Book Review – The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants

Book Review – The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants

The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants 

By Neil Diboll & Hilary Cox 

  • Publisher: ‎University of Chicago Press, 2023 
  • Paperback‏:‎ 644 pages 
  • ISBN-10: 022680593X 
  • Dimensions: 6” X 9” 
  • Price: $47.31 (; $34.99 (Kindle only – 

As both a gardener and a bibliophile, I splurged to buy this book (over $50 with tax here in Canada) because it sounded like an awesome guide to native plants, even if it was for a region slightly west of where I am in southern Ontario. And as a book collector (some might say hoarder) I have lots of books on my shelf that I seldom open after the initial reading.  Was it worth the money? Yes and No.  

In the Introduction, the authors state that it is “intended for use by both gardeners and professionals”. I would argue that it would make an awesome textbook for a college or university level course on prairie restoration. And though it does have considerable merit for the native plant gardener – there ARE a lot of things to like about this book, after all – there are also a few things that I find frustrating or questionable. 

What I Liked 

For starters, The Gardener’s Guide to Prairie Plants is a very well produced volume from the University of Chicago Press with excellent quality paper and a sewn, rather than glued, binding so it should be extremely durable. It’s a hefty volume – well over 600 pages long. (Out of curiosity I stuck it on my kitchen scales and it weighed in at almost 3 lbs – you’ll not likely carry this around on your next trip to the garden center!) 

The book contains your typical introduction that you find in this genre with chapters on how to use the book (including a section on the use of scientific names), the ecology of prairie, understanding your soil, and on designing, planting and maintaining a prairie garden. The chapters on ecology and soil are very typical of a school textbook with some good science written in an understandable way. The chapter on designing, planting and maintenance of prairie gardens is more geared to the average home gardener and offers lots of useful tidbits, such as why using cocoa bean hulls as mulch isn’t such a great idea (they can be toxic to pets). 

Chapter 5, entitled “Prairie Species Field Guide”, is where the meat of the book begins. This section covers 148 species of prairie plants – chosen, for the most part, because they are commonly used in gardens, though the authors do include a few that are less common which they think should be in our gardens, too.  

This “Field Guide” is, in my opinion, the best part of the book from a gardener’s perspective. For each plant the book is divided into two facing pages – on the first page the authors provide the scientific name, followed by one or two common names, and the family to which the plant belongs. This is immediately followed by three or four sentences about the plant. 

The rest of the page consists primarily of bullet points covering topics such as habitat; uses in the garden; USDA Hardiness Zone; soil, moisture and light requirements; size and flower colour; aggressiveness; and even a brief note on propagation. It then lists a few bullet points on distinguishing characteristics, and finally, at the bottom of the page, it includes a map of the plant’s range in the US and the southern edge of Canada (more about the range maps later). 

The second page consists primarily of photos. This is another unique and commendable inclusion in the book. So many native plant gardening books show a picture of a flower, or of the plant in situ, and a couple even show a photo of a seedling. But this book shows all of these, plus a picture of the seedhead, of a leaf, and of an emerging mature plant. At the bottom of the page is a paragraph identifying look-alike plants. All extremely useful for both new and experienced native plant gardeners alike. 

The next 45 or so pages (Chapters 6 & 7) cover establishing and maintaining a prairie meadow. This section seems more geared to land restoration folks than your average native plant gardener. It’s interesting, but to a home gardener not all that relevant. 

Chapter 8 is all about collecting seeds and propagating plants from those seeds. Chapter 9 covers propagating plants vegetatively. Both chapters would be useful for all intended audiences. 

The Parts I Was Less Thrilled About 

Up to this point we have covered just over 400 of the 644 pages. If they had stopped here, it would have been a great tool for gardeners, but MOST (not all) of the rest of the book seems far more appropriate for a college textbook or a landscape restoration manual than a Gardener’s Guide.  

Chapter 10 devotes over 30 pages to ‘The Prairie Food Web’, from pollinators up through the web to rattlesnakes and bison (even though it might be exciting to see a bison in my garden, I think it is pretty unlikely to happen in my fenced-in suburban yard). 

