AGS Publications Feedback: Book Reviews
Started by: Robert AmosGo to latest contribution by Tim Ingram, 29 August 2015, 12:13. Go to bottom of this page.
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Some of my favourite plants are crocuses, especially those that can be seen at the South Wales Show in mid-February. So a book dedicated to these fantastic bulbs has become one of my two new bibles (the second discussed below). The information is set out in a user-friendly way, but has managed to avoid being too textbook-ish. The photos are also fantastic and were extremely useful when I had to return about two dozen labels to their respective plants after a pidgeon had got inside the coldframe!!!
My second bible (although not strictly about alpines) is 'Wicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Main, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend' by Amy Stewart. I'm not sure if it is still stocked by the AGS; I can't recall seeing a copy since I bought one last year. As well as information and pictures about the bad guys of the plant world there are also true stories of the plants' unwitting victims.
Dawn - after your impassioned plea how could I not come up with a book that has greatly appealed to me?
'High and Dry' by Robert Nold is one of those unique books that delves deep into the experience of the author, in this case gardening with dryland plants in the Western Interior of the US. I have always been fascinated by alpines and other plants from such places and the great strength of this book is learning how to garden with the plants that suit your garden. The climate of Denver is extreme by British standards, but provides the opportunity to grow an amazing variety of plants from similar situations. For me the book provides great stimulation to see if these may adapt to the lesser extremes of our gardens in drier parts of the UK.
Probably one of the book's strongest appeals is the fact that so many of the plants discussed are unfamiliar and chapters range widely over plants of all sorts, including trees and shrubs, which gives it a very satisfying completeness. The plants are well illustrated and supplemented by occasional fine paintings. It lies within a tradition of writing in America which links the practical experience of gardening with searching out and discovering plants and is highly recommended.
Frank Kingdom-Ward, like Reginald Farrer, was one of those remarkable people who went out to explore the world of plants and make of it what he thought. His little book 'Common Sense Rock Gardening', published in 1947, is a delight to read and tells you all of the things you have done wrong, so that you know you are not alone!
However, Kingdom-Ward is really known for his wonderful writing on exploring and collecting plants and for putting them into context with the landscape they inhabit. One of his classic books was 'Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges' and this has been beautifully re-presented by Kenneth Cox and his colleagues Kenneth Storm and Ian Baker in the edition published by the Antique Collectors Club. This retraces Kingdom-Ward's journey of 1924-25 in South-East Tibet. His original narrative and photographs are supplemented by modern illustrations from the authors, making for a fascinating resonance between then and now, and a fine tribute to a great plantsman and writer.
A big thank you to Tim Ingram and Robert Amos for helping me get the ball rolling.
Dawn - I don't know if you have looked at the NARGS website but they have a special review of a book each month, which builds up over the year. I found the reviews very illuminating and useful (but then I am biased because I love books!). It is quite possible that this could be linked to reviews in the Bulletin which are then retained for reference on the website. I think there may be a few other members who could be persuaded to provide reviews!
We are going to set up a "Book of the Month" section on here (I am constantly trawling all websites picking up tips and hints!)- I did have a look at the NARGS and I agree with you - I was hoping this thread could be used by the Members as a sort of Book Club, where you can discuss, review, even recommend a book , perhaps this can be incorporated with Book of the Month - Watch this space!
Thanks for keeping the thread going with your contributions :0)
Dawn - this is a book that I have found very readable while being outside the general scope of alpine gardening, but I hope it may be of interest to some members.
'The Secret Life of Trees' by Colin Tudge is perhaps not a book that is immediately likely to sit on the alpine gardener's bookshelf! However, it stands in the same tradition as 'Plant and Planet' by Anthony Huxley, taking a broad and yet detailed, and very thoughtful, view of the world of plants and their ecology. For those of us brought up on the plants of our gardens (and alpines in particular), the initial chapters describing trees around the world, their relationships and uses, introduces an entirely new range of plants (and Latin names!) and many fascinating facts and figures. The latter section of the book looks at the way trees live and inevitably the influence that mankind has on them. The complex ecology of individual trees is illustrated by the extraordinary relationship between fig trees and their specific pollinating wasps, which, the more it is looked into the more complex it becomes! It is a very personal book and Colin Tudge is idealistic in his views of how trees could be used in more sustainable and sensible ways around the world. But these views are carefully and intelligently argued, and for a gardener carry great significance. The book is described as 'Love letter to trees' and it is very hard to disagree with this. Like Huxley's book it can overwhelm with information but the strength of the author's commitment rings through.
