Book Reviews

Book Review: Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden

February 20, 2017

As a complement to traditional guides that detail how to grow, cultivate and design with individual plants, British garden designer and commentator, Noel Kingsbury has written Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden.

Containing cultural and natural histories of more than 300 of the most widely grown genera of garden plants, Garden Flora provides information about their origins, habitats and history in cultivation.  When relevant, mythology and folklore as well as traditional and modern uses outside of the garden are shared, revealing what may be described as the secret lives of plants.

Kingsbury begins with a comprehensive introduction prefaced with the one line exclamation, “Read this first!” within which he provides a basic primer in plant ecology and garden history. Divided into four sections highlighting genus, ecology, traditions and uses and history in cultivation, the introduction is augmented with key words, highlighted in bold, that serve as a reference for the reader as they explore individual plant histories. 

Cistus still life, credit Rijksmuseum

And explore one will, invariably turning to their favorite plants first.  One learns that the hydrangea was first mentioned in 8th century Japanese poetry where it was noted that the flowers have different colors in different places.  Helianthus, whose name derives from the Greek for sun and flower,  is an overwhelmingly North American native. The annual sunflower, (Helianthus annuus) has been cultivated by Native Americans since prehistoric times and was introduced to Europe through Spain in 1568.  Useful in remediating pollution, the plant was used to clean up after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

Containing more than 350 pages, Garden Flora is generously illustrated with colorful historic images, including those from seed catalogues and garden journals as well as contemporary photographs.  Each image is annotated providing additional context to the text as well as a resource for further inquiry. The book concludes with an overview of further reading, sources and an extensive index.

Delphinium hybrids in Kelway’s Manual credit Kelway’s Plants Ltd.

While the book fills an important niche in understanding the cultural and natural histories of individual species, it is at times a tad overwhelming.  While it appears that Kingsbury has followed the same format for each plant included (origin of the plant in the wild, number of species, distribution and ecology) it is not always obvious to the reader.  Some of the entries are lengthy and copiously illustrated while others are briefly noted without the benefit of an illustration, an imbalance that is left unexplained.

Orchid display credit Chiba University Library

Garden Flora provides a poignant reminder that the garden plants we love and depend upon invariably come from other places and that the garden represents all that is best about a world of communal enterprise.  As portrayed by Kingsbury the history of plant cultivation is one of mutual respect and shared discoveries that transcends artificial borders and boundaries, a concept that is increasingly fragile in our complex world.

On March 7th Kingsbury will participate in “Planting in the Public Realm: Projects and Projections” at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Piper Auditorium.  The symposium will consider the importance of planting the public realm today with Steven Handel, visiting professor in landscape architecture; Noel Kingsbury, writer and garden designer; Norbert Kühn, TU Berlin; Doug Reed MLA ’81, lecturer in landscape; and Matthew Urbanski MLA ’89.  The lecture is free and open to the public. 

Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden
by Noel Kingsbury
Timber Press, 2016

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, February, 2017

Copyright © 2017 Patrice Todisco — All Rights Reserved

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