Here’s a fantastic book you’ll find hard to put down – if you can pick it up: The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants (2nd edition; DK Publishing) is a massive piece of work, both in content and bulk. This most recent version of the well-received 1997 first edition was assembled by two distinguished horticulturists: the late Dr. H. Marc Cathey, president emeritus of the American Horticultural Society and Christopher Brickell, past director of the Royal Horticultural Society and the International Society for Horticultural Science.

The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants cover

This gardening encyclopedia is packed with essential information for gardeners of all skill levels.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

The American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants inside

6,000 color plates adequately illustrate the flora.

Photo Credit: David L. Morgan

At first blush, you might envision A-Z as a coffee-table book. (Or, considering its size, a coffee table itself.) Don’t be misled; look more closely. It’s truly a plant encyclopedia of the first order.

We often expect encyclopedias to tell us everything about, well, everything. And in my work as a horticultural editor/writer and teacher, my only recourse to learning more about a taxon would be from a flora, one of those obscure catalogs of information (often in Latin) found in selected libraries. (Even the hallowed Internet sometimes fails us here. I expect that you’d tire of searching online endlessly for answers you might otherwise find in a singular volume.)

Up until now, my standard reference had been the well-worthy Index of Garden Plants (Timber Press), a publication of merit by the Royal Horticultural Society. But my eyes grow weary of squinting at the book’s small type as I work into the evening. A-Z’s 6,000 or so color plates bring its letters to life. Plus, the typographers selected an old eye-friendly font and spaced the lines nicely. You’ll notice some attractive extras, too – like marginal alphabetical markers and symbols that guide your eye across the pages.

But the real value of the A-Z is its extant content.

A-Z is easy to use. Forget about having to hunt down plant families and other artificial taxonomic discriminations (trees, shrubs, vines…); instead, just look up your plant by genus. Don’t know the genus? Consult the Common Name Index on page 1,082. (And you can still find out what you need to know about trees, shrubs and vines in dedicated sections.)

There’s also an adequate discussion about plant hardiness (pages 18-19). And if you really want to learn about plant survival, you can check out the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map and the AHS Plant Heat Zone Map, both of which are found in full color in double-page spreads.

A-Z is a weighty book, no doubt, of heroic dimensions: 11½ by 9¼ on its face and 1,102 pages, tipping the scales at over 10 pounds. You’ll probably need a special place for it, but it’s a special book indeed – one I think you’ll find essential in your horticultural library and adventures.