This is not so much a review but a taster of several books on the Plants of California. The first I acquired some years ago from the Natural History Museum, 'California's Wild Gardens - A Living Legacy', published by the California Native Plants Society. This really is a beautiful book covering different habitats north to south. Although we do grow a number of Californian plants in British gardens, they have nowhere near the representation of plants from other regions with similar climates, notably the Mediterranean and South Africa. This may be because they are more difficult to grow, or simply that gardeners have not tried growing many of them; probably a mixture of both.
I have to say I enjoy books which bring together an understanding of natural plant communities in the wild and gardening with them. American gardeners are in a privileged position because of the very diverse and fascinating flora on their doorstep, and there are several books on Californian plants which illustrate this very well. So far I have only dipped into these, so can't give a more comprehensive review, but for those who are interested these are:
'Native Treasures - Gardening with the Plants of California'
N. Nevin Smith
'Designing California Native Gardens'
Gleen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook
'California Native Plants for the Garden'
Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien
If nothing else they open our eyes to a different style of gardening, exciting in itself, but also it is fascinating to learn about a whole new range of unfamiliar plants, much as I mentioned in my review of Bob Nold's book 'High and Dry'. The increasing interest in these plants amongst American gardeners in the west means that seed is available from specialist suppliers and there are greater chances for British gardeners to have a go with them too.
Can I perhaps add the following to Tim's List:-
"Bulbs of North America" (which has sections specific to California) a NARGS publication edited by Jane McGary. Published by Timber Press 2001.
"Calochortus: Mariposa Lilies and their relatives" by Mary Gerritsen and Ron Parsons Timber Press 2007
I am very lucky to have a Japanese friend who visits us regularly and knows of my love of books. A year two ago he gave me a copy of 'My World of Plants' by Mikinori Ogisu, fascinating to look through for the plants but written in Japanese. This year he has brought another lovely book by Japanese botanists, 'Flowers of Bhutan' (New Edition), by Sasuke Nakao, Keiji Nishioka and Satoko Nishioka. This is written in both Japanese and English and details many of the plants and landscapes and ethnobotanical studies of this quite isolated and intriguing country. There are many beautiful plant portraits, but most particularly the very deep interest and knowledge that the authors have in the country comes across even from a cursory reading. The book was published in 2011 and I am sure would be of interest to many AGS members.
There are few writers who have written so beautifully and intimately on the Natural Environment than John Muir. He was someone of such wide ranging accomplishments and yet so grounded in his surroundings that his words sound down from late nineteenth century as though written today. He played a leading role in the conservation movement in North America, and the creation of the famous Sierra Club. He had an appreciation of Nature in way that was both detailed and yet poetic, and this is what most comes across in his writings - an immersion in his surroundings. Here is a simple paragraph as an example on 'The Water Ouzel', comparable to the lovely 'Dipper' of British streams:-
'The waterfalls of the Sierra are frequented by only one bird - the Ouzel or Water Thrush (Cinclus Mexicanus, Sw). He is a singularly joyous and lovable little fellow, about the size of a robin, clad in a plain waterproof suit of bluish gray, with a tinge of chocolate on the head and shoulders. In form he is about as smoothly plump and compact as a pebble that has been whirled in a pot-hole, the flowing contour of his body being interrupted only by his strong feet and bill, the crisp wing tips, and the up-slanted wren-like tail.'
How words can convey what you see. He has a particular love of birds and later on makes a fascinating comparison between them and flowers, which must be true of people now as then:-
'Love for songbirds, with their sweet human voices, appears to be more common and unfailing than love for flowers. Every one loves flowers to some extent, at least in life's fresh morning, attracted to them as instinctively as humming-birds and bees. Even the young Digger Indians have sufficient love for the brightest of those found growing on the mountains to gather them and braid them as decorations for the hair. And I was glad to discover, through the few Indians that could be induced to talk on the subject, that they have names for the wild rose and the lily, and other conspicuous flowers, whether available as food or otherwise. Most men, however, whether savage or civilized, become apathetic toward all plants that have no other apparent use than the use of beauty.'
John Muir wrote about birds and flowers, the mountains and the weather, the people he met, all in the same way as 'The Water Ouzel', with affection and understanding. A book for everyone to read.
Oliver Sacks will be well known for his moving and penetrating accounts of people suffering from neurological conditions, and the wonderful story of his childhood and fascination with chemistry, 'Uncle Tungsten'. He also loves ferns and has written a delightful short book on a trip to Mexico, studying these in the wild - 'Oaxaca Journal'. Oaxaca is unusually rich in ferns with over 700 species, many adapted to very arid conditions. As you might expect his mind ranges to many other topics; the ancient civilisations of Mexico; the Spanish conquest; chilies, chocolate and tomatillos; the weaving and dying of cloth with cochineal; and the contrasts of life in one of the most populous and poor countries in the world. Even more he describes his fellow 'fernaholics' and the comfort and fascination he finds in their company. It is a rare and generous little book in the tradition of the early naturalists (Wallace, Bates, Spruce and Humboldt) with whom he opens the book in the preface.
