AT first glance it looks like another handsome horticulture book, lavishly illustrated with vivid colored plates of flowering shrubs, detailed botanical drawings, and black-and-white historical photographs and sketches. But A Reunion of Trees: The Discovery of Exotic Plants and Their Introduction into North American and European Landscapes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 270 pp., $35) is more. Stephen Spongberg has written a grand adventure story about the migration of woody plants around the world and the men who collected and nurtured them.
Particularly fascinating is the chapter about explorations in the Far East. The ginkgo tree was discovered by a doctor for the Dutch East India Company and is probably the first Asian tree to be widely cultivated in the West. It is a "living fossil," a long-enduring plant form found in 225-million-year-old rock formations.
While many of the plants horticultural adventurers brought home were exotic indeed, some showed striking similarities to native species. …