My family uses guidebooks a lot and the newly-released Weeds of the South is simply excellent, among the best on our shelf. Charles Bryson and Mike DeFelice have co-authored a book that is visually appealing, educational, comprehensive and easy to use. Five stars out of five.

The book can be purchased through Amazon at Weeds of the South.

Of course, my layperson’s opinion is a paltry second next to the experts’ opinions. Luckily, I’m not off-base in my assessment. Asked for their opinions of the book, several weed scientists also offer glowing reviews.

Arkansas Extension weed specialists Ken Smith and Bob Scott “have purchased a number of copies for distribution to all county offices in Arkansas,” says Scott. “This is the most up-to-date text thus far on weed species of the South and replaces the older, bulkier, big yellow books that were previously published through the SWSS (Southern Weed Science Society). It is an excellent reference. Everyone that works in weed control in any way should have a copy.”

The book is “a ‘must-have’ for plant taxonomists, weed science students and practitioners, crop consultants, and natural world enthusiasts interested in the flora of the region,” says Bob Hayes, weed scientist and superintendent of the West Tennessee Research and Extension Center. “Outstanding photography and plant characteristics make for easy identification and classification of weeds.”

Hayes procured a copy in June and has “used it almost everyday since I received it. I keep it within arms-reach and have recommended it to numerous persons bringing in weeds for identification.”

DeFelice appreciates the kind words — and has heard plenty of similar sentiment. “We’ve gotten great response from the book. Really nice notes are coming in from all over. People seem stunned at how well it turned out. The South is the most diverse region of the nation for weeds and there was a huge gap without a book like this.”

Dashboard material

Weeds of the South “belongs on the dashboard of a pickup truck,” says Bryson, a USDA-ARS research botanist stationed in Stoneville, Miss. “It’s so much easier to use than the loose-leaf weed guide binders we had previously.

“With this book, in the index, we list every species and every common name — even if the common name is the same for multiple weeds. Those are all referenced and it makes it so much easier to find particular weeds.”

The big yellow binder — which was the standard for the South for around three decades — “was hard to lug around,” says DeFelice, a Pioneer senior manager based in Des Moines, Iowa. “It became way too expensive and unwieldy. Four years ago, we decided the binder was no longer the answer.”

Other attempts had been made to leave the binders behind. Just before taking a job with Pioneer some 15 years ago, DeFelice began work on an interactive software version of the binder. “Actually, the DVD Interactive Encyclopedia of North American Weeds is still available. It’s currently in version three. People like books, but I must admit the software is my first love — it’s interactive, there’s a lot of teaching lessons on it and it contains twice the photographs. Actually, it’s a nice supplement to the books. But we’ve sold more Weeds of the South in two weeks than we have the software in four years.”

Bryson is very complimentary of the software — “full of very useful bells and whistles” — but unfortunately, “many folks don’t find the utility of a laptop and software in a hot, dusty vehicle or turn-row. So we thought, ‘why not put these weeds in a book?’”

The Southern Weed Science Society agreed as did photographer Arlyn Evans. Evans, whose work in the book is of the highest quality, had been working on weed photography long before the book process began.

“In the early 1980s Arlyn retired but still wanted to be involved in weed science. Chester McWhorter (the Southern Weed Science lab director at Stoneville, Miss.) knew that Evans had a great love for photography,” says Bryson. “He suggested they grow weeds in the greenhouse at Stoneville and Evans could come down and photograph them. That way everything would be uniform — background, soils, etc. They started off with the first set and it continued from there. Arlyn has a tremendous volume of slides from those efforts. For the book, we narrowed them down to the best photos.”

The photography culls over 60 years of Evan’s work. The book “literally represents a lifetime of work,” says DeFelice. “He has a bunch of stories. One of the photos he shot out at White Sands, N.M., in the 1950s, before I was born. He was working and the Army arrived and said it was time to leave. They were preparing to fire missiles.”

Photos selected were most important for identification and to cover as many parts as possible of a particular weed’s life history.

