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Glossy treasure trove for the word-curious plantsperson

Nigel Chaffey discovers a glossary can also be a page-turner.

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Illustrated plant glossary, by Enid Mayfield, 2021. CSIRO Publishing/CABI.

Illustrated Plant Glossary Cover

We are told that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s also been said that looks can be deceptive. Both of those sayings apply to Enid Mayfield’s Illustrated plant glossary, which book is here appraised.

At first sight the cover of the Illustrated plant glossary is almost child-like in the eye-catching simplicity of its numerous hand-drawn images of plants and plant parts. But, don’t be misled. I suspect that that apparent ‘young-reader’s picture book’ quality has been carefully chosen to underline the author’s declared goal of “researching complex scientific topics and then writing and illustrating them so that they are accessible to a wider audience”. That child-like quality also reminds me of the thrill I experienced as a youngster in picking up a dictionary or glossary and revelling in the weird and wonderful world of words within. I felt that same frisson of excitement when exploring Mayfield’s Illustrated plant glossary. And why wouldn’t I? After all, what better combination can there be than an illustrated book that unites the joy of word exploration and discovery with plants?

Aim of the book

Apart from producing a book to reach a wide audience, Mayfield’s other declared aim is “to provide a glossary that is exceptionally thorough and useful for any individual who works in, researches or is passionate about plants, no matter their level of knowledge or where they are in the world” (p. ix), and she hopes that the Illustrated Plant Glossary meets these expectations. From this UK-based plantophile’s point of view, I would say that aim and aspiration have been achieved.

Topics covered

Prof. Pauline Ladiges (University of Melbourne’s Professor Emeritus who wrote the book’s Foreword) advises the reader that themes in the glossary – from which the book’s terms have been selected – include: “anatomy, angiosperms, bryophytes, chemistry, cytology, ferns and fern allies, family specific terms, flowers, fruit, genetics, grasses, rushes and sedges, gymnosperms, habit and growth, habitat and ecology, indumentum, inflorescence, leaves, orchids, reproduction, roots, seeds and systematics” (p. vi). Furthermore, Mayfield “researched scientific areas beyond those found in many traditional plant glossaries, including DNA-based terminology, palynology and modern systematics” (p. vi). Which coverage seems pretty comprehensive to me, and certainly deals with topic areas that I would consider to be proper botany.* Specialists in each of those areas may point out terms that are not included in the Illustrated plant glossary, but such experts are probably not the book’s target audience. There seems to be more than enough terms to satisfy most of the anticipated plant-terminological needs of the book’s intended readership, which is ”plant scientists, plant science teachers and students, libraries, horticulturalists, ecologists, gardeners and naturalists”.

Some general comments

The book is nice and big, and the page size is about 50% bigger than the 1st edition of Henk Beentje’s The Kew Plant Glossary.** In the personal view of an aged Botanist who needs glasses, bigger is certainly better when it comes to books, not least because the illustrations can be a decent size to view. At 321 pages of actual terms and definitions, the Illustrated plant glossary has more than twice the number of pages of Beentje’s 1st edition, and over 130 more pages than Beentje’s 2nd edition.

Terms covered in Mayfield go from ‘2n’ [yes, ‘n’ is also an entry] to ‘Zygomycota’ [and yes, there are also entries for Ascomycota, Basidiomycota, Chytridiomycota, Deuteromycota, and Glomeromycota, all of which are major groups of fungi according to at least one classification of that kingdom, and all are mentioned in the general entry for ‘fungus’. And fungi are expected to be included in Mayfield’s book because they, along with algae, are treated in the same way as plants when it comes to naming them, and the glossary is quite big in matters systematic. But, there’s no place in the Illustrated plant glossary for Oomycota. Which seems appropriate because, and despite containing the suffix -mycota, they’re not proper fungi but ‘fungal-like’ organisms such as Phytophthora].

