The best botany books

4 authors have picked their favorite books about botany and why they recommend each book.

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Common Families of Flowering Plants

By Michael Hickey, Clive King,

Book cover of Common Families of Flowering Plants

I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Hickey at one of the RHS shows in London, at which I was exhibiting some of my botanical art; a thoroughly nice man, who sadly died soon after. I also met the personable and talented Coral Guest, the creator of the most exquisite botanical paintings, at the same show!

This is an excellent introduction to plant families for the beginner in botanical painting, focusing on 25 core plant families. It leaves out some of the technical botanical detail which would probably be included on an undergraduate botany course, but which would be confusing for the botanical painter who simply wanted to illustrate. It is clearly laid out, written, and illustrated; a must for plant artists, would-be botanists, and even medical herbalists - everywhere!


Who am I?

I am a somewhat eclectic personality, who has studied both arts (fashion, illustration) and sciences (geology, chemistry) alike. I hope that in the book choices I have made - using my love of words, appreciation of fine books, and natural discernment - the reader will find a degree of excellence; as well as surprise and delight, at the discovery of titles they may not even have thought of! 


I wrote...

Drawing and Painting Plants

By Christina Brodie,

Book cover of Drawing and Painting Plants

What is my book about?

Drawing and Painting Plants is a botanically based (as opposed to free-form drawing) manual on how to paint a vast range of plants in watercolour and other media. Various techniques are explained in clear steps, which enables the reader to draw and paint flowers, fruit, leaves, trees, grasses, and more.

Medical Botany

By Walter H. Lewis, Memory P. F. Elvin-Lewis,

Book cover of Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Man's Health

This is the best book on medical botany. The authors are both top experts on biology and botany, and among his peers in biology, Walter H. Lewis is known as the medical botanist. Just packed with interesting, useful information not found anywhere else. Widely used as a university textbook for medical botany…but extremely readable. Highly recommended!


Who am I?

I am now considered by many as the expert on creating allergy-free and allergy-friendly gardens and landscapes. I have lectured on the subject all across the US and Canada, and also in Israel, Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. For 30+ years now I’ve been researching the connections between urban landscaping and allergies and asthma. My articles have appeared in dozens of fine publications, including The New York Times, The London Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, Scientific American, Der Spiegel, and The New Scientist. I have owned two nurseries and taught horticulture for twenty years. 


I wrote...

The Allergy-Fighting Garden: Stop Asthma and Allergies with Smart Landscaping

By Thomas Leo Ogren,

Book cover of The Allergy-Fighting Garden: Stop Asthma and Allergies with Smart Landscaping

What is my book about?

Many allergies (and asthma) are homegrown…caused by plants growing right in your own yards. Learn which choices are the most allergy-free, and which are the worst. Thousands of trees, grasses, ground covers, vines, and shrubs are included…and all are ranked 1-10 (where 1 is the best, and 10 is the worst, the most allergenic. Used by hundreds of cities worldwide.

Plants as Persons

By Matthew Hall,

Book cover of Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany

Matthew Hall’s book offers a good formulation of the problem—Western philosophy has treated plants as things, not as living beings—and a nice overview of alternative (non-Western and, above all, Indigenous) approaches to plants that do not fall into the same trap. I have on many occasions vehemently disagreed with Hall’s recommendations that we should treat plants as persons, not least because of the problematic (and, ironically, very Western) heritage of personhood. But it is a wonderful entry point into the topic of plants and philosophy.


Who am I?

For fifteen years now, I have been exploring the seemingly strange connection between plants and philosophy. The unexpected twists and turns of this theme have taken me to forests and gardens, to collaborations with plant artists and plant scientists, to ancient thought and twenty-first-century experimental design. Once you get over the initial surprise (What can philosophy tell us about plants?), you will be in for the exhilarating ride that is vegetal philosophy, finding plant heritage in human thought, politics, and society; witnessing traditional hierarchies and systems of classification crumble into dust; and discovering the amazing capacities of plants that testify to one important insight—plants are smarter than you think! 


I wrote...

The Philosopher's Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium

By Michael Marder, Mathilde Roussel (illustrator),

Book cover of The Philosopher's Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium

What is my book about?

Despite their conceptual allergy to vegetal life, philosophers have used germination, growth, blossoming, fruition, reproduction, and decay as illustrations of abstract concepts; mentioned plants in passing as the natural backdrops for dialogues, letters, and other compositions; spun elaborate allegories out of flowers, trees, and even grass; and recommended appropriate medicinal, dietary, and aesthetic approaches to select species of plants.