The next almost 200 pages are dedicated to tables. Lots and lots of tables with lots of cool information – from a purely academic standpoint, anyway – but overkill to say the least. If you can quantify it, there’s probably a table here for it. Everything from prairie seed mixes to tables on plant characteristics, on wildlife attracted, on aggressiveness of the plants, etc., etc. These tables provide a wealth of information for landscape restorers, but the font is small and the tables span multiple pages making them difficult to read. I’m not sure how many gardeners would take the time to find what they’re looking for in the tables. Most of the relevant information is already, or could easily be, incorporated into the plant descriptions in Chapter 5. Chapter 11 (Seed Mixes) consists of 12 tables spread over 34 pages while Chapter 5, simply called Tables, has 30 tables spread across 142 pages. 

Almost 200 pages of tightly packed tables make up almost 1/3 of the book.

The second issue I have with the book is the way the plants are organized. I do like that the plants are listed in alphabetic order by scientific name, but they are subdivided first into Monocots, Dicots, and Grasses & Sedges and then further subdivided by family. How many home gardeners are going to know if the plant they are looking for is a monocot or a dicot or if it is Asteraceae or Fabaceae. How many will even care. Include this information on the plant page if it’s that important, but don’t divide the book into these sections. It just takes that much longer to find the plant you’re looking for.  

The only other beef I have about the book is about the range maps. The maps are simply reproductions of the Biota of North America Program (BONAP) maps available on the BONAP website. These maps are pretty useful – if you live in the US – because they show plant presence on a county basis. In Canada, they only work at a provincial level which is next to useless if I want to know if a plant is actually native to where I live. And, like the complaint I have with so many American publications, the map only covers as much of Canada as is needed to capture the lower 48 states in one image. My research shows that there are more nurseries and garden centers promoting and selling native plants in southern Ontario alone than in any state in the US. We are a big market for native plant gardeners. 

The other complaint I have about the BONAP maps is the lack of clarity about what the colour coding actually means. The legend indicates that the light green represents “Species present and not rare” – but “present’ and “native” aren’t necessarily the same thing. Another shade of green (very similar to the first one) indicates “Species native, but adventive in state”.  Adventive, by definition, means “not native” (, or “introduced to a new area and not yet established there; exotic” (Collins Dictionary). How can it be both native and exotic? Some time ago I reached out to BONAP to get clarification on the definitions but was no further ahead after getting a response.  

What’s worse, the book doesn’t even include a legend to explain the colour coding for anyone not familiar with the maps, nor did I find any reference to the source of the maps to acknowledge where they came from or to allow the reader to look up the map themselves.   

And the reproduction of the maps leaves something to be desired. By necessity they are small. Which means it is extremely difficult to differentiate the shades of green. For example, in the images below I have the original BONAP map for Silphium perfoliatum (Cup Plant) and I have circled those counties where it indicates “adventive”. Beside it is the same map from the book. Your eyes are a lot better than mine if you can differentiate the shades of green. And it is important to do so because Cup Plant is not native to New York state and is actually considered invasive there – it is illegal to sell or to grow it for sale in that state.  

Range maps, like the ones in Flore printaniére by Gisèle Lamoreux (published by Fleurbec in Quebec, Canada) would have been much more useful. 


Overall, this is a beautiful but pricey book. The “Field Guide” portion in the middle, with better range maps, would have made an excellent gardener’s guide on its own, and the resulting smaller volume would have made it more affordable to non-professionals. And because I have lots of books on my shelf that I have only read once, one more isn’t going to hurt so I will keep it. But whether you think it’s worth the price will depend on your book budget. 

Happy Native Plant Gardening. 


© The Native Plant Gardener 2023 

Book Review: Latin for Gardeners

Book Review: Latin for Gardeners

Book Review 4 – Latin for Gardeners 

I thought I’d approach this book review a little differently. For those who struggle with the botanical names for plants, I’m going to give you some suggestions for useful books and provide some comparisons to help you decide which one (or ones) you might want to acquire.  