With “more than 4000 plant science terms”, the Illustrated plant glossary‘s tally is about the same as Beentje’s 1st edition (although Mayfield’s total is surpassed by the “4905” terms in Beentje’s 2nd edition). However, with probably more than half of Mayfield’s terms being illustrated (almost all of which drawings are in colour), this book is much more ‘graphic-rich’ than Benntje’s 2nd edition which only has “700 line [i.e. black-and-white] drawings” (and which, somewhat surprisingly, is 30 fewer than its 1st edition). The Illustrated plant glossary certainly is that!

The Illustrated plant glossary’s biggest single entry is for ‘leaf’ – which occupies 7 pages that includes 6.5 pages devoted to such leafy matters as: leaf arrangement; leaf base; leaf lobing; leaf margins; leaf shape; leaf tip; and leaf venation, which types are all illustrated.

Recognising that English is a global language but with umpteen variants (including English (Australian)), the glossary attempts to cope with that by including alternative spellings for certain words. For example, it includes ‘ceraceous, ceraceus’, ‘Pangaea, Pangea’, and ‘understorey, understory’. Although I much prefer the first version of those terms, this kindness to the reader should be of benefit to those who use non-British spellings for certain English words. However, and somewhat curiously, the entry for ‘fibre’ only lists the English (British) spelling; the American version ‘fiber’ is arguably missing.

Assessing a glossary

How do you judge the value of a glossary? There are two main ways: Does it contain the terms that you’d expect it to? And, how well does it define the terms it includes? With those criteria as benchmarks, how well does the Illustrated plant glossary do? In my assumed appraising role as ‘critical friend’ of the book, I offer the following observations.

Words that were not there…

Whilst, one can always find words that aren’t present – e.g. cystolith (Philip Ball, Nature Mater 11: 271, 2012; https://doi.org/10.1038/nmat3290; Andreas Giannopoulos et al., Journal of Experimental Botany 70: 5753–5763, 2019; doi:10.1093/jxb/erz316), and phytology [although this is an old word for botany (which word is not present either…), it is famously still in current usage in New Phytologist, an international academic journal of plant science] – but that’s not a terribly helpful exercise; there has to be some sort of limit on how many words can be included, even within the declared scope of the glossary. It’s much better to concentrate on words that one felt should have been there based on what else is included. Here are three examples to illustrate this.

Although this may seem mis-categorised in this section, ‘breakaway’ is there (and is a term that’s new to me). However, because it’s defined on p. 39 as: “A steep-sided rocky slopes [sic.], as those of some scarps, particularly those of mesas”, it’s included under ‘words that were not there’ because the mentioned terms ‘scarp’ and ‘mesa’ weren’t found elsewhere in the glossary. I’m pretty sure I could neither define nor fully understand those two terms without help. I would therefore have to check another glossary or dictionary – as I did when researching this appraisal – to be sure of their meaning. Including them as separate entries within the Illustrated plant glossary would be of benefit to this reader (and, I suspect, others…), and help to maintain the practice of cross-referencing of terms that elsewhere in the book is so good – and welcomed.

There isn’t an entry for C3 or C4 photosynthesis in the glossary (nor any mention of these terms in the book’s definition of photosynthesis). One might suggest that those terms are too specialist for this publication. Maybe, but, and if so, why is CAM (Crassulacean Acid Metabolism) (Irwin Forseth (2010), Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):4) separately included? The entry for photosynthesis doesn’t mention CAM. C3, C4, ± CAM, it’s really a matter of consistency (and one that’s easily sorted in a revised edition of the glossary).

Somewhat surprisingly, there’s no separate entry for ‘plant’ or ‘plant kingdom’ (although Plantae is mentioned as one of six kingdoms under the entry for ‘kingdom’ – but which definition is not helped by referring to the kingdoms as ‘divisions’ (which term is separately defined on p. 86 as “a taxonomic classification between kingdom and class”…)). It would have been useful to know Mayfield’s definition of a plant, not least because it should go some way towards providing justification for inclusion of terms in her plant glossary – and might help readers understand the plant groups included in the first level of the book’s ‘taxonomic hierarchy’ [see next section].