In this book, Michael Marder illuminates the vegetal centerpieces and hidden kernels that have powered theoretical discourse for centuries. Choosing twelve botanical specimens that correspond to twelve significant philosophers, he recasts the development of philosophy through the evolution of human and plant relations. A philosophical history for the post-metaphysical age, The Philosopher's Plant reclaims the organic heritage of human thought.

This Green World

By Rutherford Hayes Platt,

Book cover of This Green World

For a basic understanding of how the plant world functions and fits into the web of life, this book will give the reader a good foundation for entering into the vast domain of botany. The study of plants should be the first undertaking of the survival student. Why? Because plants provide most of your resource materials, and – unlike animals – they are accessible all the time. Meaning, they don’t run away.


Who am I?

As a child I was drawn to the forest by its aesthetics. I felt as if I were wandering through a masterpiece painting. As I grew older, I wanted to know more about the many working parts of nature. I quickly learned this: If I wanted to know nature intimately, I needed to know what the Native Americans knew. After years of study and honing skills, I undertook seasonal, self-imposed “survival trips” in remote areas of the National Forest. As an adult I served as a naturalist for the Georgia Conservancy, wilderness director for High Meadows Camp, and as director of my own wilderness school – Medicine Bow – in the Appalachian Mountains.



I wrote...

Wild Plants and Survival Lore: Secrets of the Forest

By Mark Warren,

Book cover of Wild Plants and Survival Lore: Secrets of the Forest

What is my book about?

This comprehensive study of North American plants leads the reader through proper identification of 100 common botanical species and how to use them as foods, medicines, craft materials, soaps, and insect repellents borrowing primarily from Native American traditions and backing up those ancient uses by modern research. Also covered are weather-proof shelter building, primitive cooking techniques, hunting with a throwing stick, water purification without metal cookware, and more.

Not only does this book appeal to the newcomer to survival skills by immersing him/her into the fine details of woods lore, it is also written for the teacher, parent, scout leader, park ranger, and nature center educator by presenting a lesson plan for over 200 projects or activities designed to edify and inspire young ones to return to nature.

Botany for Gardeners

By Brian Capon,

Book cover of Botany for Gardeners

I’ve been recommending Brian Capon’s Botany for Gardeners to my gardening students for years. Unlike your typical botany textbook, it’s written expressly for gardeners, which means it presents all you need to know about botany if you are a gardener, not a scientist or a botany student. The presentation is clear, concise, and conversational, so it feels like learning about botany from a friend…a really smart friend! This book will either take you as far as you need to go in botany, or it will open you up to the world of botany and inspire you to learn more. 


Who am I?

As a gardening instructor and designer, I've been recommending these five books for years. They were the core texts of the Fundamentals of Gardening course I've been teaching at the New York Botanical Garden for over a decade. Since the publication of The New Gardener’s Handbook, which covers all these topics in a more abbreviated way, I still recommend these five books to my students if they want to dig deeper. These books are what I call “keeper texts.” I own fewer and fewer actual gardening books these days, but it's a fact that a copy of each of these excellent resources resides on my office bookshelf where I refer to them frequently. 


I wrote...

The New Gardener's Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Grow a Beautiful and Bountiful Garden

By Daryl Beyers,

Book cover of The New Gardener's Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Grow a Beautiful and Bountiful Garden

What is my book about?

Every new gardener has to start somewhere—and the process can be intimidating. Knowing when and what to plant, how to care for the plants once they’re in the ground, and how to keep pests and diseases away is a lot to take on. Luckily, Daryl Beyers—an expert from the New York Botanical Garden—has written what will be a go-to resource for decades to come.

The New Gardener’s Handbook is a comprehensive overview of the fundamentals of gardening, based on the introductory gardening class that Beyers teaches at NYBG. Readers will learn about soil, plant selection, propagation, planting and mulching, watering and feeding, pruning, and weeds, pests, and diseases. Featuring inspiring photography and helpful illustrations, The New Gardener’s Handbook gives home gardeners a foundation upon which they can grow.

