The best plant books

5 authors have picked their favorite books about plants and why they recommend each book.

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The Botany of Desire

By Michael Pollan,

Book cover of The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

Pollan sets out to explore the nature of four very human desires—sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control—through a quartet of plants that satisfy those very needs: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. What he gently imparts to his readers during the course of these investigations is that plants can muster a lot more resources, intelligence, and agency than most people ever imagined. 


Who am I?

I have studied the intersection of human and natural history as an enthusiast, newspaper columnist, teacher, museum curator, and author. I strongly believe in the value of local knowledge, which has led me to work with and learn from several Plateau tribal communities. I use primary documents, including field journals, maps, artwork, oral histories, and the landscape itself as my building blocks. If I can arrive at a confluence of rivers on the same day of the year as some early white visitors and search for the living things that they wrote about during their stay, then I have something that I can compare directly with tribal oral histories. 


I wrote...

The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest

By Jack Nisbet,

Book cover of The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest

What is my book about?

Two centuries ago, David Douglas arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River to collect flora for the Royal Horticultural Society. A master at his trade, Douglas’s specimen papers and plant introductions have provided a boundless source of raw material for anyone interested in the ecology of the region. But it is his written depictions of the entire tapestry of his travels, including prickly fur traders, their mixed-blood wives and children, and tribal families across the entire Columbia River drainage, that inject passion and emotional insight into his larger story. While Douglas’s name remains tagged to the region’s iconic conifer, his enlarged naturalist vision offers a path forward for anyone who wants to protect the priceless resource of a living landscape.

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman,

Book cover of The World Without Us

When trying to imagine what would happen if civilization collapsed, you run up against some really basic, logistical details. Like, what actually happens to all our stuff, if no one's around to take care of it? Turns out, it falls apart a lot quicker than you'd think. Anyone who's noticed the grass and saplings coming up through the pavement in an abandoned lot after just a couple of years understands this. Now expand that to everything. Weisman's book asks questions about this post-people world I didn't even know to ask and the answers are fascinating.


Who am I?

I have an idea. A conviction, let's call it, that humanity is not doomed. The Mad Max scenario where civilization collapses, thrusting us into an anarchic hellscape in which the living envy the dead, is totally unrealistic and not likely to happen. So let's imagine a post-apocalyptic scenario in which people come together to help each other, to save what knowledge they can, to build something new and useful. To learn the lessons from the destruction that came before. This is what I tried to imagine in my novel Bannerless, and this is why this topic interests me so much.


I wrote...

Bannerless

By Carrie Vaughn,

Book cover of Bannerless

What is my book about?

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroy much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. 

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him? In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

Newcomb's Wildflower Guide

By Lawrence Newcomb, Gordon Morrison (illustrator),

Book cover of Newcomb's Wildflower Guide

The most critical stage of using plants is identification. An error in naming a plant could result in tragedy. Nature manufactures many chemicals harmful to humans. A plant practitioner must never guess. An ID must be positive. For that purpose, any woodsman/woman needs a reliable field guide with a user key that allows the reader to determine the name of a plant before any part of it is harvested. Mr. Newcomb has developed a user-friendly key for the layperson. It is much more efficient than most field guides without overwhelming the reader with intricate botanical vocabulary.


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.

Sprout Lands

By William Bryant Logan,

Book cover of Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees

A visionary book that sees trees and humankind working together for mutual benefit. Steering clear of both the romanticized image of untouched nature as well as greedy exploitation of natural resources it impressively demonstrates how humans and forests have always thrived from each other. It was this highly positive concept of coexistence with nature that really inspires me to this day.

Who am I?

Growing up between the “wood district” in northern Austria and the woodland-rich province of Nova Scotia in Canada many of my favorite childhood memories took place in forests of all shapes and sizes. It must have been this constant exposure that ignited my passion for everything trees and forests and ultimately inspired me to train as a cabinet maker, study woodland ecology and even travel around the world exploring the multitude of fantastic flavor trees have to offer. Along the way, it was the books on this list that kept on fueling my passion and taught me to love trees even more deeply. 


I wrote...

The Flavor of Wood: In Search of the Wild Taste of Trees from Smoke and SAP to Root and Bark

By Artur Cisar-Erlach,

Book cover of The Flavor of Wood: In Search of the Wild Taste of Trees from Smoke and SAP to Root and Bark

What is my book about?

