This book has a lot going for it. The author has been most recently head of the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and has had a front-row seat as a conifer taxonomist during the development of three key disciplines of the last few decades: molecular genetics, cladistic analysis, and earth history. Unlike many taxonomists he glories in making extensive field trips throughout the conifer world, for business and pleasure. His writing style is generally clear and engaging, and occasionally hits some very high notes. And he is a good photographer and a talented botanical artist. Thus he has created a modern treatment of the conifers that would have been impossible just a few years ago, and he has imbued it with deep concern for the biodiversity of the order Coniferales and the preservation of rare and endangered species. He interprets "natural history" broadly and is free to inquire into any aspect of conifer lore, from evolution to forest products. Surely this book will accomplish the author's goal of bringing more respect to these tribes of trees that are major parts of the silva in both hemispheres.
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.