A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants

Frantic messages are again streaming across What’s App – ‘Do we have to know all cultivars for each fruit/veg or just one/two?’ ‘Does anyone know where I can find the model answers?’  ‘Any revision tips that are working for people?’  ‘What questions do you think we’ll get?’  The response to this last was, ‘The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) study group on Facebook has quite a good prediction spreadsheet available’.  People looked at it and decided to both take it with a pinch of salt and mug-up on alpines and aquatics.

It’s exam time again.  The last set, Principles of Plant Growth, Propagation and Development, was in February and this next set of four, Garden Planning, Establishment and Maintenance, is on 21 June.  (It’s also the day that there is a planned tube and train strike – how will I get to the exam room?)

I learned in April that I’d passed the four I sat in February – the certificate arrived today (13 June).  It’s given me a bit of a boost as I struggle with the plant names in various groups – Alpines, aquatic, hardy annuals, half-hardy annuals, herbaceous perennials, trees and shrubs (evergreen and deciduous), and then the fruit and veg names.

To help on this I bought the massive RHS Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants that I saw in a second-hand bookshop a couple of weeks ago. It was a bargain at £6.00. It’s the Bible our lecturer refers us to and, like the huge Bibles some churches have, would be better on its own lectern.  It’s got the moral tone and the gravity of the Bible.  It’s for a real horticulturalist. 

Some stats on it:   It weighs almost 5 kilos – I know because I weighed it.   We thought of entering it in the ‘guess the weight’ competition at the local Jubilee fete the other week.   Its 1079 pages hold ‘over 15,000 plants and 6,000 photographs’.   The first 54 pages are horticultural information – hardiness, plant problems, pruning, etc.   My entire course curriculum, in fact.  I wonder now, why I paid £750 for the course when everything is covered in this £6 book?

The book opens, helpfully, with a section ‘How to use the encyclopedia’.  The plants are listed by their botanical (Latin) names within their genus, and ‘both endpapers feature a visual key to terms and concepts used in the plant entries’.   I’d never heard of either the first plant entry, Abelia – a genus of about 30 evergreen and deciduous shrubs, or the last, Zizania – a marginal aquatic grass.

Oddly, it’s not the wonderful study aid I imagined as I lugged it from the shop home.  I feel out of my depth turning its pages.    It’s more a reminder of all the plant names I don’t know.  It’s similar to the moral instruction and cautionary parables in the Bible.  They seem to draw attention to one’s shortcomings, and the impossibility of ever achieving personality perfection.  

I discovered that the 4th edition (2016) has ‘an additional 5000 plants’.  Mine is the first edition (1996) so are there 5000 plants added per edition, I wonder?  If so, and assuming that there’s another edition in the works, it looks as if the fifth edition may well run to two volumes.

Apart from the anxiety of finding out there are so many plant names – I’m having trouble learning the 150 so we have to commit to memory and not just their names but their hardiness, height and spread and ‘decorative merits’ – there are other issues I’ve found in revising from the 1996 edition:

  • In 2012 (after my edition was published) hardiness ratings changed in order to give gardeners a clearer idea of the temperatures specific plants can tolerate.  A seven-rating system replaced the four-step scale, which was developed in the 1960s.  At the time of its introduction, the RHS said ‘Recent climate changes and fluctuating temperatures have made it even more important for gardeners to choose the right plants for their conditions. The original rating system served us well, but we have felt for some time that it doesn’t provide enough detail on degrees of hardiness. Today’s gardeners are much more aware of changes in the climate and are looking for more information.’
  • Peat, being applauded as an essential garden growing medium in 1996, has moved into the ‘must avoid use’ box.  The RHS now ‘wants to be a catalyst for change towards peat-free gardening … we aim to be 100% peat free in all our operations by 2025.’  Anyone who gardens with peat has, at worst, become a target for opprobrium and (better) been recommended re-education on the benefits peat-free gardening will bring to the wider environments.  We are told, ‘Peatlands are the world’s largest carbon store on land. These natural boggy areas provide valuable ecosystems for both plants and animals. When we take peat for our gardens, carbon emissions are released and habitats are damaged. … Keeping peat in bogs – and not in bags – is a crucial part of the fight against climate change.’
  • Similarly, pests – which in 1996 were being annihilated by all manner of chemicals (several now banned) are being given a make-over.  The June 2022 issue of the RHS mag, The Garden, says ‘slugs and snails are no longer to be automatically classed as pests by the RHS … aphids, vine weevils and large white butterfly caterpillars are included too.’ Instead of the word ‘pest’ they are going to say ‘a population of invertebrates that attracts beneficial predatory creatures as part of a healthy and balanced garden ecosystem’.
  • Some plant names have been ‘reassigned’ and now belong to a different genus. Although there are others, the only one I remember and have learned for the exam is rosemary.  The RHS, explains as follows: ‘The popular evergreen shrub and herb rosemary recently underwent a name change as genetic science more accurately identifies its relationships. At a meeting in 2019, members of the RHS Nomenclature and Taxonomy Advisory Group accepted the move to absorb Rosmarinus into the genus Salvia.’  I can’t find a list of name changes between 1996 and now – please send if you have one.

The Encyclopedia is daunting in its scope and magnitude, and is out of date in some aspects.  Even so, it’s mesmerising and compulsive.  It’s the old-fashioned equivalent of web surfing.  As I look for info on a specific plant – yesterday heuchera – I find soon as I turn to one page I get drawn into the next.   The pictures are wonderful, the information is detailed enough to satisfy examiners – if only I could remember it.  I read a review of the fourth edition – as I said, mine is the first edition – and the reviewer talks about the joys of skimming it.  He says,  ‘This book is the ideal Christmas present without doubt.  It is in that category of gifts for gardeners that actually would be welcomed by a gardener.’   I agree with him. My 1996 first edition of the encyclopedia was £6.00 well spent. 

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