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A Natural History of Conifers [Hardcover]

Aljos Farjon
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

15 Jun 2008
Conifers are the most diverse, interesting, beautiful trees in the world, so why is it that our gardens are home to so few species? Part of the reason lies in their economic importance which, by focusing attention on relatively few species, has limited our understanding of one of the most remarkable plant groups on earth. Leading expert Aljos Farjon provides a broader perspective with this compelling narrative that observes conifers from the standpoint of the curious naturalist. It starts with the basic question of what conifers are and continues to explore their evolution, taxonomy, ecology, distribution, human uses, and issues of conservation. As the story unfolds many popular misconceptions are dispelled, such as the notion that all conifers have cones (untrue), and the extraordinary diversity of conifers begins to dawn as Farjon describes the diminutive creeping shrub Microcachrys tetragona, whose strange seed cones resemble raspberries, and the prehistoric-looking Araucaria meulleri. The taxonomic diversity of conifers is huge and Farjon goes on to relate how, over the course of three 300 million years, these trees and shrubs have adapted to survive geological upheavals, climatic extremes, and formidable competition from flowering plants. Scarcely less remarkable is his explanation of how conifers, with only 627 species, grew to occupy every continent on earth ranging from the high latitudes to the tropics. This illuminating review will fascinate plant lovers who wish to discover the extraordinary relatives of ordinary garden conifers, natural historians, who will relish seeing conifers reviewed in a broad context, and all who seek to learn more about the early history of life on our planet.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Timber Press (15 Jun 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0881928690
  • ISBN-13: 978-0881928693
  • Product Dimensions: 27 x 19 x 3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 656,299 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

Not since Rachel Carson has the public been graced with a scientist that writes with the interest of a novelist. Anyone with a curiosity about the early history of plant life on our planet will relish this book. -- John Bagnasco Garden Compass 20081001 Organized in topically centered, lively chapters that include a discussion of conifer ecology and conservation. It is well illustrated with color photographs and line drawings of the trees, their structures, and the landscapes they dominate. Not exactly an encyclopedia but rather a sourcebook, this is the place to go for information about conifers. Highly recommended. -- D.H. Pfister Choice 20081101 If you want to find out more about conifers, then [this book] by the naturally acclaimed expert, Aljos Farjon, will sate your curiosity, your thirst for knowledge and your enthusiasm for those exciting plants that make up this group. -- George Graine Virginia Master Gardeners Association Report 20081101

About the Author

Aljos Farjon worked as a Senior Scientific Officer for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1996, where he headed the Temperate Section of its Herbarium before his retirement at 60 in 2006; he is now an Honorary Research Associate with Kew. He has published 10 books and more than 120 papers mainly but not exclusively on conifers. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and has served on its Council, holds longtime membership in the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and is a member of the Royal Horticultural Society's Conifer Registration Advisory Committee. He is also Chair since 1995 of the Conifer Specialist Group of IUCN The world Conservation Union. In 1997 he received the prestigious Engler Medal in silver from IAPT and in 2006 he was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society. He lives in Middlesex, England.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great buy for anyone interested in conifers. 12 Dec 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
All round great book for professionals, students and anyone with an interest in conifers. It is well written and holds some of the best pictures I have ever seen. Aljos Farjon has brought the conifer alive!
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Top knotch stuff 17 Mar 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is the key book on conifers for the general reader who wants some authoritative depth.

Farjon is Kew Gardens' chief conifer wonk, so he knows his stuff and this book benefits because of it. Some parts proved rather stodgey for my tastes, the in's and out's of high level classification are clearly his professional passion. I found these sections heavy going as we got further and further into the clades. Fine if you like that sort of thing.

Fascinating to me and broached well enough here, amongst other aspects, is the epic grandeur of the conifers' stately progress around the world during the last two hundred million years. Their heyday was clearly in the Jurassic and Cretaceous 'hot-house' world, even though today's conifers can cheerfully hack the coldest weather, i.e. the firs and larches and spruces. Farjon makes an interesting case for there having been only a relatively recent decline in diversity through the conifer ranks, but compared with the upstart angiosperms with their fancy flowers and ribald genetics, there's good reason to treasure what remains of the gymnosperms.

And don't you go thinking that Redwoods and Monkey Puzzles are out of place here in old Blighty; over the millenia they've swept their way magnificently around the hemispheres - they'd just temporarily ended up in the Americas. It's sad to have to accept that several conifer genera now only sport one single surviving member, usually washed up in some out-of-the-way spot (mountaintop Asia, or by the coast on a Gondwanan shore - Chile, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Australia) and clinging on bravely through thick and thin.

