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New Book on Natives by Allan Armitage

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Oh, my aching muscles...
Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens

Reviewed by Karen Preuss

Allan Armitage is someone I'd like to invite to dinner, although I'm not sure I want him to see what passes for a garden at my rented duplex. As a devotee of PBS programming, I always look forward to his guest appearances on The Victory Garden. He strikes me as someone who, for all his expertise, wouldn't hold it against me for not knowing the botanical name of a plant.

Reading his latest book, Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens, is the most fun you'll ever have with an encyclopedia. Armitage brings his impressive pedigree and expertise to this comprehensive work, while writing in a conversational style that is accessible and quite humorous. He sets the tone at the outset, writing in the preface that "this book is not written for extreme native plant enthusiasts. In fact, I suspect the right wing of the 'Native Party' will not particularly like this book... Rather, it is written for my daughters, Laura and Heather, and their friends and gardening buddies, who would love to try some native plants but don't know where to start."

The 160 genera included in this book are arranged in an A-Z format. Each entry includes a general description of the plant, essential data such as habitat, hardiness and maintenance, and recommended propagation information. Armitage is conscientious in indicating whether a genera has invasive tendencies, and makes no effort to hide his contempt for those who harvest native plants from the wild (in his entry on Trillium, said individuals are referred to as the "dark side.") 

In the preface of the book, he discusses his dilemma in deciding which plants to include and which to omit, stating that one of the main criteria was the availability of a plant. He backs it up with a resource list in the appendix.

 As a self-proclaimed word geek, one of my favorite elements of these entries is Armitage's inclusion of the etymology of the genus, specific epithet, and common name. Did you know that Chelone was a nymph who insulted the Greek gods by not attending the marriage of Zeus to Hera? The gods punished her by turning her into a turtle. Chelone is Greek for "tortoise," referring to the flowers of Chelone obliqua. Fascinating stuff.

Armitage makes no attempt to give equal time to every genera description, as other encyclopedias often do. Some entries merit only a brief paragraph, while others, like Penstemon, go on for nearly a dozen pages. I appreciate that he includes as much or as little information he feels is needed for the reader to get a true understanding of the plant he is writing about. I especially enjoy the humor he brings to his writing. In his description of Lysichiton americanum, for instance, Armitage begins with "does anyone really plant skunk cabbage? The very name suggests there may be a reason most sane gardeners stay away from it, but then again, 'sane gardeners' may itself be an oxymoron." And under Garden Maintenance in the same entry: "None. Do you really want to go into a swamp to deadhead?"

I often feel that some of the most useful information in plant books can be found in the appendices. Armitage includes a helpful list of nurseries that carry native plants, along with a state-by-state listing of native plant societies, all with physical and web addresses. There are "useful lists" (his terminology) of plants by categories, including drought-tolerance, butterfly and hummingbird garden plants, plants that are less palatable to deer and rabbits, and plants for a variety of light conditions. Two indices, one by botanical name, the other by common name, complete the book.

Whether for use strictly as another reference resource, or for casual browsing on a rainy day, Armitage's Native Plants for North American Gardens will make an outstanding addition to any gardener's library. If the price tag is a little too hefty for you, come to our library at the Botanic Gardens; we'll have it waiting for you.

Karen Preuss is the Library Manager of the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

Native plants offer more reliable hardiness and drought-tolerance than non-natives. They are, after all, adapted to grow in the wild where you live!

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