names such as Compositae, Gramineae, Umbelliferae, and Labiatae in preference to their modern ‘-aceae’ versions (although those are also included).

Is MPB needed in the 21st century?

In this modern age, where everything is available on the internet, do we need an actual ‘hold-in-your-hand-and-turn–the-pages’ book for this information? Mabberley thinks so, and cites three reasons for MPB’s existence (which has continued since the first edition appeared in 1987): need for balanced review and synthesis of scattered and often conflicting information about the plant world; MPB provides a much-needed key to definitive taxonomic revisions and reviews that can then be pursued and accessed on-line; and many plant people find that browsing a single handy volume such as MPB is not only educational but also enjoyable. Amen to that!

Penultimate thoughts

MPB is not something you sit down with and read cover-to-cover. Rather, it is a book to return to time and again to look up an unfamiliar taxon or remind oneself of the uses, etc. of a more familiar plant or plant group, or just to browse. Leafing through the pages of MPB and the plant descriptions I got the same ‘feel-good glow of planty satisfaction’ I still get from looking through the entries in Heywood et al’s Flowering Plant Families of the World (only minus the extra thrill of marvelling at the lovely pictures of the latter publication).


The 4th edition of Mabberley’s Plant-Book A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses is a great book. It’s informative and well written – albeit in a highly condensed way(!) MPB is self-evidently a work of tremendous scholarship – and one that also reveals the great love of plants of one of the true botanical literati greats. To repeat and re-order this review’s opening words (and suitable condense my appreciation of the book – in true MPB spirit), this book is: Awesome!