“For instance, we wanted to use a photo of seeds or fruit, a photo of an immature plant, a photo of a mature plant with flowers,” says Bryson. “In some cases things like purple and yellow nutsedge with rhizomes and tubers were very important. We also wanted to show that reproductive capability could be from rhizomes and tubers rather than just seeds.”

One unique thing about Weeds of the South is the descriptions are reformatted in a way “that it’s easier to look at an immature plant, a whole mature plant description, specialized identifying features and the plant’s toxicity. Each of the descriptions begins with the accepted, common name of the weed based on the Weed Science Society of America’s composite list. The weed’s synonyms — both scientific and common — follow.”

The process

Once the book proposal was approved, the SWSS began looking for a potential publisher.

“Bill Vencill (weed scientist) at the University of Georgia had contacts with his university press — and SWSS had a good track record with them previously (through reprinting Jim Miller’s Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses).”

Impressed with the UGA Press’ ability and enthusiasm for the project, Bryson and DeFelice began the grunt work of writing and editing descriptions, developing the glossary and myriad other tasks.

“My primary responsibility was the descriptions,” says Bryson. “It turns out Mike and I work closely, and well, as a team. We zapped a ton of e-mails back-and-forth trying to develop the text and the first draft of the manuscript.”

DeFelice drew all the book’s illustrations including great distribution maps — all the weed range maps were redone to include not only the South and Southeast, but the whole of the United States and Canada — and pre-prepped the photos. It wasn’t a small undertaking. “I sent the press folks a 750 GB hard drive full of high resolution photos. There was a huge spreadsheet explaining every photo and what the captions had to be. When the galleys first arrived, it really hit me. I was so impressed with what the University of Georgia Press had printed. I thought, ‘This was a huge project. What were we thinking?’”

The University of Georgia then took the first draft through a peer-review process with ARS and the university’s anonymous review board.

Finally, after several years of work, the book went to press in January.

“I believe 12,000 copies were printed,” says DeFelice. “Over 1,600 copies have been purchased in the first two months and UGA Press tells us it’s one of the bestselling books that is newly available.”

Motivations and the future

One might suspect that two years of hard work would result in financial rewards for Bryson and DeFelice. Such suspicions are incorrect.

“Neither Mike nor I are getting anything out of this monetarily,” says Bryson. “And it’s a huge investment of time and cost up front. Funding by the Wormsloe Foundation enabled the SWSS and UGA Press to get the project off the ground.”

“No, this has simply been an act of love and respect for farmers, consultants and researchers. It’s for the good of humanity. There was a need for such a book and hopefully it fits the bill.”

The book just “started out as a way to raise a little money for the Society,” says DeFelice. “Truth is I just love weeds. I’ve been photographing them since graduate school. I won some awards doing that and just kept at it.”

While chuckling, DeFelice makes a surprising admission. “Even though I love plant taxonomy, one thing I’m terrible at is weed identification. My approach to the book has been ‘how can we do this so I can figure out what a plant is quickly?’ I know all the major weeds because I see them all the time. Hand me an unknown, though, and I’m terrible at it.”

Now, in the midst of the release of Weeds of the South, the pair of authors is hardly resting on laurels. With the ink still wet on their current book, Weeds of the Midwest is shaping up.

The Midwest book “will be the same layout and format,” says DeFelice. “When Weeds of the South went to layout, one of the University of Georgia folk called and said, ‘Hey, you gave me all the weed books from around the United States to look at. But there doesn’t seem to be one from the Midwest.’ I said, ‘Nope, there isn’t.’ She said, ‘Want to do one? I said, ‘I’d love to do it. But we have to make sure Charles is sitting down when we ask him.’”

Bryson was amenable and Weeds of the Midwest “will contain some of the same weeds in the current book,” he says. “But it will also have a suite of weeds that are different. Mike and I are still partnered up on this and we’re working with the same folks at the UGA Press. In fact, the revised manuscript was turned in mid-June. So, we’re well along the way to have this book out by summer of next year.”

email: dbennett@farmpress.com