A Portable Latin for Gardeners: More than 1500 Essential Plant Names and the Secrets They Contain 

By James Armitage 

  • Publisher: ‎ University of Chicago Press, 2017 
  • Paperback‏:‎ 160 pages 
  • ISBN-10: ‏ 9780226455365 
  • Dimensions: 7.7” X 5.7” 
  • Price: $23.27 (; $18.00 ( 


Latin for Gardeners: Over 3,000 Plant Names Explained and Explored 

By Lorraine Harrison 

  • Publisher: ‎ University of Chicago Press, 2012 
  • Paperback‏:‎ 224 pages 
  • ISBN-10: 022600919X 
  • Dimensions: 6.4” X 9.1” 
  • Price: $31.94 (; $25.00 ( – hardcover 

Either of these books would be a great addition to your library. Although written by different authors 5 years apart, they were both published by University of Chicago Press and so they are very similar in content and layout. 

Of the two, I prefer the second one, even though it’s a bit pricier. Not only does it contain twice as many terms, but it is hardcover and comes with a ribbon attached to the spine that can be used as a bookmark. The Portable Latin also has a built-in bookmarker, but it is an elastic attached to the back cover that, although it does the job, is not as easy to use. It is a very sturdy cover, for a paperback, and seems very well constructed and durable. 

Both books are beautifully illustrated with artistic renderings of plants, and the larger Latin for Gardeners also contains one- and two-page inserts throughout that highlight various genera of plants (20 of them), discuss the people who hunted for and discovered plants (10 of them), and other, assorted “Plant Themes” (7 of them). It also has a number of ¼ page inserts, titled Latin in Action, that include a drawing of a plant and discuss some of its attributes or how it can be used in the garden. 

The terms listed in Latin for Gardeners are listed in alphabetic order, from “a-“ (used in compound words to denote without or contrary to) to “zonatus” (with bands, often colored, as in Cryptanthus zonatus). The Portable Latin breaks the book down into sections based on the characteristics the terms refer to, then lists the terms in alphabetic order within each section. This necessitates the use of an index to find words, but it also makes for a much more interesting read, and in some ways, more educational and informative. 

The sections in A Portable Latin are “Color”, “Plant Form”, “Features of Plants”, “Comparisons”, “Places and People”, and “Ideas, Associations, and Properties”. Within each of these categories are subcategories. For example, the section “Color” is further divided into “Light Colors” (e.g. albiflorus, albiflora, albiflorum With white flowers, as in Buddleja albiflora), “Bright Colors” (e.g. fucatus, fucata, fucatum Painted; dyed, as in Crocosmia fucata) and “Dark Colors and Multicolors” (e.g. purpurascens Becoming purple, as in Clianthus purpurascens). 

Both books will help you better understand the botanical names that we often struggle with. And even though 3,000 terms seems like a lot, there are many terms I encounter regularly when working with native plants that don’t show up in either book, such as oolentangiense (as in Symphyotrichum oolentangiense, Sky Blue Aster) or prinoides (as in Quercus prinoides, Dwarf Chinquapin Oak). 

A similar book that just arrived in the mail this week (I found a good used copy online through Thrift Books in the US for under $8) is  

A Gardener’s Handbook of Plant Names: Their Meanings and Origins 

By A. W. Smith 

  • Publisher: ‎ Dover Publications, 1997 (reprint of original 1963 version)  
  • Paperback‏:‎ 448 pages 
  • ISBN-10: 0486297152 
  • Dimensions: 5.4” X 8.54” 
  • Price: $25.12 (; $16.68 ( 

This book contains no pictures of any kind, but it has a lot more terms defined than the other two (alas, it doesn’t include oolentangiense or prinoides, either). In my research for this review, I couldn’t find out exactly how many terms, but it does include some other interesting things, as well. One of these is a table of 1800 common plant names and their corresponding botanical ones. Whereas the first two books only list terms that are used in the specific epithet (species name), this book also includes the terms used in the generic names (e.g. Asclepias for milkweed). It also gives a much more detailed description of how the Latinized words are used and pronounced for botanical names, and points out some of the exceptions that tend to throw us for a loop when we think we finally have it figured out.  

Any of these books would be useful, and it depends on what you are looking for. The artwork in the first two books make them wonderful books just to read through, but the dictionary-like structure of the third one, as well as the extra information contained within it, makes the third book a bit more practical.  

Or, you could do like I did, and get all three. 

Happy native plant gardening. 

