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The Sibley Guide to Trees Flexibound – September 15, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 93 customer reviews

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Book Description
The man who revolutionized the field guide to birds now brings his formidable skills of identification and illustration to the more than six hundred tree species of North America. Similar in size and format to The Sibley Guide to Birds, the layout for this guide is another triumph of logic and concision. Species are arranged taxonomically, not by features such as leaf shape (as in most other guides), which will enable the user to browse the images to find a match for an observed tree in the same way a birder uses the bird guide. And all pages will follow the same format, allowing the user to pinpoint particular information with ease. David Sibley’s meticulous, exquisitely detailed paintings illustrate the cycles of annual and lifetime development, and reveal even the very subtle similarities and distinctions between like elements of different species: bark, leaves, needles, cones, flowers, fruit, twigs, and silhouettes. More than four hundred maps show the complete range, both natural and cultivated, for nearly all the species. Issues of conservation, preservation, and environmental health are addressed in authoritative essays. As innovative, comprehensive, and indispensable as The Sibley Guide to Birds, this new book will set the standard of excellence in field guides to trees.

A Q&A with David Allen Sibley

Question: When did your interest in trees begin?

David Allen Sibley: It has always been there. I don’t think there is anything unusual about that--kids like to climb trees, imagine living in a big hollow tree, etc. When I was about 8 years old, I lived near Muir Woods so seeing the Redwoods, and smelling what I now know are California Laurel trees made a big impression on me. And I think an interest in trees follows naturally from an interest in birds--looking at birds means you are looking at a lot of trees, and when you do you start to notice different things about their twigs and leaves and bark.

Q: How long have you been working on this book and what kind of research did it entail? How long did each illustration in this book take you?

DAS: Well, I've been studying trees for as long as I’ve been bird watching. Whenever I’m out in the field observing birds I’m also observing habitat. I’m noticing everything. It’s impossible for a naturalist to study just one thing, since they are all connected. But the actual work on the book began 7 years ago, soon after the bird guide was completed. I spent the first few years traveling to study and photograph different species, reading about trees, working out my painting technique for these images, and planning the book page-by-page. I'm lucky to live near Boston, where the Arnold Arboretum and Mount Auburn Cemetery offer the chance to study hundreds of species of trees right here.

It's really been the last four years that I've spent most of my time in the studio painting and writing. Just like the bird guide, each individual image would take an average of about an hour to complete, from sketch to finished painting.

Q: Were there major differences in writing this book vs. the Guide to Birds?

DAS: The obvious difference is that trees are much easier to find. When I needed to study a particular species of tree I could just walk right up to it and spend as much time investigating it as I needed. Birds are more elusive. I had to spend years in the field in order to build up enough observation time to draw them well.

Another key difference is that birds recognize each other by sight, the same way we do, and the evolution of their appearance has been guided and sharply limited by how they look to other birds. Trees can’t see, they communicate through pollen and some chemical signals, so one tree doesn’t “care” what another’s leaves or bark look like. Their appearance has evolved for purely functional reasons. The exception is some flowers and fruit, which have evolved certain visual cues to attract the animals that pollinate flowers or disperse seeds.

Q: What would you say to someone who is a beginner at tree identification? What are the key identifying features in a tree?

DAS: The first thing I suggest is to spend some time with the guide. Try to become familiar with the characteristics of certain trees. Then go through the book and mark all the species that occur in your area. This will help you become familiar with the range of species that could be present so when you see an odd leaf shape, fruit, flower, bark pattern, etc.--even if you can’t remember the name--you can remember seeing it in the guide. Since trees are so easy to approach, you can simply take a photo of the key parts of any tree, or pick up a leaf or other part that has fallen on the ground, and identify it at your leisure.

They key identifiers will always be the shape, color and size of leaves; the color and shape of twigs; the color and texture of bark; and the tree’s overall size and shape as well as habitat, any fruit or flowers, and the timing of seasonal changes. For example, in late May in the northeast, if you see a pale-barked tree with small silvery leaves just emerging (while other trees have well-developed green leaves) you can be virtually certain that is a Bigtooth Aspen. A multi-trunked, spreading tree in wetter soils, with clusters of straw-colored fruit hanging from the twigs all winter, is almost certainly a female Boxelder.

