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Review: What Shrub is That? (‘new’ 2014)

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

April 24, 2014

Stirling Macoboy’s seminal work What Shrub is That? first appeared 1989 and has been reprinted several times since, most recently in 2009. This ‘new’ publishing by New Holland is dated 2014, so you’d rightly expect that the book had been thoroughly revised and updated, as it suggests in the media release. Disappointingly, this is not the case.

what-shrub-is-thatMacoboy died back in 2005, requiring the book to be worked on by a someone else. Unlike What Tree Is That which was updated in 2006 by Tony Rodd, the publishing data in this book gives no clue as to who he/she or they were. Perhaps this anonymity is just as well as the book’s serious omissions, outdated information, listing of plants that are well-known environmental weeds, lack of new popular cultivars and occasionally just plain wrong information (superseded by new research since Macoboy’s death) means that as a ‘new’ publication, its usefulness is severely compromised.


stirling-macoboy-what-tree-is-thatHow or, more importantly, why has this happened? I don’t know the economics at New Holland, but we all know that new books, and horticulture books in particular, are hardly rolling off the presses. Doing a quick and cheap superficial makeover of something that’s already in the copyright drawer, and then releasing it as a ‘new’ book under a high-quality author’s name would be very, very tempting. Although I certainly wouldn’t have chosen that cover photo if I wanted it to be a big seller!

This quick makeover is unfortunate for Macoboy’s reputation and legacy. His series of books, all titled ‘What…..is That?’ (Tree, Flower, Indoor Plant etc), filled with quality information and excellent photographs, were the bibles for many Australian gardeners through the 1990s, and several things made his books unique.

First, Macoboy loved travelling in tropical areas like south-east Asia and South America, and he included many of their warmth-loving plant genera. This made his books distinctly different from the cool-climate focussed books that have always dominated garden books in Australia (despite the fact that the majority of Australia’s population actually live in either Mediterranean or subtropical climate zones). Fortunately that warm-climate slant is still there, and therefore continues to be a significant part of the charm of this new publishing. I was delighted to meet subtropical plants that I’ve either known only slightly or not been introduced to at all.

Secondly, Macoboy pioneered a writing style that was informal and personal. No mysteriously ‘absent’ author for him – he wrote prose that sounded just like he was there talking to you and his good-humoured opinion and familiarity still shine through. I love hearing his frustrations with the world’s botanists and their constant renaming of our plants, seemingly so we’ll never get to really know them.

What Shrub Is That? Drejerella aka JusticiaWhich brings me to one of my complaints about this book – that it has outdated information. Those botanists have been having a field day with plant names since Macoboy’s death, especially with Australian plants. Baeckia virgata is now Babingtonia, Sollya is Billardiera, many Cassia are now Senna, our most popular waxflower has changed from Eriostemon to Philotheca myoporoides, and the cruelly named Drejerella guttata has fortunately morphed into the much nicer Justicia brandegeana. These name changes haven’t just happened – most are many years old now – so I don’t think there’s any excuse for getting them wrong. That’s just a few that I can across as I flipped through the pages.

Dais in What Shrub Is That?And there are weird spelling inclusions – I’ve never seen diacritic marks on Alöe, Leucothöe, Däis and Danäe before in a gardening book. While they’re not exactly wrong but they’re certainly unnecessary and look pretty silly. And ‘Wistaria’ – although history may well be on Macoboy’s side that it should have been Wistaria all along, not Wisteria, Nuttall, the botanist who named the genus, spelled it ‘Wisteria’, so that’s its correct botanical name.

What Shrub Is That? Syzygium entryA second BIG problem is that the text is all about species plants. Only the photos cover any cultivars and those don’t show any cultivars that have been released in the past 10 years (since Macoboy’s death), many of which are now big sellers. This is as it was in the original book and, although I support the idea that we should know our species plants, the reality is that gardeners in 2014 won’t be able to buy many of them as plant retailers favour stocking well-marketed cultivars instead. And often those cultivars are also superior garden plants. One example is Acacia cognata and its cultivars, like ‘Limelight’, which I think would be one of the most popular native shrubs since its release in 2001. Not there. Any of the huge range of lilly pilly (Syzygium spp) shrub cultivars? Not a one. Super popular Duranta ‘Sheena’s Gold’? Nope. Surely a pink form of Loropetalum or maybe the huge seller Pelargonium ‘Big Red’? Sadly, no. This is a real problem, as many of these cultivars are dwarf varieties, like bambino bougainvilleas, Hydrangea ‘Summer Beauty’ or Banksia ‘Birthday Candles’ and therefore an essential part of small space gardening – an increasingly common reality for 21st century gardeners.