Thick - being of course - us.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  9 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Book Worthy of its Subject But Somewhat Flawed 29 Aug 2008
By Ronald M. Lanner - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book has a lot going for it. The author has been most recently head of the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and has had a front-row seat as a conifer taxonomist during the development of three key disciplines of the last few decades: molecular genetics, cladistic analysis, and earth history. Unlike many taxonomists he glories in making extensive field trips throughout the conifer world, for business and pleasure. His writing style is generally clear and engaging, and occasionally hits some very high notes. And he is a good photographer and a talented botanical artist. Thus he has created a modern treatment of the conifers that would have been impossible just a few years ago, and he has imbued it with deep concern for the biodiversity of the order Coniferales and the preservation of rare and endangered species. He interprets "natural history" broadly and is free to inquire into any aspect of conifer lore, from evolution to forest products. Surely this book will accomplish the author's goal of bringing more respect to these tribes of trees that are major parts of the silva in both hemispheres.
There is a wealth of fascinating information here, and the author is an affable guide taking us along on numerous exciting quests. The stories of discovery of new-to-science conifers like Wollemia and Xanthocyparis add spice to the overall conifer story, as do travels to New Caledonia and other venues of remarkable trees. But not everything is equally well done. Some chapters are densely academic, heavy going for amateurs lacking technical credentials. A preoccupation with numerical measures of diversity, and an emphasis on extinct groups may not appeal to many.
Mistakes or faux pas are fairly common, and range from the trivial to the profound. A few examples: use of the term "appendices" where American English would use "appendages" (with neither term in the too-skimpy glossary)adds puzzlement to an already dense anatomical discussion of cone structure; reference to a 3600+ year-old Utah juniper known since 1956 to be less than half that age; numerous fine botanical drawings whose plant parts are unlabeled and lack scales (i.e. "X 2"); a dismissal of the possible evolutionary importance of hybridization in conifers despite its commonness in pines and firs; an equally abrupt dismissal of the idea of reticulate evolution, an area of active research; a weak treatment of mycorrhizae which does not mention the profoundly different types found in Pinaceae vs. Cupressaceae -- surprising for a taxonomist; a description of the mutualism of nutcrackers and white pines with several material factual errors; a statement that bark beetles invade the cambium, while they actually invade the phloem; omitting windborne soil particles from the ingredients of "canopy soil", which accumulates in branch crotches and sustains epiphytes; attributing clones of Pinus pumila to shoots sprouting from the roots whereas it is due to rooting of branches in contact with the ground. The author is often on shaky ground writing about wood. For example, he errs in stating that Great Basin bristlecone pine "has some of the densest and hardest of all woods", or that sugar pine and western white pines are "nonresinous", or that wood of Cupressaceae is "more fibrous" than that of Pinaceae (he must mean finer-grained), or that hollow trees grow new wood on the inside as well as the outside of the trunk. The fleshy fruits of Torreya are labeled as "seeds" in a photograph. Though geography seems one of his strong suits, the author writes incorrectly that Port-Orford-Cedar "is restricted to mountains on the border between California and Oregon". He states twice that California's only Taxaceae species is Torreya californica, overlooking Taxus brevifolia. In cataloging that state's biodiversity he claims 22 pines. In my book Conifers of CaliforniaConifers of California, I list 18 pines (including P. washoensis, around which there is some controversy)plus one pinyon pine hybrid. I cannot quite see where 4 more species have immigrated to this state.
The book's index is not as lengthy and inclusive as a book of this scope deserves. You will not find cambium, seeds, rust diseases, roots, or many other terms to take you to useful information.
Even more grievous, however, is the very skimpy bibliography. The purpose of this book is to make available much of what has been learned about conifers in recent decades, and a reader should be able to follow up some of the many leads provided here.Yet the bibliography lists a mere 52 items. Ten of these are the author's own previous works and 16 are on paleobotanical topics. Nine are general biological works or are about other plants than conifers. Why does this matter?
Well, take for example the author's statement that drooping pine needles may be an adaptation to protect them from dwarfmistletoe infection. He gives no indication whether this is his idea, or the result of someone's research. If you want more on this, you cannot get help from the literature list. This is true of many speculations, possible matters-of-fact, and arguments made throughout the text. The feeble bibliography not only leaves much of the text unsupported, but impedes readers from further pursuit. Besides, it would have been a simple matter to list the most useful 100 conifer books as a special feature, tying this new volume to the historical development of conifer science.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I wanted to like this book more than I did. 11 Jan 2009
By James Philipp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book fills a gap in the popular literature on conifers: there's really a strong need for a comprehensive review of the natural history of conifers. But if that's what you are looking for, you will be disappointed here. Still, this volume has some strengths.

