Thursday, 27 September 2012

RHS Encyclopedia of Conifers - an amazing pair of tomes

The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Conifers - an incredible piece of work by two devotees.
Shortly before I left Colesbourne I was most generously given a set of the Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Conifers, by Aris Auders and Derek Spicer. Having been trying to avoid buying books in the months before I moved, and trying (not very successfully) to thin out the shelves, all the good work was wiped out at a stroke: this is a monumental pair of tomes. Measuring 33.5 x 27 x 5 cm, together they weigh no less than 10 kg! As it happens, I've lost 10 kg of weight this year, and picking the pair off the shelf reminds me just how glad I am not to be hefting that around any more.

These volumes are monumental in size and weight, but also in content. The work is truly encyclopaedic, describing all known conifer species (615) plus (by the authors' own count) a staggering 8185 cultivars, of which 4795 are illustrated. There has been nothing like it in scope before and it is difficult to imagine such a work ever being produced again - on paper, at least.

The images  - here in one of no fewer than eight spreads featuring Chamaecyparis pisifera - are generously sized.

Multiple images of Picea abies 'Rydal',
with its beautiful spring flush of red shoots.
The book is dominated by pictures, but unlike the usual miserable postage stamp-sized things, these are all reproduced at a good size, showing the plants clearly and usefully, but not formulaically. The smallest I can find are 7 x 12 cm, which is extremely generous, but there are many quarter, half and full page plates - some even fill a whole spread. Moreover, they are of uniformly high quality and enable an accurate impression of the plant to be formed. Multiple images of the same clone are often used - again an example of the generosity of spirit with which this work was conceived. Particularly interesting are images of mature specimens of species in the wild, reminding us just how big some of the rarities we cosset can become when conditions are favourable, but it's also good to see the full size and shape in maturity of some of the cultivars. My only gripe with the work is that some of the rarer  species (and even genera) are not illustrated: it's a shame not to be able to see what Falcatifolium or Sundacarpus look like.

Inevitably the descriptions are succinct, but each contains a useful note on the characters that distinguish a cultivar or species, and a particular effort was made to include information on the origins and/or originators of each cultivar described. This in itself is a major achievement by the two authors. Aris Auders is a Latvian conifer enthusiast, while Derek Spicer is a British conifer nurseryman based in Leicestershire, and a colleague on the RHS Woody Plant Committee. Between them their knowledge, as revealed in this work, is immense, and they must be saluted for producing a truly exceptional reference to their favourite group of plants.

Inevitably this is not a cheap book, being offered by the RHS bookshop or through the dedicated website www.coniferworld.com for £149, but at 1507 pages this works out at a fraction over 10p per page - I think that it's actually a bargain at this price. There are two other recent two-volume conifer books on the market at present: A Handbook of the World's Conifers by Aljos Farjon (£195), which is strictly botanical and sparsely illustrated, and Debreczy et al's Conifers Around the World (c. £200), which has a magnificent set of images of wild species.  J. Eckenwalder's Conifers of the World is only one volume, and only £45, but largely illustrated, unbelievably, in monochrome.

Conifers are sadly derided and generally ignored by the current crop of horticultural trendsetters, but this book will show anyone what a wonderful contribution they make to the garden, and I think that anyone with an interest in the diversity of garden plants needs a copy.

The diversity of conifers on display at Bedgebury National Pinetum


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