Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
13 Apr 2019
Written for Paperback
I was astonished to find that this book covers 286 species whilst retaining the same size (176 pages) and shape of the Naturalist’s Guide series published by John Beaufoy Publishing. I received the book a few weeks after I had submitted the text and images for a title in the same series to the Trees of Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly there are many parallels between this book and what I hope to achieve with my own book. A key aspect is to use images which illustrate many features of a tree such as its bark, leaves, flowers and fruits. And hardest of all, what the tree as a whole looks like. The improvements in digital photography and printing mean even in a small-shaped book like this, it is possible to have multiple images on a page, some even the size of a postage stamp, and yet have the images clear enough to be useful. Most species accounts in this book use around two images. However, the entry for the Butterfly Pea Tree for example uses five images which make it very easy for users to identify trees by skimming through the pictures without having to read the text. Obtaining multiple images is harder than most people realise. Even with 200 species, it would be several years’ work to capture all of the images to illustrate the different aspects of a tree. If you have a day job that competes for your time, it could take decades. Unlike with birds and mammals, it is difficult to source images from other photographers. There are very few people who know enough botany to attempt the task to take pictures that are functionally useful. Thus, the author of this book is to be congratulated in obtaining a sufficiently useful range of images. There are two other aspects of this book I like as it resonates with the approach I have also taken with my own book. Firstly, the text has been written in plain English with technical terms explained within brackets where they occur in the body of the text. Secondly, the plants have been arranged by family. The arrangement by family is a personal preference. I like to know that a tree with a red flower is in the same family as another with a yellow flower. Others like to have trees grouped by the colour of the flowers or the shape of the leaves so that they can narrow down the list of candidate species.
With birds and mammals, visitors on a two-week tour in most countries, can see a substantial proportion of the species. This is a very different situation with plants, even with trees which are fewer in number. A field guide, which covers a significant proportion of the trees of any tropical country will be a huge book. Furthermore, many species are unlikely to be seen by a visiting wildlife traveller. It will take years of study and travel even for resident botanists to see a decent proportion of the trees. This book does however cover a reasonable proportion of the trees a visitor is likely to see, especially if a good part of your time is in rural areas such as villages or urban areas such as towns and cities. The surprise is that with many cities, whether it is one in Europe, Asia or Africa, many of the trees are introduced from elsewhere. With any book to the common trees of an Asian country, you will find it useful across many Asian countries and oddly enough this is not just because some of these trees share the same native species or families. It is more often because these Asian cities share the same trees of African, Australasian or Tropical American origin planted in their gardens and public spaces.
One oddity I found in this book was that the 'name' for a species account, uses the scientific name rather than an English name as has been the long-established custom with popular books. I am guessing this may be due to the lack of established English names. When I co-authored a title in the same series of the Flowers of Sri Lanka I had to coin names; occasionally I gave up and simply kept the scientific name as the ‘name’. The text uses three broad categories, ‘Description, ‘Distribution and Ecology’ and ‘Uses’. The text is concise, addresses the key points and is quite rich in detail despite the word count being economic. The front and end sections are necessarily slim, to accommodate the 286 species descriptions and to stay within the standard page size. The four introductory pages include sections on geography and climate, tree diversity in Southeast Asia and classification (What's in a Name?). The facts in the section on tree diversity reinforce my comments on how difficult it is for a visitor or even a resident to see an appreciable fraction of trees found in a tropical country compared with groups of animals which are popular with wildlife tourists. For example Peninsular Malaysia has 2,830 tree species with Borneo having an estimated 4,000 species.
The two end pages cover useful references and useful websites. The inside back cover has an alphabetical listing of the 44 scientific families covered in the book with the accompanying popular names and page numbers. Thus it works as a family index, especially useful if you are botanically inclined. The species descriptions also have section headers on the pages in the standard style for the series. For example, section headers such as Legumes, Gentians, Witch-hazels, etc. allow one to thumb through and search for a group or simply gain an impression of what species are found in a family. As I have already mentioned I am a fan of this family approach as it makes clear that seemingly disparate trees like Jackfruit and the Banyan Tree (a ficus) are in the same family. The images are functionally useful. But this is not a book that you buy because of beautiful images. It is a book to be taken out and should end up the worse for wear.
With over 10,000 species of trees found in Southeast Asia, one will need a library and several lifetimes to become acquainted with the majority of species. For a resident or visitor who wants to be able to put a name to many of the commoner species they see around them, especially in urban areas, this book is excellent. I have many plant books in my collection and this is one of the most useful books I have seen, especially for Asia. The number of species covered and its incredible portability mean it will be a very good choice for visitors and will hopefully inspire locals to take an interest in learning the trees they see around them.
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