This book is being hailed as the "horticultural publishing event of the year" and that's probably no exaggeration. Professor Michael A. Dirr is THE MAN when it comes to woody plants. And I agree with all the blurbs – that this 951-page Bible of woody plants is a "trove of beauty and substance", "a photographic tour-de-force", "the ultimate reference", "smart, opinionated, comprehensive, wonderful" – all true!
So put this on your Christmas wish list – or any occasion that applies – because at $80*, you probably won't buy it for yourself but you'll love owning it, as I do. You'll spend hours poring over its 3,500 photos and the highly readable text, which is not just exhaustive but best of all, opinionated!
Some favorite bits
Dirr tells you the real deal, not marketing BS, like which plants are disappointments. And he tells you where native plants are native to. (That shouldn't be a rarity but it sure is.)
This comment about Japanese privet: "Can be prunend into any shape and often is, to the limits of demented imaginations." And about azaleas Dirr concedes that in flower they "wow" but rightly complains that afterwards, they "beg for attention," and suggests that other shrubs offer far more. I'll say. And even though I love old-fashioned weigelas, I don't mind Dirr calling them downright "ugly" because he's also grown to like some of the newer cultivars.
Dirr talked me into buying some Eastern redbuds and Abelias for my next garden, and has me lusting for a dozen more I'm hoping I'll have room for.
Surprisingly, this reference book contains little details that bring it down to human scale, like the photos of Dirr's gardens. Even more affecting, Dirr writes in the introduction about moving with his beloved wife Bonnie to Chapel Hill to be near their daughter while she was undergoing medical treatment, and how they "found inner peace with each other and in the garden" after her death. Here's a photo I snapped of the Dirrs in D.C. last year after his talk to the ASLA annual conference, where he was treated as quite the rock star.
I love that 3,700 species and cultivars are covered in the book, in Dirr's comprehensive way. He even took all of the 3,500 photos. This is his life's work, and we all benefit from it.
Suggestions for the next edition
Oh, yeah, I AM going there, picking a few nits, and why not? In the one conversation I had with Dr. Dirr I found him to be pretty darn friendly and open to questions, especially for someone so exalted in his field. So here goes.
- I'd love to see the listing for Japanese barberry include information about its invasiveness, and how to avoid that. The issue is handled very helpfully for buddleias and other potential thugs, so more of that, please.
- This book covers not just trees and shrubs but vines, too – all woodies. Maybe they deserve a mention in the title.
- Why no mention of the horrible performance of the grossly overused Leyland Cypress that's now so hated and being replaced en masse? At least the ones still standing after our recent storms are being replaced.
- Dirr recommends giving oakleaf hydrangeas "some degree of shade" in the South but here in Maryland, any afternoon sun at ALL burns their leaves to an ugly crisp. I'm just saying.
- The common name for Actinidia arguta is listed as "bower actinidia," but what about "hardy kiwi"?
*Or $50 at Amazon.