Book reviewing: A cautionary tale of conifers

Conifers of the World: The Complete Reference by James Eckenwalder, 2009, reprinted 2013*. Timber Press Inc.

This is not the book appraisal I was hoping to write. I was alerted to the existence of James Eckenwalder’s Conifers of the World: The Complete Reference [hereafter titled World Conifers] by various publicity material on the ‘interweboblogosphere’ in late 2017. I therefore, and quite naturally and understandably, assumed that this was a newly-published, or soon-to-be-published, book. Having recently appraised the broadly-focused Plants of the World by Christenhusz et al., I was keen to have the opportunity to assess the highly specialist and more narrowly-focused World Conifers. And, with World Conifers‘ subject matter making it eminently suitable for consideration as a review on the Botany One blog site, I duly contacted the publisher who kindly me sent me a copy for review. Their having so readily agreed to that request reinforced my presumption that this must be a new book.

It was only when I started to scrutinise the tome that I noticed it had an original publication year of 2009, with a second printing date of 2013. Neither of which was the 2017 or 2018 publication date I was expecting. It’s also the more surprising therefore that the publisher – the aptly-named Timber Press – sent out for review such an ‘old’ book. In my experience publishers restrict such requests to items no more than two years old (presumably a commercial/marketing decision because their after ‘free publicity’ to boost sales after all). So, a very big thank you to Timber Press for giving me the opportunity to add my two-penn’th about a book which has doubtless already had more than its due share of being reviewed, several years ago! Anyway, for what it may still be worth, this is my appreciation of World Conifers.

Not knowing much about conifers – i.e. those gymnosperms that aren’t cycads, ginkgoes, or gnetophytes; and which correspond to species grouped in Subclass IV: Pinidae in Christenhusz et al. (Phytotaxa 19: 55–70, 2011; doi:] – I was keen to get this book to gain some insight into this important group of woody land plants. However, knowing what I now know about its publication date, World Conifers must be viewed as a product of its time, which has been superseded in many senses by recent advances in taxonomic study of plants, and other books and comprehensive resources about conifers (e.g. Aris Auders and Derek Spicer’s 2013 2-volume set of the Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Conifers: A Comprehensive Guide to Cultivars and Species, Aljos Farjon and Denis Filer’s tome of the same year An Atlas of the World’s Conifers: An Analysis of Their Distribution, Biogeography, Diversity, and Conservation Status, James Byng’s 2015 The Gymnosperm Handbook, and the regularly-updated, free-to-access, Gymnosperm Database by Christopher J. Earle).

Whilst those post-2012 publications doubtless reflect various re-assessments of the evolutionary relationships amongst and between gymnosperms, and no doubt amend at least some of World Conifers’ taxonomy, that needn’t undermine the core of World Conifers, which has to be its encyclopaedic accounts of the plants themselves. Comprising chapter 8 of the book, those entries provide > 550 pages of detailed accounts of all of the then known true conifers of the world – 545 spp. of trees and shrubs, from Abies to Wollemia **. Those descriptions are very detailed, and one suspects that, any necessary renaming of individual taxa notwithstanding, they can be expected to stand any ‘test of time’. However, given the economic importance of this group of vascular plants it would have been useful to have a little more about those aspects or traditional use of the species – ideally as part of the individual species accounts. That addition would have helped deliver more completeness to this so-styled ‘complete reference’ to world conifers. Preceding Chapters 1-7 place those accounts into the context of this plant group by covering such topics as conifer classification (featuring, as I understand it, some of Eckenwalder’s unique insights thereunto…), conifer names, conifers in nature and in the garden (yes, Lawsonia gets the obligatory mention in regard to the latter suburban habitat), conifer morphology, palaeobotany and evolution, conifer identification, and seed plants and conifer families. From a conifer identification point of view, World Conifers has a focus on foliage, which is apparently easier to use than traditional keys with their emphasis on seasonal, and often microscopic, cone characters. A Glossary, Bibliography, and Index complete the tome.

I was pleased to have ‘happened upon’ World Conifers, even though this appraisal is a long time after its publication – both of the original and updated versions. However, there’s surely no denying that World Conifers is a labour of love by its author. Tradition has it – and in many countries of the world – that a character known as Father Christmas (or Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas…) distributes presents to deserving children. Well, the photograph of World Conifers’ author – Dr James E. Eckenwalder – looks a lot like the image of Father Christmas many of us have in our mind’s eye – a very smiley gentleman with a big bushy beard. And this particular botanical Santa Claus has delivered a great present for all – not just children! – who have an interest in conifers [amongst which trees appropriately enough is numbered the so-called Christmas tree].


* Note to Self (and for the benefit of others who like to review the latest books), do check publication dates before rushing to get hold of review copies. One of the great benefits of the blogs is their up-to-dateness and topicality; don’t undermine it(!)

** I am pleased to note that the 2013 reprinted version of World Conifers that I received for review did contain mention of Wollemia nobilis. Omission of this important ‘fossil tree’ was highlighted as a major deficiency of the original – 2009 – edition of the book.