Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Books Reviews:Yes, BookS

Three Quirky Books:
Del Tredici, P. (2010). Wild urban plants of the northeast: A field guide. Ithaca NY: Comtock Publishing.
Alcorn, J (2006). An enthusiasm for orchids: Sex and deception in plant evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, A.F. (1994) The tomato in America: Early history, culture and cookery. Columbia SC: University of South Carolina Press.

I love odd little gems and over the past few years I have found these three books. The first is available at most major bookstores, but you will have to search to find the other two. When my son was younger, we used to go to DC often and would head right to his favorite place, the Natural History Museum at the Smithsonian. We LOVED that bookstore and over years I came away with odd and interesting books, including the latter two listed above.

I listed the urban plants books first, because it is the most useful for the gardener (the other two, while interesting to the amateur scientist/naturalist in me, most decidedly have little practical import tot the US gardener, except to interest and delight). Even though we are in the Mid-Atlantic region, with many rural areas, Del Tredici's book is useful and relevant to us- after all, urban plants of the urban northeast set seeds and show up in a wider geographic region. What I like most of this book relates to my sorry state of knowledge of names and type of "adventitious" plants (a.k.a. weeds). I know if a plant is a desirable one, or a weed and I know some of the common types- dandelion, wood sorrel, cinquefoil, pokeweed, nutsedge, and crabgrass among a few. But Del Tredicis book shows the many types of adventitious plants, along with photos (OK, my one gripe- not so great photos, but good enough to help you identify the plants). He tells you the common names, botanical name, how it grows, where it came from, characteristics, fruiting, etc, but, most interesting to me, the "ecological functions" and "cultural significance" of each plant. For example, the entry for Paulownia (a distinctive plant we have all seen countless times, and probably did not know what it was): "...Introduced into North America in 1844. Its spread through the East was supposedly facilitated when seeds used as packing material to protect imported Chinese porcelain were discarded. The species is hyped in Sunday newspaper supplements as a "wonder tree" that grows 6 feet...a year." Love it!

John Alcorn is a professor of life Sciences at Arizona State University. He is a entomologist, that is, he studies insects, but makes the point that you cannot fully understanding insects without understanding plants (part of the broader notion of inter-connection of living things). As an evolutionary biologist, he is able to tease apart the connections between plants and animals and show what has been variously described as a "dance" and "an escalating arms race" between living organisms, all with the goal of reproducing their own kind. Alcorn is apparently smitten with orchids, especially the odd and unusual ones that grow in parts of Australia. I love books in which the writer's passion shines through the words, and this book is one of them- plus it is full of great photos of some very strange plants, and stories of their strategies to get insects to assist in their (the orchids) reproduction (check out the photos of "the flying duck orchid" and "the hammer orchid" they are fascinating!) This book has helped me become a better observer of nature and in the garden, to see the unusual plant "behaviors" we have right under our noses.

The tomato is often polled as the favorite garden vegetable to grow. You cannot get a good tomato unless you grow it yourself or are very lucky (store bought tomatoes are picked green, chemically ripened and chilled, which ruins any flavor they might have acquired. Want a sure fire way to ruin the flavor of a garden tomato? Refrigerate it). Smith is a garden "hobbyist" turned historian of tomatoes and thus book is fun and interesting, tracking down the myth, lore and history of the introduction of the tomato to the US. Plus, he gives historical recipes (tomato wine and tomato marmalade are my favorites- I make and can a tomato jam, the forerunner to ketchup)! I have actually found myself citing parts of this book at social gathering (and no, people don't run away!) (my sure fire, non-controversial topics at faculty gatherings? Gardening, crafts and dog stories)(well, non-controversial unless I meet another passionate gardener with definite ideas-crafts and dogs seem a safe bet).

If you have any useful or quirky gardening, botanical or life science books to recommend, please do!
Happy gardening!

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