Monday 29 December 2014

Bean Online

The home page of 'Bean Online', showing one of several banner images (Ray Wood in  this case).
Before this year comes to an end I must post about a project that has taken up a good deal of my time in the past couple of years - 'Bean Online'.

For the past century - the first edition appeared in two volumes in 1914 - the encyclopaedic WJ Bean's Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles has been an essential reference for anyone interested in woody plants. The four fat volumes of the eighth edition, plus their Supplement, crouch upon the shelves of many gardeners and are usually dog-eared from much use.

My set of 'Bean', with other essentials.
William Jackson Bean was born in 1863 in Malton (my nearest town - note to self, find his birthplace in 2015) but spent most of his working life at Kew, becoming Head of the Arboretum and ultimately Curator. During this period the flora of China was pouring into western gardens thanks to the efforts of the great plant-hunters; Bean got to know it all as it came in and grew to maturity. In consequence his text has a firsthand authority to it, and it has always been regarded as very 'readable'. He died in 1947 and the seventh and eighth editions were prepared by teams of contemporary experts - but to everyone the work is still 'Bean'.

Unfortunately, the eighth edition, edited largely by Desmond Clarke, who also prepared the supplement, went out of print a few years ago and a complete set has become very expensive (I'm astonished to see online this evening that a five volume set can be had for only £195 via Abebooks). It was in this context that, about three years ago, Hugh Johnson asked the publisher for John Murray (now Hachette), Tim Hely-Hutchinson, if there were any plans to reprint Bean. Not surprisingly, the answer was no, but the offer to hand over the copyright that followed was astonishing. To cut a long story short, the publisher's interest in the copyright was passed to the International Dendrology Society, and a quest was started to find the copyright holders from the Bean and Clarke families. They were eventually tracked down through a combination of detective work and good luck, and, even more fortunately, all agreed to give the IDS permission to reproduce the work. The project was taken on by a subcommittee of the IDS Scientific and Education Committee, with support from the Dendrology Charitable Company.

Part of the Bean Online subcommittee: L-R: Bill Hemsley, Hugh Johnson, Lawrence Banks, Nicola Manisty (Chairman), James Greenfield IDS Secretary, somewhere in the upper stories of the Linnean Society's premises)

From the start it was Hugh's intention to make the text of Bean available online, but the question was how? The services of Bill Hemsley, a specialist in online publishing who works with Hugh on his wine books, were called in and options were discussed. A set of Bean was sacrificed to a scanner, which ran through the 4000 pages in no time, and produced an active version of the text through the magic of optical character recognition (OCR). Although this was not a perfect rendition it was remarkably good, and a team of specialist proof-readers in India tidied-up the errors. Bill organised the text into discrete entries, and devised the website functions that make it work as a searchable site.

It all took longer than hoped for, but after internal trials the site was launched a few days before Christmas and can be found at  It presents the whole text of the eighth edition in easily searchable format (see below), but it is the original text only, with no amendments, so it is inevitably somewhat dated. We considered making changes but decided that at this stage we should publish only the text as it is, while reserving the option of upgrading it in future. One amendment is to link the names used by Bean to the online reference The Plant List from Missouri and Kew, which brings in modern nomenclature where there has been a change in the past forty plus years and thus makes it accessible to modern users.

We very much hope that this will be a popular resource, used by as many people as possible. No doubt there will be times when we reach for a comfortable fat volume, but Bean Online is available anywhere with an internet signal - on your phone or iPad, which is a lot more convenient than lugging around the books! We hope to start work on a upgrade before too long, but a lot of fundraising is needed first.

The search or browse facilities are very easy to use, bringing up lists of names by genus, each hyperlinked to its entry. Bean names are on the left, with currently accepted names from the Plant List on the right. 

The entry for Common Beech - the text exactly as in the eighth edition, with handy cross-referencing in the margin..


  1. Happy New Year John,

    Congratulations on a wonderful achievement.

    After a quick browse through the on line Bean it looks like a really useful addition to the field.

    It is good to see that things on the internet can be useful. The RHS online Plantfinder was another step forward until it was ‘improved’ and rendered useless!

    Would you like us to ‘spread the word’ on the Bean? I can ‘drop it’ into e-conversation on several boards if you would like.

    Chad [Cornwall].

  2. Yes, please pass the word about Bean as widely as possible! Thanks Chad


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