A Garden for the Rusty-patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators 

A Garden for the Rusty-patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators 

A Garden for the Rusty-patched Bumblebee: Creating Habitat for Native Pollinators 

By Lorraine Johnson and Sheila Colla with illustrations by Ann Sanderson 

  • Publisher: ‎Douglas & McIntyre, 2022 
  • Paperback‏:‎ 256 pages 
  • ISBN-10: ‏ 1771623233 
  • Dimensions: 7.9” X 9.2” 
  • Price: $22.95 (; (currently not available on 

I am a long-time fan of Lorraine Johnson’s native plant gardening books. 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens, Grow Wild: Native-Plant Gardening in Canada and Northern United States, and The New Ontario Naturalized Garden are some of the first books I bought on the topic when I started down the path of growing native plants. All of those books were informative and helpful on my journey. However, A Garden for the Rusty-patched Bumblebee is a giant step up from those, in my opinion.  

First off, in the introductory chapters, the authors carefully build the argument for growing native plants in our gardens and they tackle the sometimes contentious issues of cultivars, raising honeybees, and the myth of the value of city green-spaces (at least as they are currently manifested). They share important information on the differences between many of our pollinators – solitary bees, bumblebees, various specialist bees and their critical needs, as well as on other insects that are pollinators. They also discuss the reasons why we need to “leave the leaves” and otherwise ensure that these pollinators, be they bees, moths, butterflies or beetles, have suitable overwintering habitat. 

But what I like best are the plant descriptions. These are placed in alphabetic order by scientific name (which, if you’ve read any of my blog articles, you’ll know I’m adamant about) and divided into season of blooming (spring, summer, fall). Each plant description includes height, colour, growing needs, and a short blurb about the plant. I especially like the “Specialist relationships” and “Good companions” sections for the plants. And each plant has either a photograph or one of Ann Sanderson’s beautiful and accurate drawings. 

But our perennial herbaceous flowers aren’t the only things that need pollinators and vice-versa. So there is a section on Grasses and Sedges that are important food sources for many pollinating insects, and there is also a section on Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines. 

The book then wraps up with a discussion of rain gardens, boulevard gardens, some sample garden designs, and a list of resources.  

As the current native plant “guru”, Dr. Douglas Tallamy, stated in a recent webinar (I’m paraphrasing here) – if you only buy one book on native plant gardening, this is all you’ll need. 

Happy native plant gardening. 

© The Native Plant Gardener 2022 

Book Review: The Northeast Native Plant Primer: 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden

The Northeast Native Plant Primer: 235 Plants for an Earth-Friendly Garden

By Uli Lorimer

  • Publisher: ‎Timber Press, 2022
  • Paperback‏:‎ 252 pages
  • ISBN-10: ‏ 1643260464
  • Dimensions: 8” X 9”
  • Price: $31.94 (; $22.46 (

A beautiful but brief synopsis of native trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, ferns, grasses, sedges and rushes suitable for gardens in the northeastern US and southeastern Canada (from the Maritimes through southern Quebec and into southern Ontario).

I’ll start by saying that the quality of the book and the images is fabulous – just what I’d expect from Timber Press. I love just looking at the pictures. Unfortunately, at least from a serious native plant gardener perspective, that’s about where it ends. Like its predecessor – The Midwest Native Plant Primer: 225 Plants for an Earth Friendly Garden by Alan Branhagen – it falls short in so many ways from becoming a truly useful book. The one MAJOR improvement over the Midwest Primer is that in this book, at least, the plants are listed in alphabetic order by scientific name. For one thing, this keeps all the similar plants (e.g. milkweeds, oak trees, etc.) together in the book. And for another, it overcomes the issue of the huge variability in common names found throughout the region.

The book starts, as this genre usually does, with an introduction covering a variety of related topics. These include such things as: the definition of a native plant, expecting and living with change as your garden evolves, straight species vs cultivars (Lorimer believes, as I do, that the straight species is always the better option), preparing the new garden bed, soils, moisture and light, etc. The intro also includes a fairly lengthy section listing the plants in the book that are hosts for various moths and butterflies and which moths and butterflies those are. Finally, the book also includes some simple icons with each plant indicating if the species is valuable for birds, pollinators, butterflies, caterpillars and/or mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

That’s what I liked about the book. Now for where I felt it let me down and could have been more useful.

