Review of The Handbook of the Worlds Conifers (Volume 1 &2) by Aljos Farjon

Mark Richardson 2010

As noted on the Brill website, this newly published Handbook of the World’s Conifers departs from the traditional approach which all too frequently involves a focus on the conifers of temperate Europe and North America.  Farjon’s Handbook includes all of the world’s 615 species of conifers, of which some 200 occur in the tropics, and as such should manage to satisfy readers throughout the world.

The author, Aljos Farjon FLS, is a botanist who studied the taxonomy and ecology of conifers at the University of Utrecht, Oxford University and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.  Having retired, he is currently an Honorary Research Associate at Kew. Since 1984 he has published 10 books and 55 scientific papers on conifers.

The Handbook is a sizeable publication that is presented in two volumes (and weighing in at over 4kg it is definitely not a field guide!) 

The beginning of Volume 1 provides background on the distribution and ecology, economic importance and conservation of the world’s conifers.  It then gives a synopsis of families and genera, and a description of the taxonomic treatment of the eight families recognised by Farjos in the Handbook.

Farjon notes in the Preface that he has deliberately kept the above sections brief as he had already provided a fuller introduction to the world’s conifers in his quite recently published A Natural History of Conifers (Farjon, 2008).  He also notes that the Handbook does not attempt to describe or illustrate the approximately 15000 conifer cultivars that are only known in cultivation. 

The next section of the Handbook addresses the taxonomic treatment of genera and species, is given in a very easy to use alphabetical order and continues for the next 977 pages! Given the breadth of the plant group and the number of opinions that appear to exist about its taxonomy, it is certainly a pleasure to have a reference book of note that gives you some confidence in terms of the names you are using. Well, for now at least.

Not only does this principle section provide valuable information in terms of taxonomy but it is also an immediate and valuable source of information with regards to distribution, ecology, conservation and uses. 

The ecology data provides a good feel for the conditions in which the species naturally occurs and gives a listing of the trees growing with them.  The information given as regards both conservation and uses is extremely valuable in terms of bringing together the sort of detail that is immediately useable in the interpretation of these trees.  It is this information that is always most valued by the vast majority of visitors to any living museum and will be of great worth to anyone responsible for education or interpretation in such institutions.  It effectively pulls together the type of information that educationists are so frequently trying to source.  In addition, the Handbook’s extensive glossary is not only of considerable value to non botanical users but also ventures into a broader range of terminology used in conservation and plant usage.

As well as providing interpretative information, the conservation sections provide details on the conservation status of the conifers, the threats that are facing them and some of the actions that are being taken.  While the Handbook cannot be expected to give recovery plan detail for the world’s conifers, it does appear to provide a good summary of the current situation.

One important issue that does not seem to be addressed in descriptions is weediness.  While this could be considered as an issue that is not of importance to an individual conifer species’ conservation, conifers are proving to be of considerable concern in relation to the conservation of other species.  Pinus radiata is a good example.  Farjon notes that it is now the “most widely planted tree species in the world” but fails to note that in numerous places it has also been declared a noxious weed.  Even just having a list of all the taxa that have a recognised weediness would be valuable.  A weediness scoring similar to that used in The introduced flora of Australia and its weed status (Randall, 2007) could also be considered.  Such information needs to be viewed as being of considerable importance to people interested in introducing new species to an area.

As would be expected, the Handbook does not attempt to give illustrations of all of the taxa described, but a large number are illustrated.  The colour photographs provide close up images of the foliage and fruit of some taxa and images of habitat for others. The detailed line drawings done by Farjon again demonstrate the depth of feeling that he has for this group of plants.   

The Handbook is nothing short of a very impressive botanical publication.  It is not only of immediate value to botanists but rather to anyone with an interest in conifers and who is keen to have a way of rapidly gaining information about them.  Any institution, group or individual growing conifers as a collection for display or conservation should have a copy of Farjon’s Handbook of the World’s Conifers.

 Reference: Farjon A. (2010) The Handbook of the Worlds Conifers (Volume 1 &2) Brill