Whether you are a backyard gardener or a botanist, there’s a king’s ransom of beautifully written books and facsimile editions for year-round reading and looking. Here’s 20 books for your wish list or library.
The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, David Haskell. (Viking, 2012). Available in hardcover/paper/Nook. An evolutionary biologist and ecologist, Haskell used his senses but no tools, other than a hand lens, to spend a year in exactly the same spot daily to observe nature and record his observations. Haskell, who teaches at the University of the South(Sewanee TN), selected a spot about one square meter inside the 13,000-acre forested tract owned by the university as his place to sit, watch, listen, and conduct mindful breathing. It was his “…window of leaves, rocks and water” that he focused on and through which he viewed the natural world. His field notes of are a kind of observational poetry that others have shared in writings, for instance Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) and EO Wilson (The Naturalist). The Forest Unseen was a Pulitzer-Prize finalist. New York Times book review.
The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome, Gordon Campbell (Oxford University Press), 17 £. While we joke about silly bearded ceramic gnomes that appear in travel ads (Expedia) or in movies (Audry Tatou’s Amelie), real-life hermits with beards once lived in small, rustic temples and shrines created for them by 18th-century British aristocrats as ornamental hermitages on their estates. Bizarre? Yes. But the idea of a small, simple abode for escape and contemplation goes back to the time of Hadrian (2nd century AD), who built a miniature villa on an island near his villa as a place for retreat. The idea fell out of favor by the mid-19th century (hermits ended up being too hard to find and too lonely) and the ceramic versions took over. Learn more about author Gordon Campbell in a Boston Globe article– includes an interview and a photo essay of actual hermit structures and shrines.
American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation, Eric Rutkow. (Scribner), 406 pp Hardcover/ ebook available. Every chapter of American history is imbued with the story of how trees from our forests fought wars (the masts on British warships), enabled the whaling industry, built railroads and stockyards, supplied the wood for early villages and later the ticky-tacky suburbs of mid-20th century. This is a dense book, organized in discrete chapters that make it easy to read and rest, as you absorb the people (Henry David Thoreau/Johnny Appleseed/Teddy Roosevelt), places (Central Park/the Adirondacks) and events (Allied planes in WWI) in the life and death (American elm, American chestnut) of forests and woodlands in the US – a natural resource as precious as oil and gas. Meet the author in a National Public Radio interview (Diane Rehm show). Read the Wall Street Journal review
Gingko: The Tree That Time Forgot, Dr. Peter Crane OBE (Yale University Press). 408 pp 61 illus. $40 Sir Peter Crane’s years as executive director of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew no doubt offered him time and proximity to develop this paean – scientific, social and cultural – to the gingko, a tree with a lineage back to the age of dinosaurs and known to many of us as a contemporary street tree and a backyard specimen. In Crane’s case, the historic ginkgo that likely inspired the book dates from the 1760’s when King George III was in residence at Kew Palace –and it still lives! That’s a reminder, Crane tell us, that the gingko is tough and resilient, but it nearly went extinct. Probably first cultivated 1000 years ago in China, the gingko survives today thanks to people who admired its longevity, beautiful leaves and edible nuts when it was seriously waning. It is a single species – no known living relatives – and a living fossil that has survived 200 million years!
Crane, who is dean and professor of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and an internationally known botanist, is a great storyteller. His story is also a lesson for all who would ignore and misuse forests, woodlands and even urban streets where individual champion trees and whole stands are at risk from development, pollution and human whims.
Check out the lengthy author interview and photos at Yale 360.
Mahogany: The costs of luxury in early America, Jennifer L. Anderson. (Harvard University Press). The finest examples of New World craftsmanship – from Newport RI and New York – are 18th- and 19th-century pieces of mahogany furniture (dressers, desks, side tables, chairs) that are valued into the millions at auction.
Rarely considered: Caribbean mahogany was scouted, cut and transported by enslaved workers – who were sometimes even branded with their owners’ monograms – then loaded onto waiting ships, often at great peril for workers’ safety and lives. This is complex story – real estate battles, riots, blended families of whites and Caribbean blacks (secret marriages, children born outside marriage). Once you read the book, you may never again look at museums’ glorious examples of mahogany furniture quite the same way. Watch an interview with the author on CSPAN New York Times article
New York City of Trees, Brian Swett. (Quantuck Lane ) 152 pages, $29.95. Fifty of photographer Brian Swett’s favorite city trees – from all five boroughs –tell stories: trees saved, protected, preserved and sadly even lost. These trees are the keepers of the past, as he points out since “trees physically hold the years of the city as carbon in their rings.” A tulip polar, the tallest tree in Queens (134 feet when measured in 2000), survives on the Long Island Expressway. There’s a magnolia strangely out of place in New York’s climate, but possibly protected by a row of brownstones in BedStuy that may create a microclimate. Then there’s an English elm, known informally as the hangman’s elm, in lower Manhattan, although no one ever was hung from that tree. Radio interview with Swett and slide show. Wall Street Journal review.
