The Anatomy of Palms by P. Barry Tomlinson, James W. Horn and Jack B. Fisher . Oxford : Oxford University Press , 2011 . 276 pp. Hardback. ISBN13 : 978-0-19-955892-6 ; ISBN10 : 0-19-955892-2 . $225.00 .

Both negative and positive side effects have resulted from the recent exponential increase in economic importance of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis, which is the source of palm oil used for food products, cosmetics and biodiesel. The devastating worldwide environmental costs of replacing tropical rainforests with oil-palm plantations are already obvious to anyone flying over southeast Asia. On the other hand, research is flourishing in many different aspects of palm biology; palm scientists regularly meet to share data and exchange ideas, both at the annual EUNOPS meetings and at the broader international monocot meetings that are held every five years. These highly collaborative events considerably increase our understanding of the biology, development and evolution of monocots in general and palms in particular.

In light of the relatively recent publication of an excellent, phylogenetically-based monograph of palms, Genera Palmarum (Dransfield et al., 2008), the sceptic might question whether we actually need another book on palm structure. However, the title of this scholarly new book on The Anatomy of Palms fails to do justice to its broad scope and appeal, not only to a wide range of modern palm scientists but also to students of other aspects of plant science. Part of its value lies in the excellence of its production and its high visual impact. Published in hardback on glossy paper, the book incorporates 88 figures distributed throughout the text. The majority of them include several high-quality colour images of plant parts and light micrographs of stained anatomical sections. These colour illustrations are augmented by phylogenetic tree diagrams following the classification in Genera Palmarum (Dransfield et al., 2008), which illustrate the frequency and phylogenetic distribution of many of the anatomical features discussed in the text.

This book reflects deep knowledge of palm structure. Two of the authors, Barry Tomlinson and Jack Fisher, have been publishing on palms for several decades, and though a relative newcomer, James Horn is already well-embedded in the world of palm biology. Tomlinson published his first book on palm anatomy in 1961 (the second volume of the Oxford volume series Anatomy of the Monocotyledons) and followed this with a volume on palm structure and biology (Tomlinson, 1990).

The present book is divided into two sections. In a sense, the second section, encompassing approximately two-thirds of the book, represents a comprehensive revision of the 1961 textbook, though it is much better illustrated and includes a greater spectrum of both taxa and characters than the earlier volume, and places them in a modern phylogenetic context. This section systematically describes the vegetative anatomy of all five currently recognised subfamilies (Calamoideae, Nypoideae, Coryphoideae, Ceroxyloideae, Arecoideae) in considerable detail, with lists of common diagnostic features and anatomical keys to the subfamilies, many tribes, and some genera. The first third of the book focuses on a range of subjects, including the techniques employed to study palm anatomy (itself a problematic topic in this family of oversized herbs) and reviews individual vegetative characters such as stomata, sclereids, trichomes and spines. This part also includes a synthetic discussion of character evolution. Thus, it takes the book much further than the purely descriptive approach of the 1961 textbook, in common with some more recent volumes in the ongoing Anatomy of the Monocotyledons series (e.g. Keating, 2003).

Although focused on a single plant family – albeit species-rich and morphologically diverse – this book represents an exemplary textbook of vegetative anatomy. Of course, it would have been nice to include a section on reproductive anatomy, since many comparative systematic and evolutionary studies of palm anatomy have focused on flowers and inflorescences. However, perhaps this is destined for another volume; it seems churlish to criticise a book of such impressive quality, which presents data and concepts that would not otherwise be readily available to the modern student of botany.


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  • Dransfield J, Uhl NW, Asmussen CB, Baker WJ, Harley MM, Lewis CE. 2008. Genera Palmarum. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens.
  • Keating R. 2003. Anatomy of the Monocotyledons. IX Acoraceae and Araceae. Eds. M Gregory, DF Cutler. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tomlinson PB. 1961. Anatomy of the Monocotyledons. II Palmae. Ed. CR Metcalfe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Tomlinson PB. 1990. The Structural Biology of Palms. New York: Oxford University Press.