Q: How many species of trees do we have in the U.S. and Canada?

DAS: There are about 700 species of trees native to North America (depending on how you define a tree). Hundreds more species are cultivated here, and quite a few of those have escaped and are growing in the wild. In this book I left out a lot of species that are “shrubs sometimes tree-like”, and species found only in southern Florida, in favor of including commonly cultivated trees that people will see more frequently.

Q: Why did you decide to structure your guide taxonomically?

DAS: I think one of the keys to learning birds, or trees, or any other living thing, is to learn the taxonomy--the families and genera--and to understand which species are closely-related and which are not. My goal in studying trees is to gain a deeper understanding of them, and part of that is to learn the fundamental things that all maples, or all alders, etc. have in common. Presenting the species in the guide grouped with their closest relatives, helps readers begin to recognize those fundamental similarities, and then they’ll be able to look at a tree and say “that just looks like a maple” in the same way that birders recognize a wren or a thrush.

Q: You have said that in researching this book you noticed that trees demonstrate, much more so than birds, the impact that humans have had on the landscape. How so?

DAS: Bird populations in North America have certainly changed dramatically since the 1500s, but it’s still possible to see almost all the same species, and in pretty much the same places and times, as the early European explorers saw them. But the tree landscape we see today is dramatically different from what our ancestors saw 500 years ago. Here in Massachusetts, there are only small patches of old-growth forest that have never been cut. Most have been cut multiple times during the last few centuries, and what we call “mature” forest today are trees mostly under 100 years old, so they’re still pretty young with time to mature. Add to that the introduced diseases that have all but eliminated species like American Chestnut, and the addition of non-native species like Norway Maple and Northern Catalpa (it’s said that 50% of the woody plants growing now in the state of Massachusetts are non-native) and you have a very different landscape. I imagine that if Audubon or Thoreau were to come back today, they would see a lot of familiar birds, but the changes in the forests would shock them.

Q: Which tree populations are in the most danger of extinction and what can be done about it?

DAS: Several species of trees are seriously threatened by disease, in the same way that the American Chestnut was wiped out by the Chestnut Blight in the early 1900s. Whitebark Pine, Butternut, Red Bay, and some oaks in California are all experiencing severe declines. Efforts are underway to contain these diseases, to prevent new pests from entering this continent, and to find and propagate resistant trees. In many cases the disease need not be fatal, but with many of our trees stressed by acid rain and/or large scale climatic changes like drought, they are more susceptible. One of the best things we can do to ensure the survival of healthy forests is to act quickly to reduce atmospheric pollution since that has far-reaching effects among trees. More directly, we should reduce our use of paper, as old-growth forests in Canada and elsewhere are still being cut down and ground up as pulp for paper.

Q: Where is the biggest tree in North America? The oldest?

DAS: One of the fun hobbies among tree enthusiasts is searching for “champion” trees--the biggest tree of each species. American Forests maintains a national registry of “Big Trees” and many states keep their own list.

The tallest tree ever measured was a Coast Redwood in California at 377 feet tall. The largest single tree by volume was another Coast Redwood with a trunk measuring over 88,000 cubic feet of wood and estimated to weigh over 3300 tons! The oldest tree is a Bristlecone Pine in Nevada known to be nearly 5000 years old. But these records of age and volume are both challenged by the Quaking Aspen, which often grows multiple trunks from a single large root system, and can be considered a single organism. One such plant in Utah covers over 100 acres with 47,000 trunks, and contains an estimated 6000 tons of wood, making it the largest single organism known. Estimates of its age range from 80,000 years up to one million years. The average age of any individual trunk is about 130 years, new trunks are constantly being produced by the root system.

Q: Do you have a favorite tree?