Magnificent Trees of the New York Botanical Garden, Larry Lederman. Monocelli Press $50. A four-season photographic essay on trees, 200 images, photographed at the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden, outlines the passage of time (fall/winter/spring), the beautiful and the rare (a bit of primeval New York forest still stands there), offering plenty of room for quiet reflection. Video interview with photographer Larry Lederman.
The Vertical Garden, Patrick Blanc. ( WW Norton). 208 pp $65. Inventor of the vertical garden, Blanc, who is both a botanist and artist, has projects worldwide – Singapore, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beirut, Berlin, Ibiza, Paris, among others – that embrace the use of living vegetation applied to exterior and interior walls of all sorts of buildings, from museums and shopping centers to private homes. My personal favorite is the Quai Branley Museum in Paris where un mûr végétal covers an entire façade. His most ambitious work is about to be unveiled: the world’s tallest vertical garden on the Jean Nouvel-designed One Central Park (Sydney, Australia). Norton has just published an update to his original The Vertical Garden book; and there are editions in French (Le Mûr Végétal, de la nature à la ville) and in German (Vertikale Garten, die Natur in der Stadt). His goal: make walls flourish as places of biodiversity! Blanc’s web site
Stickwork, Patrick Dougherty (Princeton University Press). Doherty is to sapling trees and branches what Blanc is to living walls – a master of weaving natural material into artistic works for universities, museums and private clients. My first encounter with his installations was on the Brown University campus in Providence, RI, where we saw three tall “nests” that we could walk into, although there were no labels or any information about the artist or the pieces. Architecture Daily article with photos.
His recent monograph-memoir features over 200 photographs of installations and commissions – on several continents – plus notes on his methods. You may buy a hardcover/softcover signed by him directly from his web site. A new venture is Bending Sticks: The Sculpture of Patrick Dougherty, a documentary film by Penelope Maunsell and Kenny Dalsheimer’s film. For a list of the artist’s recent/current projects
The Green Florilegium (Prestel) $150. Mysteries abound with the Green Florilegium, an exceptional volume of 178 original botanical illustrations by the German painter Hans Simon Holtzbecker. It is not signed or dated (although generally agreed to be mid-17th century) and its commissioner is unknown, although believed to have originated from the library at Gottorp Castle in Schleswig, on the border of Germany and Denmark. Little is known about Holtzbecker, although he lived in Hamburg and clearly was knowledgable about plants and flowers. One thing for sure – the original illustrations, painted on parchment using gouache, are breathtaking. The original volume, all 178 illustrations, was painstakingly restored by art conservators. The entire work has been reproduced as a facsimile edition with an introductory essay and information on each flower. Commentary by Kevin Sharkey and slide show of images.
Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium, Belknap Press, 208 pp, 11 x 14 ½ . $155: Considered one of America’s finest poets – although her work was mostly published after her death in 1886 – Dickinson was only 14 years old when she started an herbarium (collection of preserved plants and flowers) that grew to 400 specimens. The entire herbarium is held at Harvard University, and has now been published as a facsimile album, with each page reproduced in full color at full size. Introduced by a substantial literary and biographical essay, it includes a transcription of Dickinson’s handwritten labels., complete botanical catalog and index. The full Herbarium will be available online in Fall 2013. Book information
Slate has archived all of the images in Dickinson’s herbarium.
Gardening by the Book, Garden Club of America. ( Oak Knoll Press) hardcover 256 pages. $50. Forewords by Marian Weldon Hill and Eugene S. Flamm, essays by Leslie K. Overstreet, Denise Otis, and Arete Warren, plus descriptions of 150 items from the collection.
The Garden Club of America celebrated its centenary this year with two spectacular projects – an exhibition of the extraordinary books, many of them ancient and rare examples of botanical literature and illustration – and an exhibition catalogue to match. While the exhibition at New York’s Grolier Club has ended, the catalogue lives on, and is available, lavishly illustrated with color plates from the Club’s library of books on natural history and floriculture, treatises on garden design and landscape architecture, and early photographic works on gardening. Includes a bibliography, and an index. New York Times review.
