Gehan de Silva
24 Jun 2019
Written for Paperback
This is a very useful, well written and thoughtfully photographed field guide. It is clearly an important book for anyone with an interest in trees from this part of the world. I can imagine keen naturalists in East Africa wanting to keep this in the ‘book bag’ if they are travelling around by vehicle. It is also useful for people in other tropical countries: partly because some of the species introduced to East Africa have been introduced to other parts of the world and partly because some East African species have been introduced elsewhere. It is also useful as many species indigenous to East Africa have sister species elsewhere and the excellent layout with many photographs makes this a useful book for becoming familiar with trees and shrubs of a family and genus which have look alikes elsewhere in the world which may not be served by a book as well presented as this.
I was pleasantly surprised at how closely the photographic approach to this book mirrors A Naturalist's Guide to the Trees & Shrubs of India
I have authored and photographed which will be in print in Summer 2019. Much of the shape and layout also mirror a planned larger field guide edition. This allows me to have a better appreciation of the accomplishment of the author and photographer. Contrary to what most people would imagine, photographing trees for a book of this nature is much harder than say photographing birds or mammals. Birds may have the complication of breeding and non-breeding plumages, adult and juvenile plumages and differences in sexes, which apply to some species. But generally, with most species one can get away with having a single photograph. For example, one image will suffice of say a Marabou Stork or Secretarybird. With trees, one needs pictures of what the tree looks like (often the hardest to take), the leaves, the bark, the fruit and the flowers. The flowers are not straightforward at all. Some trees have bisexual flowers, in some the male and female flowers are separate. They may be on the same tree in the same inflorescence or in different parts of the same tree. The male and female flowers may even be on different trees. Then there are other features; does a tree have especially prominent leaf stipules, or spines or are the leaves dotted with glands, how about extrafloral nectaries, and the list goes on. It would take several lifetimes to capture all the features for even 300 species of trees. Then there is the added compilation that photographing plant parts requires a little more than point and shoot. One needs to understand depth of field, how to get a leaf blade into the plane of focus, how to exposure compensate when the subject is backlit, how to recognise and avoid contrast which the human eye compensates for, but the camera does not. As can be seen, photographing trees requires the dual skills of a botanist and photographer. To have photographed a practically useful portfolio of images for 520 trees is therefore a considerable feat which is not to be underestimated.
There are two broad approaches to a plant book. One either adopts a method that uses a key such as its leaf and stem structure which then artificially groups species of different families together or one arranges the species by families which means often very dissimilar looking plants are together. There is no right method. In this book the author arranges the plants by family, an approach which I have also used, and this has the obviously appeal that it helps naturalists understand the family relationship between different trees, even if there are no obvious similarities. However, rather than only following family divisions, the author has made things a little easier by using three broad groupings of trees, shrubs and palms. The family descriptions are placed in the front section of the book, possibly to avoid disrupting the species layouts. The core of the book encompasses 520 species descriptions. Most accounts occupy a whole page which I think is the right choice as it enables many aspects of a plant to be shown to help identify a species. However, this does result in a 472 page book which is a tad heavy. If you are birder as well with another field guide, this might be the one you keep in the car unless you are specifically on a tree walk.
The text is good. It avoids as much as possible, botanical terms that a layperson will not know. It is not possible to avoid some terms which must be learnt if you are to make any headway in using a plant book. The headline name is the scientific or Latin name, which I am not a fan of as it can be off-putting to non-botanists. However, I appreciate there is a practical difficulty with having to coin vernacular names for plants in many countries. The Latin names are followed by English names where known and these are fairly prominent. Therefore, I don’t think the book really suffers from the headline name being in Latin. Local names where known are also listed. A shaded box provides a brief ‘personality profile’ of the plant. I was not convinced these merited a shaded text box as it is not a quick ID box and not many trees have a quick ID. The text is structured under standardised categories for Bark, Leaves, Flowers and Fruit which covers the identification. Two more categories cover Uses and Traditional medicine. Again, they are written in plain speak. Each species account on the top right flags if a species is indigenous or exotic; a helpful pointer.
The end sections have a brief glossary and a small but very useful illustrated glossary to help those newcomers to botanical terms know what is meant by for example a drupe (the mango fruit is a drupe). The front sections include a colour-coded vegetation map. You can see at a glance where the rainforests are and that much of the region is classified as bushland and thicket. The bulk of the front section is covered by the thumbnail introduction to the 80 plus families (pages 8 to 22) covered in the book. The scientific nomenclature retained is an older one; what people know as Acacias are retained as Acacias although in the botanical world things have changed. As far as practical use is concerned, this is of minor relevance and I must confess like many authors I often retain an older taxonomy in my books to leave them reader-friendly.
Although I have other African plant books in my collection some of which are more comprehensive and certainly bigger, I suspect this is one of the best African plant books to help people identify what trees they see in the field. This is especially true for many people who are not expert botanists and do not have the time and patience to use a plant key. The extensive use of images also makes this book a pleasurable one to thumb through for anyone with an interest in tropical trees as they will recognise many similar looking species for which this book is a helpful baseline.