DAS: That’s like asking me to pick a favorite bird! I have a lot of favorites. I like the clean bark and majestic appearance of the Sycamores, the quirkiness of the Sassafras, the clean lines of the crown of the Noble Fir, the incredible cones of Coulter Pine. I could go on and on!

Q: We are certainly seeing a fierce focus on the environment in every area of public and private life--from politics to business to the cars we drive and the light bulbs we buy. Where do trees fit into our environmental future? How important are they?

DAS: It could be argued that trees play a bigger role in our lives than any other living things. We use them for construction, paper and cardboard; for food; for heat in our homes and for cooking; for shade and ornament around our houses and offices; and for specialty items like musical instruments and sports equipment, where no other material will do. Chances are that you are surrounded by wood as you read this. In natural ecosystems trees are important on their own.

Their leaves and branches provide food and shelter to countless species of animals. Even more critical is the habitat that trees create. The air under a forest canopy can be 15 degrees cooler, and much more humid, than air over an open field. This microclimate and the leaf litter on the forest floor create an entire secondary ecosystem of other plants and animals which can only exist with a healthy forest canopy. Trees filter pollutants from the air, turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, and create rich soil. On top of all that, trees are pleasing and relaxing to be around.

(Photo © Erinn Hartman)

A Look Inside The Sibley Guide to Trees
(Click on Images to Enlarge)


“The Sibley Guide to Trees is so well done that even the most serious birders may find themselves identifying and enjoying trees in their own right . . . All aspects of the trees are shown: leaves (from above and below), buds, flowers, fruits, twigs, and bark. For most species, the autumn leaves are illustrated and, when appropriate, new growth as well . . . The excellent range maps are large and dependable . . . The information is well ordered [and] the guide includes the very latest research . . . The Sibley Guide to Trees will occupy a treasured space right next to The Sibley Guide to Birds . . . It is as monumental and as purely pleasurable as the bird guide, and a masterful and fitting companion.”
—Clay and Pat Sutton, Birding magazine

“A beautiful, masterful, and much-needed work that will henceforth be our guide to the North American trees.”
–Edward O. Wilson

“A wonderful companion volume to David Sibley’s superb bird books, with the same beautifully precise species illustrations and concise, clear descriptions and range maps–altogether an invaluable contribution to our nature literature.”
–Peter Matthiessen, author of Shadow Country

“Unlike birds–the subject of David Sibley’s previous guide–trees of the same species can be different colors at different times of year, different sizes in different places, and even different shapes and sizes in the same place. I thought, therefore, that trees were so replete with variables that a field guide would be impossible. I hadn’ t counted on Sibley’s genius with words and paint to turn the impossible into this brilliant, eminently useful, reality.”
–Richard Ellis, author of Tuna: A Love Story

“I am delighted that the very talented David Sibley has ‘branched out’ to include trees. His illustrations are ideal, and the fact that he chooses to give more examples and variations than other guides will make this a very useful handbook.”
–Robert Bateman, author of Birds