A number of the books I have mentioned have had a personal impact but are not ever likely to warrant inclusion amongst the AGS Publications. This one though, a description of Peter Korn's garden in Sweden, and his explorations of plants growing in natural habitats, will be a 'must have' volume when it becomes available in an English edition. The Swedish edition, self-published by Peter, is a unique and beautifully produced volume, from a gardener whose affinity to alpines and to the landscape stands out on every page. Anyone who has heard his talks or seen his garden will know that here is a gardener that you rarely find, and his style of planting with alpines of all sorts one which everyone can learn from. If you want something to really make you get out into the garden, then this will be it!
'This book is the last to be written by one of the country's greatest plantsmen. Will Ingwersen spent a lifetime devoted to plants, and in particular to alpine plants. His interest was not purely academic but practical in the extreme... '.
These are Richard Bird's first words, as editor, introducing a book that Will Ingwersen himself described as 'a very one-sided conversation between myself and my readers'. Anyone who has grown and read about a very wide range of alpine plants through their lives will draw enjoyment from such a personal book, and few have ever known plants better.
It is a sad reflection on the way alpines are regarded (or actually not regarded) by most gardeners now that such a book has not become a collector's item, and that copies are available on Amazon for the derisory sum of £0.01. It may be specialised and many of the plants never grown by more than a few, but it satisfies the parts that other alpine books don't reach.
How many gardeners like me prove easy to satisfy at Christmas? A couple of books, a good fire and some mulled wine gently simmering on the stove. I have been given two wonderful books for Christmas - two long on the list that I have been wanting to read. The first is 'The Plant Hunter's Garden' by Bobby Ward. Once you have discovered all there is to know about plants, this tells you that you have only really just begun, and describes all those fascinating people who have collected seed and plants and so enriched our gardens. Many may not be so well known outside the circles of plantsmen and members of specialised societies like the AGS, but they are certainly luminaries to us. Like Dan Hinkley's books this is a book to savour.
The second is a real 'tour de force' - 'Flowers of Crete' by John Fielding and Nicholas Turland. Many members must have been lucky enough to visit Crete, and indeed have this book. I have only read of its flora and grown a small number of its plants, so this again will open my eyes to a huge amount that I don't know. It certainly beats a pair of socks and some 'Old Spice'!
'Thoughtful Gardening' has been rather usurped by the camera. That may seem an overarching statement but how many gardeners now write about plants in the way that Christopher Lloyd, or certainly Reginald Farrer did? And how many publishers would encourage such writing now-a-days? Have plants changed, or gardeners changed, or readers changed? Robin Lane Fox in his book of essays certainly makes you think and has many suggestions for plants and planting that you might wish you had thought about first (for example combining Linum narbonense and Gypsophila 'Rosy Veil'). He starts by wishing that the clever undergraduates that walk in the gardens at Oxford would think a little more about the plants, but generally clever young people have other things on their minds. Generally the gardens he talks about lie well above the lowly alpine garden (depending on your point of view) and yet he began his career as a summer student at the Botanical Garden in Munich under the direction of Wilhelm Schact. He writes about another great alpine gardener and photographer, Valerie Finnis, and her teacher Beatrix Havergal who founded Waterperry. And throughout his book the occasional references to alpines remind you that the grand ambitions of Cardinal Ippolito d'Este at Tivoli can also forge themselves in the minds of lesser gardeners.
Unlike Christopher Lloyd, whose writing mostly centred on one garden and the plants that he grew there, Robin Lane Fox is more sweeping, and yet also at times more intimate. In particular I was drawn to an 'Odessan Odyssey', where he opens with the sentences: 'Gardens do not have to be perfect to be rewarding. They are often evocative in ways which depend on the viewer, not their level of care. No two people see quite the same when they look beyond the surface...'.
Gardening is at heart to do with your individual discovery of plants and the worlds they live in, and the essence of this book is captured in the few lines from Vita Sackville-West, chosen to open it - I paraphrase: 'the doer and the admirer'; and in that order.
I have this book and another by Robin Lane Fox. I do enjoy his writing and his weekly column in the FT. I find it far more interesting than what I consider to be the sausage machine columns in the glossy magazines
After the opening line to my last review you may wonder why I look at a book on photography. Good photography as much as good writing can be very revealing. And sadly for the writer most people will be attracted first and foremost by photographs. (So how many people read Book reviews rather than look at Show results?).
