Look up a tree Posted on December 18, 2014

Bean went live yesterday. Or to put it more precisely the online version of Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles became available on your computer. Botanists, and especially dendrologists, have been saying simply ‘Bean’ for precisely 100 years; since William Jackson Bean (was he ‘Bill’ to his friends?) brought out his book with its eight-word title.

As Head of the Arboretum at Kew (and hence Tony Kirkham’s predecessor) he was well placed to list and describe his subjects, in a judicious blend of botany and sylvicultural experience. By the 1970s his work was in its 8th edition, expanded from two volumes to five as new trees were discovered or invented, botanists wrangled, cultural knowledge piled up and noteworthy specimens multiplied. It became clear that in the digital age no one was going to revise such an encyclopaedia in the time-honoured way involving mountains of paper in correspondence and proofs. If the work was to survive and be revisable it must be online.

The original publisher was John Murray (whose other authors included Austen, Byron, Conan Doyle, Charles Darwin and Sir Walter Scott). Sadly the Murray family sold the firm (still at its original home, 50 Albemarle Street) to Hodder Headline, which is now a subsidiary of Hachette – though still run by its founder, Tim Hely-Hutchinson). Tim H-H is also my publisher. I asked him if he saw any prospect of reviving Bean, and got the answer I expected.

Would he then, I asked, consider giving the rights to The International Dendrology Society (the I.D.S.) as a charitable body which could and would put the work online pro bono publico, and hopefully in due course keep it revised and up to date.

The answer was yes. Two years of concentrated work later the result is on your desk. I’m not going to roll the credits here, but two of the stars are John Grimshaw (whose guiding hand is visible in the lack of blunders in my own Trees) and Bill Hemsley, whose ingenious digits enable me to revise my Pocket Wine Book every year with no paper at all. Trees, by the way, to give it a shameless plug, is reprinted and back in the shops for Christmas. Please don’t compare it with Bean.

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