“I think that I shall never see another guide that makes it so easy to identify a tree . . . David Allen Sibley, the preeminent bird-guide author and illustrator, has written a book that is monumental in scope but user-friendly in practical use. Simply put, this is the single most comprehensive guide to North American trees . . . This is an important, new contribution that is certain to help us better understand our natural world.”
—Larry Cox, Tucson Citizen
“David Allen Sibley has done it again. Nine years after the publication of his acclaimed The Sibley Guide to Birds, the book that changed the way we look at our field guides, he’s turned his attention to the second most beloved member of the birder’s world—the tree. In more than 4,000 exquisite paintings, Sibley reveals what to look for to identify 668 native and commonly cultivated trees . . . and to do so the same way you identify birds: from a distance.”
—Matt Mendenhall, Birder’s World
“Sibley’s book brings the advantages of painting to tree identification, keeping plant parts in scale when necessary, showing variations in the shapes of everything from leaves to acorns, and making finely nuanced color choices that really help you parse similar species and outright hybrids . . . It’s obviously made for field use. The durable, flexible cover has end flaps to bookmark whatever you happen to be studying, and the extra size gives you pictures you can see easily . . . This book will become a classic.”
Jim McCausland, Sunset Magazine
“David Allen Sibley is the artist and author responsible for several excellent bird books (mine are well thumbed), and his tree guide holds its own against the Audubon series. His paintings manage the neat trick of being both evocative and accurate; the telling details are clearly articulated.”
—Dominique Browning, The New York Times Book Review
“Sibley’s inclusiveness for most tree families is remarkable for a one-volume work . . . With a few exceptions . . . the user of this guide can expect to find any native tree found in North America north of Mexico.”  
—Alan Pistorius, Northern Woodlands magazine
“[A] blockbuster . . . The book is arranged in taxonomic order. Pines, firs and spruces are at the front of the book with the flowering and nut-bearing trees following. This ordering puts all the pines together, the oaks in one group, the ashes together and so forth. I favor that arrangement in field guides because it demonstrates the natural relationship between families of trees, thus teaching a little botany as well as providing identifications.”
—Paul G. Wiegman, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“Rich with identification aids (including leaves, nuts, flowers, bark, shape, and range maps), Sibley’s guide will make a useful and entertaining companion . . .”
—Jay Strafford, Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Thousands of paintings featuring well chosen details will help you identify trees even in winter . . . With native trees the most vulnerable and important plants endangered by climate change, we need to sharpen our awareness of wild trees of the woodlands which provide oxygen, food, shelter and erosion control for our ecosystem and which are very different from the cloned exotic trees we plant in our backyard gardens as pampered pets..”
—Carol Stocker, The Boston Globe (#1 on her list of the year’s 10 best garden books)
The Sibley Guide to Trees, a wealth of knowledge on tree identification, is crafted in Sibley’s aesthetic and easy-to-understand style . . . Fantastic . . . A great new book.”
Katrina Marland, American Forests magazine
“Is The Sibley Guide to Trees as awesome as The Sibley Guide to Birds? I’d have to say yes. [It] is truly a tree tour de force, a worthy companion to the author’s banner bird guide. One first notices how gorgeous this volume is; the graphic design is subtle but sharp . . . Likely the best amateur tree ID guide on the market. Yet the significance of this work far exceeds its utility. This Sibley Guide serves as a bridge from that other Sibley Guide to the rest of the natural universe . . . The Sibley Guide to Trees is an essential reference text for anyone and everyone who has ever wondered about the identity of a tree. I rank this book right up there with my beloved Sibley Guide to Birds as mandatory editions in any home library.”
—Mike Bergin, 10000birds.com
“Sibley’s guide deserves a place in all libraries, public or private . . . The Sibley Guide to Tree is the closest thing we’ve got to a registry of trees in North America.”
—Chris Watson, Santa Cruz Sentinel
The Hartford Courant
“Is David Allen Sibley’s new work as useful, reliable and interesting as his book on birds? For me, a nonbotanist who has wandered through forests in much of the country, it is. This guidebook is filled with clear, concise descriptions and wonderful drawings of species ranging from sumac to saguaro.”
John R. Alden, The Plain Dealer
“A treasure trove of knowledge on North American trees. Each page is a wealth of information . . . The beautifully illustrated pages are in color and full detail, down to giving the dimensions and shapes of the acorns from each variety of oak.”
—Sandy Mahaffey, The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)
“A masterful contribution to the genre . . . With each entry, there’s a short written description of the tree and its main characteristics, along with drawings of the leaves, buds, bark, flowers, fruits and seeds—and in many cases, the tree structure or form. And wow, when you flip through the pine section, you can easily see the difference in the needles and cones. Best of all, Sibley includes a map with each entry showing the natural range of the tree throughout the US and Canada . . . It’s small enough to take with you outside when you want to know whether you’re looking at a white, a black, or a red oak. My copy is likely going to . . . be completely dog-eared within a year or two.”
—Jane Berger, Garden Design Online