And it’s also odd to read in the text things like “the newly introduced Camellia chrysantha”, when you know that it was introduced in the mid 1970s – and is now called Camellia nitidissima.

Wat Shrub Is That? inside cover page 3Third, since Macoboy wrote this book, several of the shrubs he mentions have become recognised as environmental weeds in Australia, and so are no longer propagated or sold. OMG we’ve even got super weedy Lantana camara resplendent on the inside cover! To be fair, I think that several of them were already in that category when the book was originally written, but certainly in the intervening 25 years they have become real no-nos, such as Ochna, Mimosa and Coprosma repens, and many are even now listed in Australia as Weeds of National Significance, like Cytisus scoparia (Scotch broom), Ulex europaeus (gorse) and Lantana. And, of course, it’s illegal to propagate or sell willow cultivars (Salix) like the listed Salix gracilistyla (golden pussy willow) anywhere in Australia!

Of course a weed in eastern Australia is not a weed in its home country and that highlights the impossibility of trying to publish a book destined for several countries. You just can’t get away with that in the 21st century, or not without lots of annotations in the text for each country. Or maybe you could argue that these weedy plants proliferate still in many weedy gardens, so gardeners need to know what they are, but I think many would assume that if they’re in the book, then they’re OK.

Fourth, there are several recommendations in this book that were considered to be best practice at the time it was originally written, but are now known to be wrong. Macoboy would have known to change this, but his ghost writers did not. For example, we no longer seal pruning cuts (page 10), and we now know that a 4” (10cm) thickness of mulch (page 9) is too thick, with about half that amount now recommended. I’m sure he would also have suggested slow release fertilisers for shrubs if they’d been as common 25 years ago as they are now.

And lastly, what’s with the annoying non-metric measurements? This book has been republished for Australian, New Zealand, South African and British gardeners all of whom, as far as I know, live in metric countries. But everywhere we have imperial followed by a metric equivalent, or Fahrenheit with Celsius after. Even if the book is destined to be sold to our unmetricated American cousins, surely those measurements could come in second.

There’s a small amount of good stuff in this book, especially if you’d like to expand your knowledge of warm climate plants, but you’d have to use it with several other references to know:

1. what to buy when you got to the garden centre;
2. how to update it with all the correct new names
3. which advice is wrong
4. you weren’t trying to buy or grow nationally declared weeds.

My rating: ★★

Product Details

RRP $49.95 AUD

ISBN-13: 9781921517259

Publisher: New Holland Australia
Publication date: 5/1/2014
Pages: 370

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9 years ago

Hi Catherine. Recently visited the Arboretum in Canberra. Truly wonderful. Walking in a grove of Himalaya Cedar I discovered a cone split in half fallen to the ground – split side into,the ground . Small amount of twig with a few green needles still attached. Wonder would this cutting strike? And if so how do I. Start it off? Many thanks

9 years ago

I’m so glad we have you around to tell us like it is.

I am sick of bad books and poor plant variety in nurseries – I love reading the old gardening books from my Nan from the 50s and 60s as they feature so many plants that are virtually extinct from Australian gardens, as banality and repetition have become de rigeour.

I do like the inclusion of some of the weedy plants though, the hysterics of Australian gardeners is really tiresome when it comes to anything remotely vigorous. Not everything is going to colonise the world and destroy native plants.

9 years ago

Oh I see your point re. weedy plants not available anywhere.

I would love you to do a piece on native nazis or the weed police. In no way do I advocate irresponsible planting, but I constantly tire of the shrieking and hysterics whenever someone thinks someone else is growing ‘weeds’. I have seen people accused of being irresponsible gardeners, careless and even environmental terrorists just because they dared to plant a hedychium or photograph a weeping willow in a park! I know Australian gardeners love a good plant horror story, but it does become tiresome and I fear a ‘boy who cried wolf’ reaction in the making. What I have had to constantly point out is that if something is a weed in Cairns it may not be in Darwin; something that grows terribly in one area can be completely well-behaved in another. I had someone accuse me of being ‘the worst kind of gardener out there’ because I planted a Spathodea campanulata – despite the fact that I live in inner Sydney far from it’s hedonistic reproductive playground north of Cairns. Interesting the accusers tend to live on several hectares of cleared pristine QLD rainforest, engaged in agriculture and have several large gas-guzzling vehicles. I on the other hand walk to the shops, get public transport to work and maybe drive my car once a fortnight. The hypocrisy astounds and the irony is completely ignored!!!