Some of the high points of this text: (1) There a many photos of species where it is difficult to find good photographs; most notably of the Southern hemisphere species. It is almost worth keeping the book on my shelves just for the "tree porn". (2) Again, it is really the Southern species where this book really provides new details. If you are looking for a work that discusses the new finds in Indo-China or New Caledonia this is a book not to be missed.

Where I was disappointed: (1) Most notably, this book is in dire need of editorial coherence. It reads mostly like a collection of magazine articles that have been very lightly reshaped into a thematic structure. This book really would have benefited from a more disciplined analytic structure. (2) I really wanted to see more sustained discussion of the evolutionary linkages of the conifers--especially in reference to Northern hemisphere species. There's bits and pieces here (even chapters with titles that look like they will provide the sustained analysis that I'm looking for) but the discussions are just so scattered as to be frustrating.

In short, this is the type of book that you can open up at almost any point and start reading--and that's not necessarily a good thing. Again, I really wanted to like this book more than I did.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Timber Press and Farjon hit a home run... 20 May 2008
By Kirby Adams - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I'm not sure how to review this book without resorting to tired clichés like "a masterpiece" or "the bible of conifer natural histories." This book just happens to be the prefect example of everything popular science writing should be.

Farjon doesn't dumb down the science and doesn't apologize for it (excepting a brief mea culpa in the preface, which also includes Farjon's philosophy on the craft of writing popular science, so don't skip the preface!) Any botanist will enjoy this book just as much as an amateur ecologist, weekend hiker, or little old lady in suburbia with pine trees in her yard. The scientists will find many morsels to whet the appetite for further study while the amateur will walk through a door to the wonders of conifer natural history, perhaps referring back to the book after every new hike through the woods.

There are 34 chapters - some of them as short as just a couple pages. This brevity makes the text an easy, casual read. Each chapter is headed with an anecdote from the author's life or human history. The first 20 or so chapters deal with the typical science common to any natural history - evolution, physiology, systematic, ecology. There follows a section on geography (often lacking in popular works), then several chapters about human interaction with conifers which segues nicely into the final section about conservation. A glossary and a reference section close the book. As I desperately try to find something negative to say here, I guess I wished only that the references would have been more numerous, but that is truly a nit-picky complaint.

Timber Press did their usual bang-up job of production with gr eat binding and paper, beautiful jacket, and stunning photos. The two-page spreads introducing the main sections are the stuff of a coffee table book. The rest of the book is not cluttered, yet hardly a page goes by without a color photo or some sort of eye candy. It really does seem like a coffee table book, but with meat instead of the usual fluff in the text.

Enough gushing! Buy the book and see for yourself!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars paleobotanic 9 Jan 2010
By Green Man - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bought this book through my interest in paleobotany.I have read Beck's classic on gymnosperm evolution so this did not add much from this point of view nor fossil wise.But I was fascinated by the use of pylogeny and morphology as against pure genetic studies which rule the day elsewhere.In conifers they just have not worked as yet!And perhaps this is a good thing.More and more botanists are criticising the laborotory pundits who don't even know what the plant they are studying the genes of looks like!Field work like that of the author is very impressive and was in days gone by ,de riguer!So much can be gleaned from the simple contact with the plants.Touch and observation are far from obsolete.
I would like to have known a bit more about araucariaceae in the nothern hemisphere continent of Laurasia.We are not told that it was a species close to Araucaria heterophylla that occured in this area.Any others?Wollemia,Agathis?
But otherwise an excellent book written with and from great passion!
A few spelling mistakes though which is most unlike this publisher.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars recommended 15 July 2008
By P. van Rijckevorsel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As we have become accustomed to from Timber Press, this is a very well-printed book, on glossy paper, with an immaculate layout. Illustrations are excellent and are of three kinds: mainly 1) color photographs and 2) line-drawings but with the occasional 3) SEM B&W photograph. Most of the illustrations were made by the author, but some have been contributed by other experts (for instance, some of the line-drawings have been borrowed from van Pelt's book).

Obviously, the author is THE acknowledged expert on conifers and the text well reflects that, taking the grand view.

Two points that bothered me are the writing style, which, although accessible enough, strikes me as peculiar (at least in some spots); also the chapter on wood is clearly written by the conifer expert making notes, without a real understanding of this rather different topic or a feel for it.

Nevertheless, this is book is great value for money.
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