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
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.
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
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.