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What's that Tree?

Cover of the book WHAT A GOOD BOOK this is. It is useful, well-illustrated and largely lacking in pretension. For the average man on the street it offers a whole new perspective on the world of plants. There you are, a long term resident of Chiang Mai, walking along with your newly arrived friend from foreign shores. "What's that tree?", she asks. "I don't know.", you reply. And the truth is that you don't. The tropics are vastly rich in their flora and the "If it isn't an oak its probably a pine" style of botany won't get you very far.

For those who are genuinely interested in local flora, but who lack the training of the classical botanist, most reference works are of little use. They require at least a basic grounding in the family groupings of plants which, just like human families, don't necessarily follow the old "If his father's a blacksmith then he probably is too" rule.

This work, painstakingly compiled by David Engel (who is pointing to a BAAN-BUREE (Allamanda cathartica).and beware this is poisonous if ingested!!) and Suchart Phummai, tries its very best to make plant-spotting as easy as falling off a log, or as the Thai so charmingly put it "as easy as peeling a banana". From the start the text tries to help the greenhorn in the plant world understand the erudite terminology that botanists spout at each other with such ease. These words are actually very useful labor-saving devices if you understand them, and the authors have done a pretty thorough job - not perfect - who knows that tomentose means hairy anyway? - certainly not my computer's spelling check - but the search for perfection is the route to failure. These authors most surely have not failed.

Most trees are most readily identified by the layman by size, leaf, fruit and flower, instantly recognizable characteristics that don't depend on relationships back in the days of the dinosaurs that can now only be determined by analyzing the cytochrome that each plant contains. This book tries its very best to direct you quickly and efficiently to the section you require without first having to ascertain that it is a member of the Euphorbiaceae.

Where possible each entry has details about the tree's particular habits (when it flowers, for example) that might make it even easier to identify. Also notes are given on pharmacological or medicinal uses of parts of the plant which help the outsider to understand its retention by communities when other trees are wantonly felled. There is also ample information about vernacular names for each plant in a range of Asian countries.

There are those who might suggest that this a must-have on the coffee tables of Southeast Asia. It is not. It lacks the hard cover and slick presentation for that, thank goodness. But it is a valuable reference work, well illustrated and tersely written, and deserves a place on any thinking man or woman's bookshelf. It will certainly be on mine.

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