A matter of definition…

Getting definitions right – although tricky – is at the heart of how well a glossary is doing its job. Here are a few examples from the Illustrated plant glossary where there is scope for improvement. The term ‘taxonomic hierarchy’ in regards to plant classification is succinctly defined on p. 295 as: “A series of terms classifying plants in levels or ranks from the highest and most complex to the lowest and least complex, as kingdom, division, class, order, family, genus and species” (all bar ‘order’ have separate entries). Which seems fine to me (until one delves into the separate entries – but considerations of space prevent us going there in this item…). The words are also illustrated with almost a full page graphic. Although that picture-based explanation is much as I’d expect, it has a few surprises.

The topmost level of the hierarchy, Kingdom plantae, is illustrated with bryophytes, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms (all of which terms have separate entries in the glossary), and algae (also with a separate glossary entry). It shouldn’t be too surprising that algae is named amongst that topmost level because the current consensus is that the so-called land plants (the more traditional and restrictive Kingdom Plantae [also known as the Embryophyta]) and some of the green algae should be grouped together as the ‘green plants’ (for which a synonym is Viridiplantae) because of their close evolutionary relatedness (Jan de Vries & John Archibald, New Phytologist 217: 1428-1434, 2018; https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.14975; Chen Jiao et al., Cell 181: P1097-1111.e12, May 28, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2020.04.019).

However, the glossary’s definition of algae (p. 9) is: “They occur in fresh or salt water and range in size from microscopic and single-celled diatoms to macroscopic and multi-celled, as the seaweed kelp. They are members of the taxonomic kingdom Protista (protists)…”. The entry is illustrated with pictures of brown algae (kelp as the example), red algae (laver), green algae (spaghetti alga, Chaetomorpha), and diatoms. Since algae is such a broad mix of organism it seems inadvisable to use that term without any qualification in the taxonomic hierarchy table, particularly since the term is illustrated there with both spaghetti weed ( a ‘green’) and kelp (which is a brown seaweed and therefore excluded from the ‘green plants’ grouping – although it is a member of the Chromista (Thomas Cavalier-Smith, Protoplasma 255: 297–357, 2018; https://doi.org/10.1007/s00709-017-1147-3), which is one of the 6 named kingdoms – along with, and clearly separate from, the kingdom Plantae – Mayfield mentions under her definition of ‘kingdom’ on p. 154). Fortunately, the image of kelp appears to be a separate, stand-alone drawing and could – should! – be removed from the illustrated taxonomic hierarchy of plants.

And there are some other issues with that graphic. For example, bryophytes are include amongst the Tracheophyta Division. Tracheophytes are vascular plants [as correctly defined elsewhere in the glossary]. Bryophytes are nonvascular plants – as correctly defined in the bryophytes entry on p. 39 (and shown as such in the diagram re spore-bearing plants on p. 277) – and should not feature at this level in the taxonomic hierarchy. This looks like another case where checking for internal consistency within the glossary is required – ideally in preparation for a revised edition of the book.

Curiously, the two illustrated examples of ‘fern allies’ are not included at the Kingdom Plantae level of the hierarchy, but do appear in the level below – ‘Division’ – in that graphic. As correctly defined in the glossary, the levels within a taxonomic hierarchy go from highest/most complex [‘kingdom’ here] to lowest/least complex [species in this instance]. Therefore each higher rank will include all of the groups of plants found at any lower ranks. Fern allies should therefore appear at both the vascular plants level (as they do), and the kingdom level (which they do not). Ferns feature at both of those levels, but it’s a little odd that this group is illustrated with both a typical fern and a tree fern at the kingdom level, but by just the typical fern at the vascular plant level. Why has the tree fern ‘disappeared’? This sort of thing has the potential to create confusion for readers who look carefully and critically at what’s in a book the better to understand the subject. Removing the kelp image and one of the two angiosperm pictures at the kingdom level (and removing the same flowering plant image at the vascular plants level…) would allow space for both fern ally images to be included at the kingdom rank. And, for completeness, the tree fern should be reinstated along with the other vascular plants at the level of divcision. All of which is another quick fix for that – clearly-needed – revised edition.

