Grow Your Library: Recommended Plant Books

Southwest Yard & Garden by Dr. Marisa Thompson
"Southwest Gardening" by Rosalie Doolittle and Harriet Tiedebohl is one of my all-time favorite plant books for gardening in New Mexico. First published in 1953, some of the advice in this book is outdated (like planting invasive species!), so don't follow all of the suggestions word-for-word, but it's still a great read (photo credit, M. Thompson with pink cosmos flower on July 5 at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas).

We are building our Extension Master Gardener library. What are your favorite plant books?
-          Lin Y., Valencia County, NM
I try to keep an edition—any edition—of Robert DeWitt Ivey’s “Flowering Plants of New Mexico” with me as I travel around the state. Every plant in the book includes a hand-drawn image of the flowering structures and leaves, and a zoomed-in portion of the plant if there are distinguishing characteristics to be found. In the introduction, Ivey explains that he made most of the drawings from fresh or live plants during their flowering period and includes the location and date. A miniature map of New Mexico also accompanies each drawing with a shaded area depicting the general distribution range. Call me crazy, but when you see a beautiful flower on a hiking trail near Cloudcroft on July 4 and then find it in this book with Ivey’s note saying he found it in bloom on July 16 in the same national forest, you might feel a sense of connection to time and place like I do. (Side note: NMSU Agriculture Extension Agent in Eddy County, Woods Houghton, said Mr. Ivey was a teacher of his in high school.)
Other reference books I keep nearby include “Pests of the West” by Whitney Cranshaw (recommended by NMSU Extension Entomology Specialist, Dr. Carol Sutherland) and “Weeds of the West” published by the Western Society of Weed Science in coordination with the Western United States Land Grant Universities Cooperative Extension Service. “Insects and Diseases of Woody Plants in Colorado,” published by Colorado State University Extension and recommended to me by former NMSU Bernalillo County Extension Horticulture Agent Graeme Davis, is great because there is a handy diagnostic key at the back of the book. You have to already know the tree species you’re looking at to get started, then use the key’s categories (affecting leaves, affecting smaller branches, affecting trunk, etc.) to narrow down the possibilities based on where you see problems in the plant.
For tree identification, I try to keep extra copies of the Arbor Day Foundation’s booklet “What Tree Is That? A Guide to the More Common Trees Found in the Western U.S.” But as of right now I’ve given my copies away. Luckily, there is an online version (
I asked the Urban and Community Forestry Program Manager for NM State Forestry, Jennifer Dann, what books she recommends for tree identification and she suggested “The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees,” not only because it is nicely laid out but because it includes native and invasive plants. Many other field guides, while excellent, focus on one group or the other, not both.
While some people are good at taking care of plants and creating beautiful landscapes, I am proof that being a plant lover doesn’t necessarily indicate a proclivity for design. Luckily, some landscape designers also write helpful books. For every plant recommended in her book “New Mexico Gardener’s Guide,” Judith Phillips includes a section on companion planting and design based on water and space requirements as well as on colors and bloom times. I’m so into plants with big, bright flowers that I tend to forget that the garden will look bare in the winter, and Phillips’ comments help me keep that in mind. For example, “Standard buddleia [butterfly bush] needs the company of evergreens to compensate for the large gap it leaves in winter.”
Dr. Ashley Bennett, NMSU Extension Integrated Pest Management Specialist, recommends all of the Xerces Society guide books, including “Attracting Native Pollinators,” which offers habitat design considerations to encourage native bees and butterflies in the garden. She also highly recommends “The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril, who is based here in Santa Fe.
In “Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest,” also written by a local author, Marcy Scott in Las Cruces, in addition to growing requirements, great photos, and tips on where to find less commonly sold species or how to grow them yourself from seed, each plant description includes the local hummingbird species that are particularly drawn to that flower or flower timing.
Of course, not all plant books are reference books. NMSU Extension Viticulture Specialist, Dr. Gill Giese, recently lent me a favorite book of his, “The Life of a Leaf” by Steven Vogel, that is becoming a favorite of mine as well. Vogel describes the how’s and the why’s behind plant form and function, so it’s science-y, to be sure, but never boring.

Share your favorite plant books with me and I’ll add them to this growing list (pun intended).

       Resources mentioned in the column text:
  • “Flowering Plants of New Mexico” - Robert DeWitt Ivey
  • “Pests of the West” - Whitney Cranshaw 
  • “Weeds of the West” - published by the Western Society of Weed Science in coordination with the Western United States Land Grant Universities Cooperative Extension Service
  • “Insects and Diseases of Woody Plants in Colorado” - published by Colorado State University Extension
  •  “What Tree Is That? A Guide to the More Common Trees Found in the Western U.S.” - Arbor Day Foundation booklet (
  • “The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees”
  •  “New Mexico Gardener’s Guide” - Judith Phillips 
  • “Attracting Native Pollinators” - Xerces Society Guide (plus other guides from this group!)
  • “The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees” - Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril
  • “Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest” - Marcy Scott 
  • “The Life of a Leaf” - Steven Vogel
  • "Southwest Gardening" - Rosalie Doolittle and Harriet Tiedebohl (book cover image above)
     Other favorites of mine:
  • "The Informed Gardener" - Linda Chalker-Scott
  • "Understanding Flowers & Flowering" - Beverly Glover
  • "An Illustrated Guide to Pruning" - Edward F. Gilman
  • The NEW Houseplant Expert" (vols I and II) - D.G. Hessayon
  • "Best Plants for New Mexico Gardens and Landscapes" - Baker H. Morrow
  • "Trees and Shrubs for the SOUTHWEST" - Mary Irish
  • "Trees and Shrubs of New Mexico" - Jack L. Carter
  • "The Texas Tomato Lover's Handbook" - William D. Adams

  • Every year, the American Horticultural Society selects 75 Great American Garden Books. Find the lists from each year by clicking HERE. Several of my favorites came from these lists. :)

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at, or at the NM Desert Blooms Facebook page (@NMDesertBlooms)
Please copy your County Extension Agent ( and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!
For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms ( and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page at

Marisa Y. Thompson, Ph.D., is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, office: 505- 865-7340, ext. 113.


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