Vegetable Literacy, Deborah Madison (Ten Speed Press,) 416 pp. $40
Some might call this a cookbook, but in fact Deborah Madison breaks new ground in the world of gardening and cooking, with an in-depth look at the relationships between everyday vegetables and their similarities. You will find shared characteristics– for example, carrots, Queen Ann’s lace, parsley, fennel and cilantro are in the same botanical family.
She also addresses “difficult” vegetables in the cabbage family — such as
the rutabaga which many people would turn down cold. Madison provides 300 recipes that show ways of making vegetables work together so it’s not the motherly mantra “eat your peas and carrots.” Now we know better why they don’t always work together. Write-up in the Austin Chronicle. Review in the Christian Science Monitor
The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart. (Algonquin). Grapes, rye, sorghum, potatoes, coriander, cinchona, juniper, bitter orange. What would your spirits cabinet look like without all of the bounty from the earth? Very meager indeed! Grains, herbs and fruits are central to the intoxicating stuff humans have imbibed for thousands of years. Here is a book that offers the backstory on the botanical storehouse used to make and flavor our favorite drinks. Stewart is a prolific writer. Her book The Earth Moved, also Algonquin, is a paean to the achievements of earthworms. Her web site
The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden, Thomas C. Cooper, editor. (Timber Press) 162 pp $15. Here are 30 “memoirs” by formidable garden designers, plant experts and nature enthusiasts – one chapter apiece to the likes of Dan Hinkley, Rosalind Creasy, and Doug Tallamy, and former The Victory Garden host, Roger Swain. This makes the perfect summer “read” that you can pick up and put down, and finally devour. Editor Thomas C. Cooper is senior editor at Boston College Magazine; and former editor of Horticulture magazine and The Gardener (Who better to assemble?) Get ready for plenty of shop talk of the most enjoyable variety. Details
Planting: A New Perspective, Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (Timber Press), 280 pp, 268 color photos, 30 color illustrations. £30. Dutch landscape architect Piet Oudolf is considered by many to be the most influential garden designer of the past 25 years. Widely known and revered in Europe, Oudolf possesses a masterful understanding of plant ecology and performance.
Over time, his style has changed – best evidenced in 2010 with plantings at New York’s High Line. This book gives you an encyclopedic set of charts and planting plans from his projects to help you understand how he has assembled landscapes, color, texture, what works together – as well as small details such as the appearance of a plant’s seedhead, life expectancy, and invasiveness.
London Telegraph reviewer Tom Stuart-Smith, notes of the High Line project, “Here, the planting is intermingled, less obviously painterly, and much more like a miraculous slice of nature than an artful arrangement of plants.” Smith notes how this new book “charts the progression of Oudolf’s work between these two extremes of style and rightly places him as the pivotal planting designer of the last quarter century.” Stuart-Smith’s review
Natural Companions: The Garden Lover’s Guide to Plant Combinations, Ken Druse with Ellen Hoverkamp (Stewart Tabori & Chang) $40 . Just as there are food and wine pairings, so too with plants, flowers and trees. Author of 14 books, Ken Druse knows how to assemble plant and flower pairings that are recipes for best scale, color, drama and more. The book is peppered with garden history, botanical knowledge and advice from a pro. Companion to this are Ellen Hoverkamp’s exquisite photographs, actually made from live plants and flowers on a flatbed scanner. Garden Design features an annotated slide show by Druse/Hoverkamp with text and photos of six pairings. Article in Organic Gardening by editor Ethne Clark.
The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty From Brandywine Cottage, David Culp with Adam Levine; photographs by Rob Cardillo. (Timber Press) 2012. If you need to be convinced, just browse the recent New York Times article by Ann Raver, who features his garden in southeastern Pennsylvania, with 3,000 plants! Do you have an errant walnut tree and struggle to find plants that will grow successfully nearby ? Is it a problem with too much shade – what plant suggestions can he give? Or perhaps it’s that pesky deer problem – is there a repellent that works or should you change often to keep them away from the roses and hostas? This is a first book from a true plantsman who loves to teach about combinations, form, color, texture and more. And maybe you will solve that deer problem, too. David Culp’s Layered Garden web site.
Latin for Gardeners: Over 3,000 Plant Names Explained and Explored, Lorraine Harrison. (University of Chicago Press) 224 pp, 200 color plates. $25. What’s in a name? In the case of plant names (actually the scientific names of all species), the Latin name is often the most precise – not to mention accurate – way to understand what you are seeking, whether at a nursery, a seedsaver’s exchange, or even ordering mail-order seed catalogues. Latin names often indicate the provenance of a given plant, or provide clues to color (alba is white/niger is black), shape, fragrance, taste, behavior, functions, and more. This is a fully illustrated book, ideal as a pocket guide for shopping and plant hunting. Article