Most people don’t expect wood to flavor their food beyond the barbecue, if at all, and gastronomists rarely discuss the significance that wood has on ultimate taste. But trees and wood have a far greater influence over our plate and palate than you might think. So what does wood taste of? And how has it been used in cooking, distilling, fermenting, and even perfume creation to produce a unique flavor and smell?

To find out the answers to these questions, food communications expert Artur Cisar-Erlach embarked on a global journey to understand how trees infuse the world’s most delectable dishes with the flavor of their wood. His flavor hunt extended into a three-year exploration covering everything from pizza, whisky, cheese, tea, and perfume to quinine, wine, maple syrup, blue yogurt, and more.

Thus Spoke the Plant

By Monica Gagliano,

Book cover of Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Groundbreaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants

Monica Gagliano gives us a enchanting peek at the complexities, consciousness, and subjectivity of plants, as well as at her own story as a woman scientist, who is one of the pioneers in the field of plant intelligence. Weaving together her biography with the life of plants in a creative mix of “phytobiography,” the author shows how working “on” plants is also always working “with” them. We collaborate and communicate, Gagliano suggests, across species and biological kingdom boundaries, and it is on this unknown terrain that her scientific discoveries of plant learning or plant bioacoustics are made. Although Gagliano is not a philosopher by training, the account she offers in Thus Spoke the Plant opens new and exciting vistas in the philosophy of plants.


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.

Around the World in 80 Trees

By Jonathan Drori,

Book cover of Around the World in 80 Trees

I like this book because, while drawing on a number of other sources on this theme, it introduces us, in relatively few words per chapter, to the importance of a range of tree species to people, in a great variety of ways. 

Selecting 80 species - from England’s ‘London Plane’ to the ‘Sugar Maple’ of Canada - the book takes us on a journey around the world, by geographical region, summarizing key botanical information about each one and giving us examples of its significance or uses, past and/or present, often surprising or little known.

Each chapter has been beautifully illustrated by Lucille Clerk.


Who am I?

Trees have been important to me throughout my life. I was lucky to grow up surrounded by ancient woodland in the English countryside. When most of that woodland was felled in the 1970s it made me think deeply about the importance of plants to people. I was privileged later, to spend time with indigenous peoples in Latin America learning about what trees and plants mean to them. I now write about how plants are perceived and used. After several children's books I wrote Plants For People which describes the plants we use in our daily lives and Ancient Trees which celebrates tree species that live for over a thousand years.


I wrote...

Birch

By Anna Lewington,

Book cover of Birch

What is my book about?

Birch explores the cultural and environmental significance of birch trees across the northern hemisphere. Versatile and supremely useful, birches have played an important part in shaping both the natural environment and the culture of millions of people around the world. 

Beginning with an overview of the taxonomy and natural history of the genera, this well-illustrated book focuses on the multiple uses people have made of almost every part of these trees since ancient times - from their tough, waterproof bark, used for everything from basketry to medicines, to their sap, timber, roots, and leaves. It outlines the rich folklore and ancient beliefs associated with the trees and looks too at what the future may hold in store.

The Indestructible Houseplant

By Tovah Martin,

Book cover of The Indestructible Houseplant: 200 Beautiful Plants that Everyone Can Grow

Tovah Martin is my houseplant hero! Tovah is a rare bird! Her love of houseplants rings through her writing. She has made gardening and indoor plants her life’s pursuit and it shows. This book is one of several Tovah has written. Her work often appears in Better Homes & Gardens magazine. I have followed her career from day one. Her vision of the plant is joyful and information only someone with this great love of the houseplant can share with you. If you buy one book on how to care for and incorporate the beauty of green plants in your home you must read Tovah's book!


Who am I?

I have spent 25 years working at the New York Botanical Garden! My life’s pursuit of the green has been my greatest achievement. I'm a self-made terrarium designer. I developed my style and skills at NYBG and knew that I had to share this with the world. My books have sold over 14,000 copies worldwide. This is amazing to me and has taught me that my though-ness and step-by-step lessons were worth every word! Horticulture is a subject that comes naturally to me. I happily know the names of dozens and dozens of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, tropical, desert, you name plants from all over the world and I’m learning new ones every season. 


