Emma Tennant

Why is a birch-tree like a melon?

This is the time of year for armchair gardening. The cold, dark days give one the chance to ignore the muddy plot outside and to sit by the fire with a heap of catalogues. As one reads the thrilling descriptions, next summer’s garden comes to life in the mind’s eye. There are no rabbits, mice, moles, whitefly or weeds to spoil the picture. Instead, the most difficult plants flourish under a sunny sky.

These two mighty tomes add up to the most inspiring catalogue I have ever read even though, unlike commercial lists, the descriptions do not exaggerate. They are strictly truthful, because they are written by Dr Martyn Rix, a distinguished botanist. The illustrations are by Roger Phillips, a painter turned photographer who uses his camera with the eye of a true artist. Rix and Phillips have been working together for 25 years and have produced 23 books, including 14 in the brilliant, best-selling Garden Plant Series. Now they have attempted a bold feat; in their own words, they aim to describe ‘the genera of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants of interest to gardeners’.

The descriptions of plants in The Botanical Garden are arranged in scientific order because, as the authors explain, they want to ‘provide new information and a new way of looking at plants and gardening from a more botanical viewpoint’. Those who are familiar with the classification of plants into orders, families, genera and species will feel very much at home with this arrangement. For others, these books will provide the perfect introduction to the science of botany.

Recent discoveries, made as the result of DNA studies, are incorporated into the text. There are some surprises. Who would have guessed that the Chilean shrub azara is closely related to the violet, or that alders, birches and hazels are not, as previously thought, ancient and primitive genera, but relatively advanced, and most closely related to melons and begonias?

Rix and Phillips give each genus a botanical description, followed by more information under the headings ‘Key Recognition Features’, ‘Evolution & Relationships’, ‘Ecology & Geography’ and finally ‘Comment’.

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