Flower Hunters

By Mary Gribbin, John Gribbin,

Book cover of Flower Hunters

This fine book was another discovery of mine as I studied the literature on aspects of the history of natural history for my own book in this genre. Although written by two academics, this book is easy to read by a generally educated public. It covers what is to me, the engrossing topic of the early botanical collectors and illustrators, both men and women. The authors recount the lives of eleven subjects from Linnaeus through Banks, Douglas, Spruce, and Hooker, and how they, together, founded the science of botany by roaming the world in search of new species. There are 32 well-chosen illustrations, in colour and monochrome.


Who am I?

In Nature’s Realm is my third book on the theme of exploration of Vancouver Island, my home for the past thirty years, and my first focussed on the history of natural history. In it, I call upon decades of experience in mapping hitherto scarcely known parts of the world, combined with a keen fascination with the fauna and flora of the many places where I have lived and worked. I have marvelled at the work of the exploring naturalists and am fascinated with their personal histories. I find it enthralling how they each added to the sum of human knowledge of the wonders of the natural world, now so sadly threatened.


I wrote...

In Nature's Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island

By Michael Layland,

Book cover of In Nature's Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island

What is my book about?

In Nature’s Realm: Early Naturalists Explore Vancouver Island celebrates the richly diverse flora and fauna of Vancouver Island on Canada’s Pacific coast, as explored through the records of explorers, settlers, and visitors reaching back as far as 13,000 years. It gathers initial reports, recorded histories, and personal accounts left by the Island’s early naturalists who studied the region’s plant and animal life. 

The book’s text and illustrations tell how the Island’s flora and fauna appeared to the naturalists among the explorers and early settlers. It shows how their understanding was constrained by limited time and equipment, as well as the political motivations of their sponsors. Tribute is paid to the Island’s original naturalists, the Indigenous Peoples, whose knowledge is at last being ‘discovered’ and appreciated.

Lessons from Plants

By Beronda L. Montgomery,

Book cover of Lessons from Plants

This gorgeous book by microbiologist Dr. Beronda L. Montgomery is as beautiful to read as it is to hold—in your hands, in your heart. We can’t stop thinking about Montgomery’s key lesson: if you have a plant that is struggling, you figure out what environmental changes it needs to thrive—more or less water or sunlight, better soil. When people fail to flourish, we’re quick to blame the individual. As an African American woman, Montgomery makes us think about society and how we approach problems (do we compete or do we build a collaborative effort for a holistic solution?). Humans have much to discover from our photosynthesizing world: how plants learn—from their own kin, their friends, and their foes—and Montgomery helps us to understand the nature (literally) of teaching and learning.


Who are we?

We are two college-level educators, one has had a long career, one a recent PhD. We share a commitment to lifelong learning, not just in the classroom but beyond. And we love learning from one another. We wrote The New College Classroom together during the pandemic, meeting over Zoom twice a week, discussing books by other educators, writing and revising and rewriting every word together, finding ways to think about improving our students’ lives for a better future even as the world seemed grim. The books we cherish share those values: hope, belief in the next generation, and a deep commitment to learning even in—especially in—the grimmest of times.


We wrote...

The New College Classroom

By Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis,

Book cover of The New College Classroom

What is our book about?

College teaching is stuck in the past. If a time traveler from a century ago arrived on today’s campuses, they would recognize only too well the listlessness of the lecture hall and the awkward silence of the seminar room. Yet we know how to do better. Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis, two of the world’s foremost innovators in higher education, turn to the latest learning science to tell us about inspiring, effective, and inclusive teaching. Davidson and Katopodis explain how and why their approach works and provide detailed case studies of educators successfully applying active-learning techniques in their courses every day, ensuring that their students are better prepared for the world after college. 

Botanicum

By Kathy Willis, Katie Scott (illustrator),

Book cover of Botanicum: Welcome to the Museum

If you want a big book of florals, look no further than Botanicum. Everything from algae to orchids is covered in this illustrated encyclopedia, featuring Katie Scott’s artwork paired with Professor Kathy Willis’ writing. I’m drawn to the fine lines in Scott’s work, with her illustrations of parasitic and carnivorous plants being my absolute favorite pages. Fascinating for both children and adults, I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys getting lost in the details of fantastic florals.


Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by nature, even from a young age. My parents would set up easels for my sister and me to paint outdoors, and I haven’t stopped drawing since. I tend to focus on flora and fauna, making illustrations with subdued colors and intricate details. I love to create illustrations for books, and occasionally, I’ll write them, too. Often reflective of history, mythology, and folklore, my work captures an old-world feeling and a love of nature. In my spare time, you can find me in my garden or out walking my dog, Molly.


