Plant-Based Reading7th March 2018 • Gardening Books • Stephanie Donaldson
While I was confined indoors as ‘the beast from the east’ rampaged outdoors, I found myself – more by chance than design – reading three books that centred on plants in one way or another. As someone who finds that life is always better when plants are involved this was a happy state of affairs – if I can’t actually be gardening, then reading about it is the next best thing.
First of the trio was ‘The Orchid Hunter’ by Leif Bersweden. This is a far cry from the usual orchidaceous tales of jeopardy in far-flung corners of the world – more a gentle coming of age story about a young man who spent a summer criss-crossing Britain and Ireland to see all fifty-two of our native orchids. Leif found his first orchid growing near his family home when he was seven years old and developed an obsession that led to him spending his first summer after leaving school in pursuit of these sometimes very elusive flowers. It is a charming book and a very good read for any wildflower enthusiast.
There is something about orchids that engages our emotions – finding orchids is always a highlight of my plant-hunting holidays and we make an annual pilgrimage to a meadow not too far away that is carpeted with orchids in early June. It is a flower that hates disturbance and modern farming practices have destroyed many old colonies and their habitats, so some species are increasingly rare and precious. Serendipitously, I read elsewhere about a company that grows native orchids for sale. According to Bewdley Orchids www.bewdleyorchids.com once they are established, orchids make good garden plants in the ground, in containers, or in wildflower meadows and will self- seed and spread if conditions are right.
My second read was ‘At the Edge of the Orchard’, a novel by Tracy Chevalier. It weaves a powerful tale about the hard lives of an early American settler family, the Goodenoughs, and the father’s attempts to establish an apple orchard of ‘eaters and spitters’ in a hostile Ohio swamp. Spitters were cider apples, essential at a time when most water was unsafe to drink. There are encounters with real people, including John Chapman, who was better known as Johnny Appleseed and, later in the book, one of the sons works for the plant hunter William Lobb, helping him collect seeds and saplings of Californian redwoods and sequoia to send to England. I’m sure it would be a terrific read even if you weren’t that interested in the horticulture, but I was – and loved every minute of it.
Last, but in no way least, there is Penelope Lively’s ‘Life in the Garden’. This book reminiscences about the different gardens she has owned and family gardens, using these reminiscences as a stepping off point into exploring the history of gardens, great gardeners and great writers who are also gardeners. It is a gentle, discursive journey that takes you from her husband appreciatively referring to their own garden as ‘the garden of earthly delights’, to her musing that he probably wasn’t thinking of Hieronymous Bosch’s painting of the same name where all manner of unspeakable things are happening. She writes about fashionable gardens and the way that the arrival of plants from the rest of the world has shaped our taste since Roman times. It is a book that deserves much more than the quick read I have managed so far and by the time I have thoroughly perused its pages I suspect that it will be liberally scattered with bookmarks. It is a book to return to and digest slowly. It is also a book with one of the loveliest covers I have ever seen.