Green Neighbors: Breakfast and a Book for Tree Huggers

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:59:00 AM

I wish I could recommend the new Sibley Guide to Trees as enthusiastically as I can recommend breakfast and/or lunch at Quince, also new.  

Go out right now (or tomorrow morning, if it’s after hours) and eat at Quince! Grass-fed beef burgers! Herbed fries with spicy ketchup! Real salmon! Serious hummus! Dolmas to die for! Now with extra exclamation points!  

Don’t get me wrong; I like the Sibley tree book a lot. We pounced on it largely on the strength of David Sibley’s previous bird guides, which kick serious butt about field identification and bird behavior, respectively. No regrets about that; Sibley’s Guide to Trees answers some questions about exotics and Eastern trees, and it’s just a good read if you’re the kind of wonk who reads field guides. (Yes, I am.)  

Certainly it’s as thorough as a North America-spanning ID guide is likely to be. Herein lies the rub.  

This book is approximately the size of the whole-continent versions of Sibley’s bird guides—that is, somewhat bigger than Quince is—and, like those books, not exactly a backpacker’s dream. Sibley’s publisher dealt with that problem by splitting the original ID guide in two, East and West, which resulted in a pair of books each about the size of the comparable Peterson series.  

Some folks I know carry the Western Sibley with them and stash the big book in the car for reference, since we live in California where everything shows up sooner or later. We have a similar problem with trees. The damnedest things will grow in our mild coastal climate.  

Sibley includes cultivated trees, reasonably; most trees that urban- and suburban-dwellers see are exotics. Also, many exotic species have become “naturalized” especially here and in the Southeast, so what you see in wildlands might not be native there. I saw a question last night on a tree e-mail list about local “wild” plums—feral flowering plums from our streets and gardens, long-lived leftovers from a forgotten home or bird- or squirrel-planted volunteers.  

Almost my only gripe with the Sibley guide is that he didn’t include whole-tree drawings for every tree in the book. I do recognize that if he had, I might not be able to bench-press the result; still, as good as he is on the matter of birds’ “jizz”-birder slang: “General Impression and Shape” or Gestalt—he might have applied the same method to tree ID. You can tell this is a book by a birder, and that’s a good thing.  

One strength of the book is oaks. My goodness, there are lots of oaks—I knew this, but the pages and pages of them make the point. Plus, of course, they hybridize freely; they’re promiscuous as ducks. Our local hybrid swarms get mentioned, so do some rare types that might be species, might be hybrids; the debate’s still on.  

Sibley doesn’t paint trees as well as he paints birds, and some illustrations look more hasty than impressionistic. Still, I like owning this guide, even at retail price. Get one, but treat yourself to a meal at Quince first.  


The Sibley Guide to Trees 

David Allen Sibley 

428 pages, $39.95 


Quince Cafe and Grill 

2228 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley.  


6:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m. Monday through  

Friday; 7 a.m.– 2:30 p.m Saturday.  

Closed Sunday.