You could spend the next few years driving from nursery to nursery, peppering the plant folks with probing questions about trees and shrubs. You could park yourself deep in the woods, absorbing all you could about species after species.
You would still come up short, compared with what's packed into Michael A. Dirr's definitive masterwork, "Dirr's Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs" (Timber Press, $79.95).
If your aim is to become fluent in all things woody, here's the more enlightening road to becoming a walking, talking wizard on roughly 3,700 species and cultivars of trees and shrubs: Hoist the nearly 7-pound encyclopedia off the shelf, grab yourself a pen for note-taking and start turning the nearly 1,000 pages.
Everything you will ever need or want to know about the long-necked or squat-and-flowering beauties in your own yard, or down the lane at your favorite woodsy someplace, is here. Dirr's book has been termed a "seminal work," and in this case that's not hyperbole.
With his two previous works, "Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs" (1997) and "Dirr's Trees and Shrubs for Warm Climates" (2002), the longtime professor at the University of Georgia, known as the "modern father of woody plants," was said to have "set the gold standard" for horticultural references.
In his latest tome, those two classics are combined and updated with the latest changes in plant names, new introductions and more than 3,500 photos for the reader to examine.
The thing that will, perhaps, make you never want to close the book is that, for all his iron-clad horticultural knowledge, Dirr is one of those rare professors who knows how to spin a yarn, whose passion for his trees is downright catching, and who never ceases to pull fascinating facts out of his pocket. He is, aptly, as down-to-earth and deeply rooted as the objects of his lifelong affection.