It’s not just about that table, here are a few more definitions that probably need to be ‘tightened-up’. For example, it’s instructive to look at the entry for ‘tracheary element’ (on p. 301), where it is stated that vessels “are found only in angiosperms”. This statement overlooks the gnetophytes (which term has its own separate entry – ‘gnetales’ – on p. 124). Importantly, gnetophytes are a group within the gymnosperms that do have vessels, which is in marked contrast to the other gymnosperm categories such as conifers which instead have tracheids (John Sperry et al., Am J Bot 93(10): 1490-1500, 2006; doi: 10.3732/ajb.93.10.1490) (as do some angiosperms (Sherwin Carlquist et al., American Journal of Botany 96(1): 207–215, 2009; doi:10.2307/27793083), as Mayfield rightly states…).

And the entry for ‘cytoskeleton’ (p. 77) would benefit from revision because it is in part described as “A system of microfilaments and microtubules in the cytoplasm that gives a cell its shape”. Surely, since this is a plant glosssary, it’s the cell wall that gives the plant cell its shape (Alexander Ivakov & Staffan Persson (2013). Front. Plant Sci. 4:439. doi:10.3389/fpls.2013.00439), not the system of microfilaments and microtubules in the cytoplasm? Arguably, microtubules can contribute to cell shape because of their involvement in the laying-down of structural cellulose microfibrils within the wall (e.g. Harvey J Marchant, Nature 278: 167–168, 1979; https://doi.org/10.1038/278167a0; Larissa Machado Tobias et al., Plants 2020, 9(1), 90; https://doi.org/10.3390/plants9010090 [Erratum]; Ying Gu & Carolyn G Rasmussen, The Plant Cell, koab249, https://doi.org/10.1093/plcell/koab249; and John E. Lydon (2021) Liquid Crystals, doi: 10.1080/02678292.2021.1891476), but that differs somewhat from what’s stated in the glossary.

Loads of pictures***

As its title might suggest, the Illustrated plant glossary is copiously illustrated [yes, I know I commented upon the illustrations above, but this is such an important feature of the glossary, that an additional comment is warranted]. However, it is completely devoid of photographs or micrographs; instead it contains hundreds (probably thousands) of carefully-observed hand-drawn images, almost all of which are in colour. Although hand-drawn illustrations may make the book appear ‘quaint’ and non-professional to some eyes, those representations have a major benefit over photographs, they provide the opportunity to emphasise the important features for a definition to be better understood. This feature is also commented upon by Pauline Ladiges in her Foreword to the book. And, it should be borne in mind that the purpose of the illustrations in the Illustrated plant glossary is as an aid to comprehension of the text. The book is not intended as a field guide to plant identification, the hand-crafted pictures probably won’t permit that degree of precision – although many examples of plant species are featured amongst the drawings.

Something about sources

As is my wont (e.g. here, here, and here), I need to add a comment about sources and references. No sources are listed in the Illustrated plant glossary for any of the terms that are included.**** Why not? Let’s quote the author, who “consulted numerous texts on plant sciences, including university texts, glossaries and many other sources. Ultimately the references for this work were so extensive that it proved impossible to provide a full list” (p. ix). In many respects you wouldn’t expect there to be citing of sources; a glossary – as for a dictionary – should stand on its own merits as it assumes the revered status as the source of last resort that such a work should have. After all, a glossary will – until it is found to be wanting, or superseded by a more recent collection – be the ultimate source for explanation of the 4,000 terms that are listed. A good glossary should therefore be the last word on the subject, botanical words and terms in this instance. And, once the various matters raised above are ironed out, Enid Mayfield’s Illustrated plant glossary can be numbered amongst the good ones.

