Nature Book Review #4: Lichens of North America

December 29, 2008

Fourth in an occasional series of natural history book reviews.  Books reviewed here can be purchased through by following the links from my Southern Arizona Desert Botany homepage.

LICHENS OF NORTH AMERICA, by Irwin M. Brodo, Sylvia Duran Sharnoff, and Stephen Sharnoff.  2001, Yale University Press, 828 pages, hardbound.

This is certainly one of the most beautiful and ambitious natural history books ever published.  Printed on smooth, sturdy paper and lavishly illustrated with hundreds of stunning photos, the “Big Book” is an important addition to any naturalist’s library.   It contains keys, descriptions, and spectacular photos for about a third of U.S. lichen species.  The introductory material stands alone as a significant up-to-date work on lichen natural history, and includes detailed background information on lichen biology, chemistry, ecology, and a fascinating and useful section on geographic distribution.  The text is carefully prepared, well organized, and very readable.  It is designed to reach the broadest possible audience, from professional  scientists to beginning naturalists, and succeeds very well.  This is a wonderful browsing book for the armchair naturalist, a useful and informative guide for lichen enthusiasts of all levels, and an inspiration for nature photographers. 

The book is dedicated to the late Mason E. Hale, the American lichenologist who wrote How to Know the Lichens, which was the first detailed guide to American lichens that was written for the general public.  Dr. Hale bought and autographed a copy for me in 1984, when I worked for a summer as his intern at the Smithsonian Institution’s Botany Department.  It’s a spiralbound paperback, filled with meticulously detailed keys and descriptions, and illustrated with very high quality black and white photos and line drawings.  Despite the huge difference in size, Lichens of North America borrows several design elements from its predecessor, including the square page format, the colors used for the cover art, and the font style  used for the title – a respectful yet whimsical touch.  For comparison, both books are shown in the photo.

Lichen Books

Lichen Books

A photo gallery and other information is available at the book’s website:


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