Nature Book Review #2: The Jepson Desert Manual

May 11, 2008

Second in an occasional series of natural history book reviewsBooks reviewed here can be purchased through Amazon.com by following the links from my Southern Arizona Desert Botany homepage.

The Jepson Desert Manual:  Vascular Plants of Southeastern California.  Bruce G. Baldwin, et. al, editors.  2002, University of California Press, 624 pages, softbound.

Vascular Plants of Southeastern California

I bought this book at the Joshua Tree National Park visitor center.  It was the height of spring wildflower season and I was looking forward to meeting many new Mojave Desert plants.  I already had  California Desert Wildflowers by Philip A. Munz (1962, University of California Press, 122 pages, paperbound).  It’s a very nice and useful book, but I was hoping to find something more complete.  Good botany books are difficult to find in the West.

I was delighted with The Jepson Desert Manual.  It is an interesting hybrid between a traditional botanical manual and a field guide.  It has the structure, language, and completeness of a formal botany, but descriptions are abbreviated and illustrations are stripped down to the bare essentials, creating a book that is easy to use in the field.  Unlike most popular guides, it includes ferns and grasses as well as trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.  This book is ideal for someone who has never used a botanical manual or has tried and found them frustrating.  Technical terms are limited to the most useful descriptive words, all of which are clearly defined in an excellent illustrated glossary.  A geographic discussion and detailed maps are very useful, especially for those who are unfamiliar with California.  Following a hundred-year tradition in natural history guidebooks (including the Munz guide that is this book’s ancestor), there is a central section with color plates.   The photos are of very high quality, and illustrate many of the most distinctive Mojave Desert wildflowers.

For each genus, there is a general description, a brief diagnostic key, individual species descriptions, and line drawings of one or more species.  The diagnostic keys are independent of the descriptions, so they can be used or ignored as desired.  Descriptions are quite abbreviated but do contain specific measurements, fruit characteristics, details on distribution and habitat, and other facts that are usually missing from popular guides.  My only criticism is that I would have preferred to have line illustrations for ALL plants in the book, especially in large genera with many similar species.  I don’t think this would have added many pages, especially if superfluous items were omitted (such the horticultural section, which is too generalized to be useful, and the extensive and pompous documentation on the book’s history and structure.)  The binding is fragile for a large paperback, especially for the heavy use that this one is likely to get from many readers, but it does keep the price affordable.  Overall, this is a wonderful book for botanists, land managers, serious naturalists, and California desert hikers who want something more complete and informative than most wildflower guides.  It’s also a good introduction to technical botanical manuals, encouraging the transition from “picture matching” to more formal taxonomic study.  It is a joy to use and offers a treasure trove of lore and images for this unique desert region.

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