Weeds are often ignored or despised for ruining manicured lawns, well-tended flower beds, and carefully planned vegetable patches, but many gardeners recognize weeds as plants just growing in the wrong place. Some “weeds” are beneficial, for instance, to bees or butterflies. Yet many weeds nevertheless create problems in specific situations. Richard Dickinson and France Royer have brought together more than 1,200 stunning color photographs in their encyclopedic reference Weeds of North America in order to help identify the species of most concern right now while also capturing their surprising beauty.
This hefty reference volume by the University of Chicago Press features “600 species from 69 plant families” chosen on the basis of current “state weed legislation.” The selection method underscores the aim of the book, which is to assist those working in agriculture, livestock farming, or horticultural industries. Nevertheless, amateur gardeners may well enjoy this book too, packed as it is with photographs, illustrations, and useful information. Plenty of the plants mentioned appear in suburban gardens. Nontechnical terms have been used “whenever possible,” and written entries are concise and accessible.
The initial section includes a basic guide to trees and shrubs, vines and climbing plants, herbaceous land plants (by far the largest segment), aquatic plants, and grasses and grasslike plants. The bulk of the book is given to striking, full-page photographs with family and species descriptions. Readers may learn, for example, that plains delphinium (larkspur) is poisonous to cattle, that the roots of lantana release toxins to kill off other plants, or that garlic mustard can give an unpleasant odor to the milk of cattle that eat it. Drawings are scattered throughout with attention given to various stages of growth. The glossary includes simple line drawings to help show the key parts of each plant, whether a bract, an auricle, a panicle, or an umbel, etc. An index to common and scientific names also is helpful.
Although the book will prove invaluable to many, some readers may find themselves wishing for more commentary. Weed management strategies are not discussed here. No remarks are made on conflicts between human industries and wildlife. For instance, milkweed is described as a host for viruses detrimental to cucumbers, strawberries, and tobacco; its “silky hairs” are “reported to plug intakes on farm machinery.” But no mention is made of milkweed’s importance to Monarch butterflies, whose population has declined dangerously low levels. Likewise, Johnny Jump Ups are listed as a cause for concern, but their presence at nurseries is not at issue. This is not a flaw in the book, but merely a sign of its focus. Readers are taught to identify particular species of current interest and to understand the basic elements of their biology. This is an ambitious identification guide laid out in the clearest possible terms.
One last group of potential readers who might enjoy Weeds of North America should perhaps be mentioned—namely, artists and designers. The book’s gorgeous color photographs of often overlooked plants make it a valuable resource for anyone wishing to incorporate unusual floral motifs into their work.
September 2014, University of Chicago Press
Science & Nature/Gardening
$35, paperback, 656 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton
“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.”
—A. A. Milne