New books for the gardeners on your list

Two newly published books will enhance any gardener’s library.

“The Watersmart Garden: 100 Great Plants for the Tropical Xeriscape” by Fred Rauch and Paul Weissich was recently published by University of Hawaii Press. The authors’ previous books, “Plants for Tropical Landscapes” and “Small Trees for the Tropical Landscape,” are essential reading for all Hawaii gardeners. This colorful book is lovely enough for a coffee table, yet will be consulted frequently because of its user-friendly format.

There are 10 concise and thorough pages of introduction, with excellent pictures of lush xeriscapes. The heart of the book features 100 plants logically arranged by height. This commonsense feature is used in all the Rauch/Weissich books, and is a breath of fresh air for gardeners who find books arranged botanically to be almost unusable. Each entry gives the botanical name as well as the family, so botanists are well served, too.

Plumeria, bougainvillea and oleander each have four pages of pictures because of their popularity and variety. The other 97 plants have two pages each, usually one close-up picture as well as one of the entire plant. These pictures are precisely what a gardener needs to see in order to visualize the plants in their yard.

Mulch is essential in dry gardens, and the authors recommend organic mulch material, such as wood chips or bark, rather than inorganic material, including small stones. “Two to three inches of mulch, renewed occasionally, will absorb water, increase water infiltration, maintain soil coolness and reduce water loss, significantly lessen erosion, and ultimately the mulch will break down and increase soil fertility,” the authors state. “Inorganic mulch made of gravel and cinders, in our view, produces an unwelcome dry xeric look.” Stones are used in their landscape example pictures, but they are placed to look like natural outcroppings.

There are several useful lists at the end of the book showing which plants need the most and least water, plants suitable for hedges and windbreaks, salt-tolerant plants, and a long list dividing the plants by color.

Another book to consider adding to your collection or that of a friend is the reissued “Plants of Hawaii.” The golden age of garden writing in Hawaii began with Marie Neal’s “In Gardens of Hawaii,” first published in 1929 as “In Honolulu Gardens” and revised and republished over the subsequent decades. Peggy Hodge, Richard Tongg, Loraine Kuck and Fortunato Teho were also gifted midcentury garden writers.

The works of most of these writers are sadly out of print. Reissued by Petroglyph Press in Hilo, “Plants of Hawaii: How to Grow Them” by Fortunato Teho is a delightful book, covering 25 common edible and ornamental plants, plus bonsai. It was originally compiled from a series of newspaper articles. First published in book form in 1971, it has been out of print for about 15 years. The publisher has added photographs to this new edition, modernizing it without tampering with the writing. Thoughtful updates are included occasionally, such as a caution about the invasiveness of kahili ginger and the substitution of earth-friendly alternatives for the original chemical pesticide recommendations.

Teho was a brilliant writer. He was also the first Filipino-American citizen naturalized in Hawaii, and the first Filipino graduate of the University of Hawaii. Petroglyph Press has done Hawaii gardeners a great service by making this wonderful book available once again.

Clear Englebert is a local feng shui consultant and author of “Feng Shui for Hawaii Gardens.”

Tropical gardening helpline

Barry asks: My neighbor has a large tree we think is a cinnamon. The leaves appear alternately on the stems and are dark green and sturdy with veins running from a central vein to the leaf edge. They smell like cinnamon or cloves when crushed. The bark on the tree is mottled light and darker brown. I would like some hints on what this tree might be, cinnamon or not.

Answer: You have given some important clues to help identify the plant: size, trunk appearance, leaf arrangement and pattern. The best way to identify a plant is, of course, by its flower since that is the way Linnaeus classified plants in the 1700s.

Several different trees are used to produce the spice we know as cinnamon. Many in the same family as true cinnamon and several Cassia species have leaves with the aroma you describe.

True cinnamon, Cinnamomum verum, is a small evergreen tree in the lauraceae family. Cinnamon trees do not have the mottled brown bark you describe and their ovate leaves have a distinctive vein pattern and appear opposite one another on the stem. The veins run from the stem to the tip rather than from a central vein.

The tree you describe is most likely an allspice. Allspice, Pimento diocia, is a tropical evergreen tree in the myrtle family, and is native to the West Indies and Central America. It produces berries which are used to make the highly aromatic spice of the same name. The tree was named allspice because the flavor of the dried berry, which resembles a combination of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. The leaves are similarly aromatic.

Email plant questions to for answers by certified master gardeners. Some questions will be chosen for inclusion in this column.

This column is produced by Diana Duff, a plant advisor, educator and consultant with an organic farm in Captain Cook.