Friday, May 18, 2012

Books That Grow On You

In addition to how-to books about gardening, there are a number of books out there that describe the fascinating history of particular plants, gardens, or gardeners. Whether or not you possess a green thumb, or just an admiration for the gardening talents of others, these books will be sure to inspire you to spend a little more time admiring the beauty found in the garden.

History lovers and anglophiles will be captivated by Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens by Trea Martyn. In her book, Martyn explores the rivalry between the two most powerful men in the kingdom during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (her suspected lover) and William Cecil, Baron Burghley (her trusted advisor). Martyn’s account of the rivalry between these two men explores the queen’s love of the outdoors, and how Dudley and Cecil created spectacular gardens to curry the favor of their queen and encourage her to spend more time at their estates. Those not familiar with this exciting period of British history will find that Martyn provides enough detail about the characters and events to bring them up to speed. Gardeners will love the descriptions of the elaborate gardens at Dudley’s estate, Kenilworth, and Cecil’s gardens at Theobald’s Palace, as well as the details provided about gardening during this era.

In Wicked Plants: the Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, author Amy Stewart introduces us to the dark side of the plant kingdom by exposing us to the scandalous history of some rather perilous plants. Her ultimate goal, she says in her introduction, is not to scare us away from the outdoors, but to remind us that plants can be dangerous, and they deserve to be treated with the same respect and caution with which we approach the rest of the world. Gardeners will recognize morning glory, monkshood, and hemlock, all of which can be as dangerous as their more exotic brethren, such as the Yopo (a South American tree whose seeds contain a psychoactive compound that causes hallucinations and seizures) and the Mokihana (the official flower of the Hawaiian island of Kauai whose oils are highly toxic and cause a painful rash). Plant enthusiast or not, readers will find the stories that Stewart tells about each botanical bandit both fascinating and enlightening.

While some plants have dangerous properties, others can lead to dangerous obsessions. In Tulipomania: The Story of the World's Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, author Mike Dash gives a detailed account of this spectacular bulb. Starting with its origin in the Tien Shan Mountains of China (where it grew wild), Dash explains the tulip’s journey to the Ottoman Empire, (where it was revered for its beauty and perfection and first cultivated) and tells of its eventual arrival in Holland in the 1600s. Dash then goes on to describe the tulip mania that ensued until the market for tulips crashed spectacularly, causing economic ruin for the investors and speculators caught up in the frenzy for these beautiful flowers. While gardeners and economists will be most interested, readers who enjoy history will also be captivated by the story of the tulip and its rise and fall as the world’s most coveted flower.

The tulip is not the only flower that has inspired mania in its admirers. The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid by Craig Pittman exposes a tale of intrigue and obsession in the world of orchids. Pittman begins by describing the history of the Marie Selby Botanical Garden in Sarasota Florida and identifying the principle players in the story. He tells about the discovery of a rare orchid in Peru in 2002 and the legal issues with its transportation to the United States for identification by the experts at Selby. Along the way, Pittman reveals quite a bit about the history of the cultivation of orchids and the issues that threaten these plants in the wild. Readers may be surprised to discover that the orchid industry generates $44 billion annually, and that rare varieties can sell for thousands of dollars. Gardeners and environmentalists will find the story informative and thought provoking, but will also have to face some rather sober realizations about the challenges associated with safeguarding nature’s treasures.

Additional recommended titles:

Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation by Andrea Wulf

In the Garden with Billy: Lessons about Life, Love & Tomatoes by Renea Winchester

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievement of Earthworms by Amy Stewart