Hours of entertainment

As an indication of the ‘frisson of excitement’ I got out of the Illustrated plant glossary I offer the word ‘dauciform’. On page 77 of the glossary we are told it means “carrot-shaped, as some roots”, which definition is underlined by the accompanying drawing of an orange carrot taproot. And that interpretation seems eminently sensible when one considers that the scientific name of carrot is Daucus carota.

But, my enlightenment and enjoyment didn’t end there because it – inevitably – led me to wonder: Is there a term ‘carotiform’? Yes, there is, and in botanical uses it means … ‘carrot-shaped’. It also has the same meaning in mycological usage (see page 25 of Snell & Dick’s A glossary of mycology, available at US Internet Archive). Unfortunately, carotiform is not included in Mayfield’s glossary (but neither is it found in Henk Beentje’s The Kew Plant Glossary (and Beentje doesn’t include dauciform either…)).

But, to have now chanced upon two new – to me, at least – terms for carrot-shaped, each of which relates to a separate part of the vegetable’s two-word scientific name is a phytological fact that gives me a warm glow inside.***** And that new-found knowledge is something I would probably never have known had I not been leafing through Enid Mayfield’s Illustrated plant glossary. With that discovery I feel that my life is suitably enriched, and am eager to share that information with others (which I have now duly done by mentioning it in this book’s appraisal). That’s just one small example of the sort of fun you can have with a glossary. And if you actually learn any new terms and definitions, that’s a bonus.


Compiling a glossary is not easy. It’s certainly not a project for the faint of heart, and arguably is a task without end. My criticisms noted above indicate how hard it is to get it perfect. But, those matters are comparatively minor and easily corrected in future revised versions of the tome, which there deserves to be to accommodate additional relevant terms that may be found or coined in the future. The author has done a great service to the world-wide community of botanically-minded individuals, and is to be warmly congratulated on this achievement. And it is hard to disagree with the claim that “The Illustrated Plant Glossary sets a new standard in glossaries and is a must-have reference for plant scientists, plant science teachers and students, libraries, horticulturalists, ecologists, gardeners and naturalists”.


Enid Mayfield’s Illustrated plant glossary has all the hallmarks of a true labour of love – not least because it had a gestation period of seven years. It’s a lovely book and works on at least two levels: something to dip into now-and-then for the sheer pleasure of coming across words new to you, and to consult as-and-when needed to demystify the unusual technical term or two that botany is full of. The Illustrated plant glossary is educational, informative and entertaining. What more could you ask for in a book? But, don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to get your own copy and undertake your own botanical lexicographical journey of discovery.

* On a personal proper botany note, it stills irritates me that the ligule of grasses continues to be defined as a “membranous outgrowth at the junction of the blade and the sheath” (p. 168). I have no problem with the location upon the leaf that the structure is described as occupying, but there are many examples of ligules that contain vascular tissue and are therefore not membranous (e.g. Nigel Chaffey, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 89: 341–354, 1984; https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1095-8339.1984.tb02565.x; Nigel Chaffey, New Phytologist 101: 613-621, 1985; https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8137.1985.tb02867.x). But, since every glossary I’ve looked at, makes that same ‘mistake’/over-simplification, I can’t single-out Mayfield’s glossary in that regard. But, it remains irksome…

** Which book is selected for comparison with the Illustrated plant glossary because: I have some familiarity with it; it is probably the last major botanical glossary to have been published before Mayfield’s; and appears to be the previous glossary of choice for Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (Australia) Director and Chief Executive Tim Entwisle – but which has now been unseated by Mayfield’s glossary (which book he has reviewed)).

*** Just a thought: Are the book’s illustrations available as ‘emojis’, or could they be? I understand that – at least until a couple of years ago – there is/was a shortage of such plant-based icons for use in various texting services and on social media. It seems to me that the lovely pictures in the Illustrated plant glossary would be ideal for that purpose, and are more accurate than many of the depictions of plants currently available on.

**** And, no, there isn’t an Index(!).

***** For more on carrots and words, may I recommend The Carrot Museum’s literary collection?

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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