Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (except ornamentals)

Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops (except ornament
Peter Hanelt and the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (editors)
Publication Date: 

First English edition based on a revision of the German editions of 1959 and 1986.
cloth, six volumes, 3,645 p., $1039

This is the authoritative study of the world's useful plants, from algae and fungi to herbs, vegetables, grains, shrubs and trees. It covers the occurrence, uses, taxonomy, history and economic significance of plant materials in concise detail. This is truly a landmark text, presenting the labors of several decades by the world's leading systematic botanists and plant collectors. The moving force behind Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops, which has contributed the preponderance of the contents, is the Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenforschung (or the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research), usually known by its acroymn IPK, in Gatersleben, Germany. Dr. Peter Hanelt, general editor and contributor, enjoys a brilliant reputation among students of the plant kingdom.

Prominent or obscure, the world's economic plants — that is, plants used for commercial purposes — are arrayed in masterful systematic fashion. The depth of coverage and detail generally varies with the economic importance of the plant. The major cereal grains, for example, occupy much space in volume five. There, the latest scientific studies of their genetics and occurrence have been organized in accessible language and format; the historian of food plants will find enlightenment and truly fascinating detail. Solanaceae, in a treatment by British experts, are marshalled in a highly informative treatment, both of foods familar to Western readers (such as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants) and of obscure hallucinogenic plants used by the shamans of South America. Crusiferae (Brassicaeae), whether well-known crops or obscure regional, often wild-gathered specialties, are conveniently organized. Herbs of the Labiatae (Lamiaceae) are arrayed in all of their glory or obscurity. Fungi appear in their splendid variety; we learn that the shitake was perhaps the first mushroom to be cultivated.

The historical record, written and archeological, is thoroughly treated when known with some degree of certainty. We learn fascinating details of the history of agriculture and of the antecedent gathering of plants before their domestication. There are, of course, no recipes, but the ingenuity of man in his interaction with the plant kingdom over millennia, in the present, and into the future is evident on every page. Culinary and medicinal uses are noted in varying degrees of detail, as are uses for timber, erosion and pollution control, animal food and forage, paper, and arts and crafts. Indeed, the entire spectrum of mankind's experiences with plants finds definitive exposition in these well-organized pages.

Some, but not always the most significant, examples of misplaced reliance on non-diverse genetic resources are carefully set forth. For example, the Brazilian coffee crop, descended as it was from one single plant, was decimated by a rust organism. One might wish for a similar narrative of parallels, such as the European potato famine or the 1970s collapse of much of the U.S. corn crop, with its narrow gene pool. But these are minor variances in treatment of a vast subject. The major portion of the text, written by German scientists, is generally excellent — although it would have benefited from the care of a native speaker.

The editors have wisely chosen to make their work available online both for access of the contents and for additions and corrections. The placement of this vital information is unfortunately on the last page of the addenda at the end of the sixth volume, which carries citations of authorities, indices of scientific and common names and the like, rather than through a more obvious inclusion in the introduction of the first volume. But taxonomists and scholars, thorough researchers that they are, will eventually find this reference.

This book is an indispensable reference work on the world's economic plants, and it belongs in every botanical and horticultural library. For the indefinite future, no treatment of non-ornamental plants by any author or researcher can pretend to be complete without careful study of this masterpiece.

— John F. Swenson, Volunteer, Plant Information Office, Chicago Botanic Garden