Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs


Dirr This book is being hailed as the "horticultural publishing event of the year" and that's probably no exaggeration. Professor Michael A. Dirr is THE MAN when it comes to woody plants.  And I agree with all the blurbs – that this 951-page Bible of woody plants is a "trove of beauty and substance", "a photographic tour-de-force", "the ultimate reference", "smart, opinionated, comprehensive, wonderful" – all true! 

So put this on your Christmas wish list – or any occasion that applies – because at $80*, you probably won't buy it for yourself but you'll love owning it, as I do. You'll spend hours poring over its 3,500 photos and the highly readable text, which is not just exhaustive but best of all, opinionated!

Some favorite bits

Dirr tells you the real deal, not marketing BS, like which plants are disappointments.  And he tells you where native plants are native to. (That shouldn't be a rarity but it sure is.)

This comment about Japanese privet: "Can be prunend into any shape and often is, to the limits of demented imaginations."  And about azaleas Dirr concedes that in flower they "wow" but rightly complains that afterwards, they "beg for attention," and suggests that other shrubs offer far more.  I'll say.  And even though I love old-fashioned weigelas, I don't mind Dirr calling them downright "ugly" because he's also grown to like some of the newer cultivars.

Dirr talked me into buying some Eastern redbuds and Abelias for my next garden, and has me lusting for a dozen more I'm hoping I'll have room for.

Surprisingly, this reference book contains little details that bring it down to human scale, like the photos of IMG_0378 Dirr's gardens.  Even more affecting, Dirr writes in the introduction about moving with his beloved wife Bonnie to Chapel Hill to be near their daughter while she was undergoing medical treatment, and how they "found inner peace with each other and in the garden" after her death.  Here's a photo I snapped of the Dirrs in D.C. last year after his talk to the ASLA annual conference, where he was treated as quite the rock star.

I love that 3,700 species and cultivars are covered in the book, in Dirr's comprehensive way.  He even took all of the 3,500 photos. This is his life's work, and we all benefit from it.

Suggestions for the next edition

Oh, yeah, I AM going there, picking a few nits, and why not?  In the one conversation I had with Dr. Dirr I found him to be pretty darn friendly and open to questions, especially for someone so exalted in his field. So here goes.

  • I'd love to see the listing for Japanese barberry include information about its invasiveness, and how to avoid that.  The issue is handled very helpfully for buddleias and other potential thugs, so more of that, please.
  • This book covers not just trees and shrubs but vines, too – all woodies.  Maybe they deserve a mention in the title.
  • Why no mention of the horrible performance of the grossly overused Leyland Cypress that's now so hated and being replaced en masse?  At least the ones still standing after our recent storms are being replaced.
  • Dirr recommends giving oakleaf hydrangeas "some degree of shade" in the South but here in Maryland, any afternoon sun at ALL burns their leaves to an ugly crisp. I'm just saying.
  • The common name for Actinidia arguta is listed as "bower actinidia," but what about "hardy kiwi"?

*Or $50 at Amazon.


  1. Amazon pre-order price is $50 instead of $80. I’m practically giddy with excitement….I guess I know what my winter time reading will be!

  2. He’s on the nightstand of most Southern gardeners.

    Heard him speak at a dinner lecture almost 30 years ago. Countless times since.

    I feel fortunate to overlap in life with him. A bit like overlapping with Paxton. Not quite, but you get the point.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  3. I already own “Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs” and love it. Is this just an updated version of that? Does it offer much more to be worth the hefty purchase price?

    I’m so sorry to hear of the death of their daughter.

  4. If you don’t already own a tattered, dog-eared Manual of Woody Landscape Plants then you aren’t really serious about landscaping, and the new encyclopedia would probably be wasted upon you. Walk into a nursery with a well-use copy of Dirr’s Manual and you get instant respect, and if they do not recognize the book, then don’t walk away, run.

  5. Oddly enough, my oakleaf hydrangea can take afternoon sun just fine. Needs more water, but no burning. It’s one of my favorite shrubs for just that durableness.

    And Eastern redbuds are glorious trees! I don’t know why they aren’t more widely planted–they’re tough as nails and there’s just nothing like them when they bloom.

  6. I’d add it to my Christmas list, but I don’t think I can wait that long. Maybe I’ll get two (esp. @ that Amazon pre-order price – thanks, shira!) & give one to my brother-in-law.

  7. What has the current economy done to inter-library loan? I have used Hartmann’s Plant Propagation: Principles and Practices, now $131 at Amazon, for years without buying a copy. It has gotten to the point where the inter-library loan person just keeps it there and knows to hand it to me before I ask.

  8. Hi there, this book is an updated combination of two of Dirr’s bestselling books. I can’t tell you exactly how much is new material, but here’s a bit more information from our (Timber Press) website.

    “With Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs and Dirr’s Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates, Michael Dirr set the gold standard for horticultural reference. This season, Timber Press is proud to publish his seminal work, Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs, the most comprehensive visual reference on this important subject. A combination of Dirr’s bestselling books under one cover, adding new plants, new photographs, plus all new commentary in Dirr’s signature style, it is the bible of woody plants.”

  9. @phytophactor I do own a copy of the Manual and it has been well loved since my hort school days (with broken spine to prove it) yet I still see a place for a new Dirr in my collection. He’s a master, there is always more to learn.

  10. What? No copy to give away?

    Now here we have a book worth writing a limerick/ haiku/ tone poem for…. Just say the word…

    I too have a (very) tattered 4th Ed. copy of ” Manual ” but that wont stop me from begging for a shiny new version that includes cultivars introduced in the past 20 years. Pictures too. I drool…….

  11. Can someone supply a link to the Amazon pagewith the discount? I’m looking but can’t seem to find it.
    Many Thanks,

  12. Marie, if you go to amazon and put “Michael Dirr” in the search box, his books will come up and the pre-order offer is number two.

  13. i bought 5 Leyland Cypress at Lowe’s for $3.99 each, 1 gal. size. in 3 years they went from 1ft high to 10′ high. i live in St. Louis and i already knew that they struggle here, but i didn’t care. i needed cheap and fast screen. we have winter scorch problems here, but it sounds like by the comment in the article that the plant cracks and falls over in storms, like the dreaded Bradford Pear. i think next year i’m going to start heavily pruning them to keep them in check. yeah i should have sprung for Green Giant Arbs, but they were tooooooo expensive.

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