I wrote...

Terrariums - Gardens Under Glass: Designing, Creating, and Planting Modern Indoor Gardens

By Maria Colletti,

Book cover of Terrariums - Gardens Under Glass: Designing, Creating, and Planting Modern Indoor Gardens

What is my book about?

Traveling Workshop Instructor Maria Colletti makes designing your very own interior gardens easy with step-by-step photos of over twenty of her own terrarium designs. Plus, you'll get all the information you need about popular terrarium plants, such as tillandsias (air plants), orchids, mosses, succulents, and ferns.

Growing collections of adorable miniature plants in glass vessels is a great way to bring the outdoors inside and get back in touch with nature—no matter where you live or what time of year it is. Terrariums are a wondrous combination of nature, gardening, and home decor. Whether you reside in a tiny apartment, spend the bulk of your day at an office desk, or just want to be better connected to green living things. Terrarium building and tending are both therapeutic and inspirational.

Wildwood

By Roger Deakin,

Book cover of Wildwood

This was the book that made me look again at trees, seeing them for the incredible organisms that they are. Deakin goes on an amazing adventure from Suffolk to Kazakhstan, Australia, and beyond, trying to get to the heart of why wood and trees have such profound meaning for us. If you like Wildwood, you could also try Waterlog, in which he wild-swims his way through the British Isles. He’s the perfect companion for the armchair adventurer, and a very genial writer.


Who am I?

I did a master's in Environmental Policy, and at the end of that year, I thought, "this is all very well, but there’s no point designing these policies if no one wants them." My response to the environmental crisis is to try to open people’s eyes to the beauty and wonder of Nature. If you pay close attention, you start to develop an expansive sense of the ordinary: Creation is stranger, more mysterious, and more wonderful than we can imagine. This in turn helps us to love the world more deeply, and we tend to look after things that we love. 


I wrote...

Talking Through Trees

By Edward Picton-Turbervill,

Book cover of Talking Through Trees

What is my book about?

Talking Through Trees was supposed to be a rather dry history of the gardens in St John’s College, Cambridge, but what came out when I sat down to write it was altogether more unexpected. The book is a rhapsody on the trees in the college’s garden, flowing between anecdote, history, biology, poetry, and philosophy. It was augmented by 35 wonderful woodcuts produced by Angela Lemaire for the book and printed by hand at the Old Stile Press. My favourite lines are "A tree is a river in reverse. A river converges on its trunk, and a tree diverges from its source. Humans are both wood and water, since our arteries are trees, and our veins are rivers."

This book is available here.

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. 

The Forager's Harvest

By Samuel Thayer,

Book cover of The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

Like all of Sam’s books, this one is a gold mine of detailed, in-depth information about the plants he features in it. His information is beyond trustworthy: he is so familiar with his subject that it is as if he is inviting you to get to know some of his best friends (the plants). My copy is dog-eared and field-stained from all the use I have put it to.


Who am I?

I started foraging when I was a toddler and my Greek great-grandmother took me to a park to gather dandelion leaves. I read foraging field guides almost incessantly (still do). Eventually, I got a certification in Ethnobotany and went professional. I love teaching and sharing my passion for wild foods through my books, workshops, and videos. One of the most rewarding moments for me is when a student realizes that something I’ve just identified as a safe and delicious edible is a plant that grows all around them. It’s a game-changer. They can’t go back to seeing any plant as “just a weed."


I wrote...

The Skillful Forager: Essential Techniques for Responsible Foraging and Making the Most of Your Wild Edibles

By Leda Meredith,

Book cover of The Skillful Forager: Essential Techniques for Responsible Foraging and Making the Most of Your Wild Edibles

What is my book about?

From harvesting skills that will allow you to gather from the same plant again and again to highlighting how to get the most out of each and every type of wild edible, trusted expert Leda Meredith explores the most effective ways to harvest, preserve, and prepare all of your foraged foods. Featuring detailed identification information for over forty wild edibles commonly found across North America, the plant profiles in this book focus on sustainable harvesting techniques that can be applied to hundreds of other plants. This indispensable reference also provides simple recipes that can help you make the most of your harvest each season.

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