Product Details

  • Flexibound: 426 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf (September 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037541519X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375415197
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #39,626 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Format: Flexibound Verified Purchase
As someone who spends much of my free time poking about in the natural environment, has been an avid birder for over 35 years, and has a graduate degree in botany (ecology and systematics), I have used most of the major field guides and many of the more technical floras for North America. My hope was that this guide would be equivalent in importance to Sibley's bird guides.
The first things I do with a new plant guide is test it against a flora I'm familiar with and see what sort of identification keys are used. I didn't notice any errors or exclusions for the trees of Michigan, but using a common ID problem for this area, looked at the comparison between white and red/green ash. Sibley notes that red/green ash may have hairy twigs, but doesn't make clear that they may also have smooth twigs, as does white ash. He also doesn't point out that growth habit is often a good clue for distinguishing red/green from white ash, nor does he mention that some authorities now split red/green into two species. This is the sort of thing that makes me doubt the book's usefulness if someone tries to use it in an unfamiliar flora.
The biggest problem with this book, and I consider it to be significant, is the lack of identification keys. Although Sibley includes extensive illustrations of compound and lobed leaves in the beginning of the book, what does one do with an unfamiliar tree with a simple leaf? The only option is to start flipping through the pages, and that is a method that will lead to many misidentifications. Useful keying systems have been developed that don't require extensive knowledge of botanical terminology (e.g., Newcomb's system). Also, a glossary, or given Sibley's artistic gift, an illustrated glossary would be very helpful.
There are some good things about this book.
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Format: Flexibound
The artwork in this book puts me in mind of David More's work in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Trees which covers trees grown in England and Europe. I remember wishing there was a book of that quality for North America. In August of this year (2009) I got my wish.

Sibley's guide is more portable than the aforementioned work. It's larger than the typical field guide but will fit into a backpack or can be left in the car.

What strikes me most about Sibley's guide is the illustrations of leaves and fruit. They are more lifelike than even photographs can be and they seem to jump off of the clear white paper. The text is brief but mentions fine points in identification that make it invaluable. The only fault I can find with the book is it should have more tree silhouettes. Even with that fault I find it the best overall guide with its clear and precise leaf and fruit illustrations.
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Format: Flexibound
I was very excited when I found Sibley's field guide for trees. I was secretly wishing that Sibley would produce a field guide for trees with the same level of detail as his guide to birds so I had been holding out for a long time to buy a field guide for trees. Sibley's field guide, unlike others, actually shows full color illustrations of each part (young/old bark, buds, flowers and most importantly, like he did with the bird guide, a full review of the different forms of a leaf of every tree). In just a few minutes of thumbing through the book I was able to ID a couple of trees that have been vexing me. Like Sibley did with birds, he has produced the definitive field guide to trees.
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This guide seems designed to sell rather than to be useful; to be looked at rather than used. It lacks some things that it really should have.

First, as pointed out by others, it needs some kind of key system for identification.

Most importantly, this book needs more than two or three sentences per tree. The distinguishing features listed are in many cases wholly insufficient to accurately and consistently identify the species. Sibley perhaps sees trees as being as simple to identify as birds; due to introgression, they are not. One or two features is not enough to go on. Often, very useful identification features are left out of his text. For example, in his description of rock elm, there is no mention of the growth form/tree shape, which is by far the most distinctive aspect of this tree, and the easiest way to identify it.

Sibley is a bird guy, and perhaps it is too much to ask of someone to have the required in-depth knowledge necessary to do a work of this scope for both topics. Thus there are some inaccuracies that hint at his less extensive knowledge of trees, of the kind that would not be found in his bird books. For example, he says of white mulberry that the mature fruit is "whitish to red to occasionally blackish." This is very misleading; the fruit of white mulberry is almost always purple/black when ripe, and the color of the fruit should not be touted as an identifying feature. A field guide should clear up this confusion, not perpetuate it. Nothing in his descriptions hints at the substantial different in leaf shape between the red and white mulberries either--all of this leads one to suspect that he doesn't really know these trees.

The selection of trees included is very odd indeed.
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