I wrote...

Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers

By Jessica Roux,

Book cover of Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers

What is my book about?

Floriography is a full-color guide to the historical uses and secret meanings behind an impressive array of flowers and herbs. The book explores the coded significances associated with various blooms, from flowers for a lover to flowers for an enemy.

The language of flowers was historically used as a means of secret communication. It soared in popularity during the 19th century, especially in Victorian England and the U.S., when proper etiquette discouraged open displays of emotion. Mysterious and playful, the language of flowers has roots in everything from the characteristics of the plant to its presence in folklore and history. Researched and illustrated by popular artist Jessica Roux, this book makes a stunning display piece, conversation-starter, or thoughtful gift.

Winter

By Henry David Thoreau,

Book cover of Winter: From the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau

Modern living requires that we move, consume, absorb, and process quickly—and our bodies can’t always keep up. Thoreau’s journals transport us back to Massachusetts between 1837 and 1860, where his recordings of seeds and birds and worms, his philosophies on man and mankind, and his personal struggles against all else are set against the hush of frozen rivers, crackling fires, and ringing telegraph wires. Especially when read daily, this most prolific botanist, transcendentalist, and introvert of New England history reminds us to value the comfort of contemporary living, but never to forget the value of moving, observing, and living a slow and intentional life.


Who am I?

Journalistic interviewer Jacqueline Raposo has created hundreds of stories discussing the human condition for magazines, websites, podcasts, and her book, The Me Without—a personal growth memoir exploring the science and spirit of habit change. Chronically ill and disabled, she’s never uncovered a new app, product, or study as directly beneficial to emotional health as time spent observing the natural world.


I wrote...

The Me, Without: A Year Exploring Habit, Healing, and Happiness

By Jacqueline Raposo,

Book cover of The Me, Without: A Year Exploring Habit, Healing, and Happiness

What is my book about?

At the age of thirty-four, journalist Jacqueline Raposo finds herself chronically sick, single, broke, and wandering in a fog. Weary of trying to solve her problems by adding things to her life, she attempts the opposite and subtracts habits including social media, shopping, sugar, and negative thoughts over the course of one year. In this intimately curated search for self-improvement, Raposo confesses to the sometimes violent and profound shifts in her social interactions, physical health, and sense of self-worth. With the input of doctors, psychologists, STEM experts, and other professionals, she offers fascinating insights into how and why our brains and bodies react as they do to habits, and sheds light on the impact of everyday choices on our mental state. Part memoir, part case study, this book offers an inspiring example of how to forge your own journey, expose your wounds, and help yourself heal. 

The Garden of Invention

By Jane S. Smith,

Book cover of The Garden of Invention: Luther Burbank and the Business of Breeding Plants

Gardening, whether in a backyard or a hundred-acre orchard, is an audacious attempt to improve on nature, and Smith’s fascinating hybrid of biography, history, and botany brings to life the most audacious of them all. The only biography on my list, I’ve included it because, in an age where we might be forgiven for thinking it takes millions of corporate dollars and genetic engineers to produce a new plant, The Garden of Invention reminds us how one man’s singular determination, patience, and brilliance can change the world. And produce the perfect potato for McDonald’s French fries.


Who am I?

William Alexander’s best-selling gardening memoir, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden has been praised for its fresh, humorous, and honest take on home gardening. The books he’s selected similarly break the mould for garden books, featuring rabid rose gardeners, an obsessive breeder, and a Czech playwright.


I wrote...

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden

By William Alexander,

Book cover of The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for a Perfect Garden

What is my book about?

Bill Alexander had no idea that his simple dream of having a vegetable garden and small orchard in his backyard would lead him into life-and-death battles with groundhogs, webworms, weeds, and weather; midnight expeditions in the dead of winter to dig up fresh thyme; and skirmishes with neighbors who feed the vermin (i.e., deer). Not to mention the vacations that had to be planned around the harvest, the near electrocution of the tree man, the limitations of his own middle-aged body, and the pity of his wife and kids. When Alexander runs (just for fun!) a cost-benefit analysis, adding up everything from the live animal trap to the Velcro tomato wraps and then amortizing it over the life of his garden, it comes as quite a shock to learn that it cost him a staggering $64 to grow each one of his beloved Brandywine tomatoes. But as any gardener will tell you, you can't put a price on the unparalleled pleasures of providing fresh food for your family.

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