Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury.
Next to gardening, reading about gardening is a unique pleasure. But finding truly readable garden books is not always easy. Reference-type books, with how-to-do-it instructions, or descriptions of plants and their preferred growing conditions, may be useful, but are not entertaining to read. These are books I consult standing up, with garden gloves stuffed in my pocket and a project of some sort half-done outside.
Readable garden books are to be savoured in winter, or when it’s too dark to do real gardening. They are written by dirt-under-the-fingernails gardeners who are also good writers. Like the best fiction books, they become reliable friends.
Garden Flora by Noel Kingsbury lives up to its subtitle: “the natural and cultural history of the plants in your garden.” It presents a lot of information in its 368 pages. It is arranged by genus, in alphabetical order, but each section is an essay, covering genetics, evolution, distribution, botanical characteristics, and history in cultivation. This last includes discovery, medicinal and religious uses, breeding, cultivars and fashions. Kingsbury’s informal writing style delivers facts in a congenial, readable manner. It was a revelation to me that the genus name Alchemilla derives from Arabic for “alchemy,” because of the way water droplets cupped in the leaves shine like mercury. Apparently, medieval alchemists believed this water to be especially pure and gathered it for their procedures.
The book’s extensive introduction includes valuable information about plant classification, evolution, ecology, habits and habitats, as well as a history of plant cultivation from ancient and early historical times (dubbed “before glass”) to the modern era (“after glass”). Another surprise for me was how many varieties created by plant breeders have vanished from cultivation over the years, after falling out of fashion, or because growing them became too troublesome or costly. Perhaps we are in a sort of “post glass” era?
Illustrations are drawn largely from botanical art and historical nursery catalogues, which are interesting and/or charming, but the pictures I appreciated most are those of plants in their natural habitats — hostas and daylilies growing wild in Japan, delphiniums in Kyrgyzstan, colchicums in Turkey, lupins in Washington State.
This is a fairly large volume, almost a coffee-table book, and quite heavy. It doesn’t pass the bath-bed-bus-beach test, but the depth and richness of its contents make it a book I will be content to sit down at a table and read, now and for years to come.