A Natural History of Conifers Hardcover – May 15 2008
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“Not since Rachel Carson has the public been graced with a scientist that writes with the interest of a novelist. Anyone with a curiosity about the early history of plant life on our planet will relish this book.”
“If you want to find out more about Conifers, then [this book] by the naturally acclaimed expert, Aljos Farjon, will sate your curiosity, your thirst for knowledge and your enthusiasm for those exciting plants that make up this group.”
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Some of the high points of this text: (1) There a many photos of species where it is difficult to find good photographs; most notably of the Southern hemisphere species. It is almost worth keeping the book on my shelves just for the "tree porn". (2) Again, it is really the Southern species where this book really provides new details. If you are looking for a work that discusses the new finds in Indo-China or New Caledonia this is a book not to be missed.
Where I was disappointed: (1) Most notably, this book is in dire need of editorial coherence. It reads mostly like a collection of magazine articles that have been very lightly reshaped into a thematic structure. This book really would have benefited from a more disciplined analytic structure. (2) I really wanted to see more sustained discussion of the evolutionary linkages of the conifers--especially in reference to Northern hemisphere species. There's bits and pieces here (even chapters with titles that look like they will provide the sustained analysis that I'm looking for) but the discussions are just so scattered as to be frustrating.
In short, this is the type of book that you can open up at almost any point and start reading--and that's not necessarily a good thing. Again, I really wanted to like this book more than I did.
There is a wealth of fascinating information here, and the author is an affable guide taking us along on numerous exciting quests. The stories of discovery of new-to-science conifers like Wollemia and Xanthocyparis add spice to the overall conifer story, as do travels to New Caledonia and other venues of remarkable trees. But not everything is equally well done. Some chapters are densely academic, heavy going for amateurs lacking technical credentials. A preoccupation with numerical measures of diversity, and an emphasis on extinct groups may not appeal to many.
Mistakes or faux pas are fairly common, and range from the trivial to the profound. A few examples: use of the term "appendices" where American English would use "appendages" (with neither term in the too-skimpy glossary)adds puzzlement to an already dense anatomical discussion of cone structure; reference to a 3600+ year-old Utah juniper known since 1956 to be less than half that age; numerous fine botanical drawings whose plant parts are unlabeled and lack scales (i.e. "X 2"); a dismissal of the possible evolutionary importance of hybridization in conifers despite its commonness in pines and firs; an equally abrupt dismissal of the idea of reticulate evolution, an area of active research; a weak treatment of mycorrhizae which does not mention the profoundly different types found in Pinaceae vs. Cupressaceae -- surprising for a taxonomist; a description of the mutualism of nutcrackers and white pines with several material factual errors; a statement that bark beetles invade the cambium, while they actually invade the phloem; omitting windborne soil particles from the ingredients of "canopy soil", which accumulates in branch crotches and sustains epiphytes; attributing clones of Pinus pumila to shoots sprouting from the roots whereas it is due to rooting of branches in contact with the ground. The author is often on shaky ground writing about wood. For example, he errs in stating that Great Basin bristlecone pine "has some of the densest and hardest of all woods", or that sugar pine and western white pines are "nonresinous", or that wood of Cupressaceae is "more fibrous" than that of Pinaceae (he must mean finer-grained), or that hollow trees grow new wood on the inside as well as the outside of the trunk. The fleshy fruits of Torreya are labeled as "seeds" in a photograph. Though geography seems one of his strong suits, the author writes incorrectly that Port-Orford-Cedar "is restricted to mountains on the border between California and Oregon". He states twice that California's only Taxaceae species is Torreya californica, overlooking Taxus brevifolia. In cataloging that state's biodiversity he claims 22 pines. In my book Conifers of CaliforniaConifers of California, I list 18 pines (including P. washoensis, around which there is some controversy)plus one pinyon pine hybrid. I cannot quite see where 4 more species have immigrated to this state.
The book's index is not as lengthy and inclusive as a book of this scope deserves. You will not find cambium, seeds, rust diseases, roots, or many other terms to take you to useful information.
Even more grievous, however, is the very skimpy bibliography. The purpose of this book is to make available much of what has been learned about conifers in recent decades, and a reader should be able to follow up some of the many leads provided here.Yet the bibliography lists a mere 52 items. Ten of these are the author's own previous works and 16 are on paleobotanical topics. Nine are general biological works or are about other plants than conifers. Why does this matter?
Well, take for example the author's statement that drooping pine needles may be an adaptation to protect them from dwarfmistletoe infection. He gives no indication whether this is his idea, or the result of someone's research. If you want more on this, you cannot get help from the literature list. This is true of many speculations, possible matters-of-fact, and arguments made throughout the text. The feeble bibliography not only leaves much of the text unsupported, but impedes readers from further pursuit. Besides, it would have been a simple matter to list the most useful 100 conifer books as a special feature, tying this new volume to the historical development of conifer science.
Farjon doesn't dumb down the science and doesn't apologize for it (excepting a brief mea culpa in the preface, which also includes Farjon's philosophy on the craft of writing popular science, so don't skip the preface!) Any botanist will enjoy this book just as much as an amateur ecologist, weekend hiker, or little old lady in suburbia with pine trees in her yard. The scientists will find many morsels to whet the appetite for further study while the amateur will walk through a door to the wonders of conifer natural history, perhaps referring back to the book after every new hike through the woods.
There are 34 chapters - some of them as short as just a couple pages. This brevity makes the text an easy, casual read. Each chapter is headed with an anecdote from the author's life or human history. The first 20 or so chapters deal with the typical science common to any natural history - evolution, physiology, systematic, ecology. There follows a section on geography (often lacking in popular works), then several chapters about human interaction with conifers which segues nicely into the final section about conservation. A glossary and a reference section close the book. As I desperately try to find something negative to say here, I guess I wished only that the references would have been more numerous, but that is truly a nit-picky complaint.
Timber Press did their usual bang-up job of production with gr eat binding and paper, beautiful jacket, and stunning photos. The two-page spreads introducing the main sections are the stuff of a coffee table book. The rest of the book is not cluttered, yet hardly a page goes by without a color photo or some sort of eye candy. It really does seem like a coffee table book, but with meat instead of the usual fluff in the text.
Enough gushing! Buy the book and see for yourself!
I would like to have known a bit more about araucariaceae in the nothern hemisphere continent of Laurasia.We are not told that it was a species close to Araucaria heterophylla that occured in this area.Any others?Wollemia,Agathis?
But otherwise an excellent book written with and from great passion!
A few spelling mistakes though which is most unlike this publisher.
Obviously, the author is THE acknowledged expert on conifers and the text well reflects that, taking the grand view.
Two points that bothered me are the writing style, which, although accessible enough, strikes me as peculiar (at least in some spots); also the chapter on wood is clearly written by the conifer expert making notes, without a real understanding of this rather different topic or a feel for it.
Nevertheless, this is book is great value for money.
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