Woody Plants of Western African Forests

a guide to the forest trees, shrubs and lianes from Senegal to Ghana

Anyone working with plants of tropical Africa will welcome this book on the woody plants of West Africa. It is a most excellent guide to the woody plants of the forests of tropical western Africa west of Togo from Senegal to Ghana. It is inclusive taxonomically with some ferns and woody monocots treated as well as the many species of dicots. As the title suggests this book treats the shrubs and lianes as well as the trees and this adds up to 2,200 species. This is not a field guide because it is a large and heavy volume, but it is certainly a wonderful tool for the identification of the plants in the region covered and in many cases far beyond further into the east of Africa. This work is based on extensive field work as can be seen by the many photographs of the plants their parts and of trunks and bark. Of particular use are the photos of cross sections of the stems of lianes. Many useful features for identification are mentioned that could only have been observed through field study such as notes on scent and taste as well as on features of the shoots, leaves and trunks. In addition to the photographs there is an abundance of high quality line drawings of the plants and of the identification characteristics drawn by Marjolein Spitteler and Rosemary Wise. There are over 5,600 photographs and line drawings in this profusely illustrated volume.
The layout of the book makes it easy to use since there are many short cuts for identification without working all through the very clear and easy to use keys. For example, a table on the distribution of leaf characters leads one quickly to the correct place in many cases. The layout is a series of keys with short descriptions for each species. They are based almost entirely on vegetative characters which means that one is not dependent on flowering or fruiting material to identify a plant. It does lead to groupings of species that are not natural in terms of their relationships, but this does not matter since it is a tool for identification rather than a system of classification. The authors have in many cases adopted the most up to date changes in the plants families, for example the Scytopetalaceae is included in the Lecythidaceae. The keys are not always dichotomous and often offer three or even four choices, but this is easy to spot and to use. I found the progress through the keys extremely easy to use for the few species that I tried to identify. A large amount of useful and accurate botanical information is provided and explanations of characters used in the keys are to be found on the same page. At the end there is also a key to “cross-cutting” groups based on characters that are easy to see but lead one to clusters of often unrelated plants. Such characters as crown type, stilt roots, hooks, spines and prickles, domatia, bark characteristics and even unusually coloured leaves are used there. The yellow pages at the end of the book contain an extensive glossary, leaf diagrams, crown types illustrated by black and white photos, and indeces to local and scientific names.

The authors feel that they have reached only an approximation for some difficult to identify groups of plants but this is a work that sets the standard for identification manuals of the tropical flora. They challenge the user with the fact that: “there are still many problems for you, the field botanist, to help resolve”. However, it has most of the information that any user will need for the identification of most woody species in the region covered. It is a model that could well be followed by others, abundant illustrations and based on vegetative characteristics. We need many more such works for other parts of the tropics. One does not need to be a specialist taxonomist to use this and so it will be of great use to ecologists, foresters, conservationists and any students of the plants of West Africa. This book should be in the libraries of anyone working with tropical forests.

Ghillean Prance, Dec 2007