A Botanical Translator


Botanists speak a special language, one that is frequently unintelligible to outsiders like me.  This has frustrated me at times, for instance when I’ve tried to use a botanical key or field manual to identify an unfamiliar plant.  Now, though, I’ve got expert help.

A week ago I picked up a book published last year, A Botanist’s Vocabulary written by Susan K. Pell and, crucially, illustrated by the very talented Bobbi Angell.  Angell is a botanical illustrator whose beautifully detailed and fastidiously accurate pen and ink drawings I first came across some 20 years ago at the New York Botanical Garden.

Circinate Coiled like watch springs, as with the arrangement of fern fronds in bud

Her partnership with Pell is a fortunate one.  Pell has a talent for translating botanical terms into simple, layman’s language.  When combined with Angell’s elegantly clear drawings, it is easy to understand what a botanist means by such otherwise opaque words such as “circinate”.

I intend to keep this book on my desk.  I won’t use it every day, or even every week.  But when I am baffled by some plant description, it will be there to make clear what the author meant, and what that means to me and my garden.   There are very few books that I believe are truly essential to good gardening.  I suspect, though, that this may turn out to be one of the select few.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. What a fine collaboration indeed! Both Susan and Bobbi are well-known for their professionalism and expertise to those of us who have spent time at the New York Botanical Garden over the years. This book will surely be well used by novices and experts alike.

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