It states in the intro that each profile includes information on current scientific name, common name, native habitat, height at maturity, light requirements, wildlife value and a description of the plant. It does. Sort of. The level of information is so brief, however, that I came away feeling like I needed more information. One short paragraph covers all of this info. There is little or no information on propagation, on WHERE in the northeast the plants are native to/can be grown, and even though the author talks about plant hardiness zones in the intro and even provides a chart at the back explaining how it works, none of the plant descriptions indicate the hardiness zone. Why was it brought up in the first place if you’re not going to include the information for each plant. But to me, the biggest flaw is that the book does not tell me if a plant is native to where I live or not. The Northeast covers a lot of real estate, climate zones, geological variability, soil types, etc. and there is no indication in the book as to where the plants are actually native to. It is my belief that native plant gardeners, more so than any other type, want to know if a plant is actually native to where they live. There are few other minor things (like only listing one common name for each plant) that do not really detract from the book.

All in all, it’s a beautiful book to look at, and can give you some ideas for plants you can try growing. It’s nice enough that even after my disappointment, I will be keeping in on my shelf as a handy, quick reference. But it really is just the starting point. Once you find a plant in it that you like, you’ve got a fair bit of work ahead of you before you will know if you should try growing it or not.

© The Native Plant Gardener 2022

Native Plants of the Midwest

Native Plants of the Midwest

Book Review 1

Native Plants of the Midwest: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 500 Species for the Garden

By Alan Branhagan

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Timber Press, 2016
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 440 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1604695935
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 8.5” X11”
  • Price: $44.47 (; $38.97 (

This big and beautiful text is the Midwest’s answer to Donald Leopold’s Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation (Timber Press, 2005). The large format, hardcover volume is a comprehensive encyclopedia of garden-worthy native plants of the region. Unlike Leopold’s book, this one appears to have photos of every plant listed (my one major beef with Native Plants of the Northeast). And unlike Branhagen’s other book on the topic – The Native Plant Primer (Timber Press, 2020) – this book lists species alphabetically by scientific name – a much more logical way to do it than by common name, as common names often vary from region to region.

A fairly lengthy (approximately 80 page) introduction discusses the importance of native plants in the landscape as well as in the garden, and includes chapters on plant selection and on garden design.

The book is then divided into 12 sections of “Plant Profiles” – Shade Trees, Evergreen Trees, through Shrubs and Vines to Perennials, Bulbs and finally Annuals and Biennials. He even breaks down the Perennials into Prairie, Woodland and Wetland Perennials. Most of the plant profiles contain a short paragraph (or occasionally 2 paragraphs) about the plant. It then provides a paragraph on How to Grow which describes general soil and moisture needs, another on Landscape Use and another on Ornamental Attributes. A few contain a paragraph on Related Plants as well. Each plant description includes one photo of a general characteristic – whether that be an overall view of the plant, a picture of its fruit, or a shot of the flower.

Overall this is a great book for the gardener who wants to explore the world of native plants, and as a beautiful picture book, I would give it 5 stars. But as a valuable tool for gardeners, I only give it 4 stars for one major problem that I see.

The author devotes a section in the introduction to talk about plant hardiness zones and heat zones, and then provides a table at the back of the book that defines these zones, but not one single plant description includes what zones it will grow in. The Midwest is a very large expanse of geography and climate, and there are many plants that grow in the north that won’t survive the summer heat of the south, and likewise southern plants that won’t tolerate the freezing temperatures of the northern parts of the region. In addition, soils and microclimates will further impact where the plants grew before humans began drastically modifying the landscape. Native plant gardeners, more than other gardening enthusiasts, are very interested in whether a plant is actually native to where they live. No range maps are provided. And even though the author includes a map delineating the Midwest, subdivided into ecoregions, and another that breaks the Midwest into 4 sections (Upper, Lower, Eastern and Western), there is only a very general indication in the How to Grow section of the plant descriptions as to which areas the plants were native to. I would have much preferred a clear range map for each plant.

If you’re looking for a beautiful coffee table book that will give you some ideas about native plants, this one provides a pretty comprehensive list of choices. Because of what I see as a serious flaw as far as plant ranges go, I couldn’t give it 5 stars, but I would give it a 4.5/5.

This book is available on Amazon.