My tendency in the not so distant days of film photography was to take care in composing pictures and use a tripod, in large part because film was expensive. Digital cameras, computers and the internet have completely transformed the way images are obtained and transmitted, and as an example it is now so easy to visit a Plant Show and use a camera as a notebook. For a journalistic account, or blog, this is excellent and can make a good story, but the fundamentals of photography have not really changed since the earliest days, where the camera is the tool and the photographer the craftsman. Jon Evans emphasised this in a recent talk to our Group, pointing out the importance of taking time, thinking about composition and knowing how to get the best out of the camera.
With a digital camera I am much more prone to take snapshots than before and this book by Alan L. Detrick has opened my eyes to many aspects of Digital Photography. Macro photography is particularly specialised and calls for great attention to detail (which interestingly is not absent from a 'blog', but in a very different way). The descriptions behind each photograph in the book are themselves very helpful, but the writing gives a more overall view which helps me think more carefully about taking pictures. The idea of 'Macro Awareness' probably has especial appeal to alpine gardeners, but Detrick also comments about the 'style' that renowned photographers achieve, which results from going beyond the technical mastery of the camera (difficult when faced with the textbook-like manuals that come with each camera!). How many people use the histogram displayed on camera's LCD to measure detail in highlights or shadows? I know I never have. And in a different way how many of us get up early in the morning to take photographs when light is soft and low? The way we view photographs tends to emphasise the sharpness at the edge of an image first, fooling the eye about out of focus regions closer to the camera and in the centre of the image. The way that background can enhance, or detract, from the picture is often subtle and difficult to pin down. I like his comment that close-up photographers tend to divide into those who take 'scientific' pictures with great depth of field (at f22) and those who are more artistic, using soft focus (at f5.6). His conclusion is to vary the technique and break out of any particular habit. (If you wonder about the effectiveness of the latter approach just take a look at the pictures taken by Philippe at the Haut-Chitelet Alpine Garden on the SRGC Forum).
In close-up photography depth of field becomes very important and can be assessed by a 'depth of field preview' on some cameras. My film camera also had this feature but as it works by reducing the aperture and hence amount of light entering the camera it can be very difficult to see what depth of field the picture will actually have. Alan Detrick encourages the reader to persevere and concentrate on highlights and edges in the image which make it easier to judge. Using diffusers to add or subtract light from a subject is something I have never really done (except by placing myself as a shade for a plant on a sunny day). I also have a tendency to put too much into an image which Macro photography helps to refine. For example he suggests having one blossom totally included in the frame with just small sections of other blossoms evident. The emotion that a photograph transmits: 'an optimistic feel' or 'soft dreamy airy feel', is not something that one tends to think of except in candid photography, but does come across in close-ups of plants.
This is quite a long review because I do enjoy photography but am not especially good at it, and this book has really made me think more about the new digital world. Plants are astonishingly beautiful subjects for the camera, and Macro photography brings out features of them which are often rarely noticed.
This is not a book about plants and so you might wonder why I should include it under these book reviews. The reason is that the author is a traveller and mountaineer who takes in the detail and history of landscapes in a similar way that many alpine gardeners will consider the way that plants are part of their terrain. The book is about discovering and following paths in their many manifestations, whether on land or sea, or in one case (the Broomway in Essex) seemingly on both at once. A nice précis of the book is given by his description of the Scottish writer Nan Shepard's account of following the ridge lines and deer tracks in the Cairngorn's for years until she found herself walking not 'up' but 'into' the mountains. Those who love Wainwright's guides to the Lake District will identify the same feeling. Although plants are just there as part of the journeys (as they are more explicitly in Roger Deakins book 'Wildwood'), it is impossible to consider alpine plants of all flowers without also taking in the landscapes and drama of their homes. So this book, although not directly applicable to gardeners has much to say about the detail of studying the environment and gaining a wider sense of plants than simply their place in the garden. More than this, like John Muir's writing, it is simply beautifully written.
I've mentioned the N. American naturalist Ann Zwinger several times after reading her book 'Land Above the Trees'. There is a wonderful interview with her on U-tube here:-
She is written about in the same way as John Muir and Thoreau and her vision of the Natural World shines out in this interview. I will certainly be reading more of her books.
Just arrived from the AGS Bookshop. This is going to be a good read by this team from Denver Botanic Garden. Worthy of a review in a while. Steppes are defined - approximately - as those continental regions receiving between 10 and 20 inches of rain annually, with long cold winters and hot summers regularly reaching 30°C plus. Well, south-east gardens only approach these conditions very approximately(!) but we do grow quite a few of these plants... and these landscapes are floristically fascinating and, as the authors say, little discussed.