‘A Garden of Marvels’ author Ruth Kassinger digs into plant history at Politics and Prose

Chevy Chase-based author Ruth Kassinger tends to her “Garden of Marvels.” (Stone Photography Inc.)
Chevy Chase-based author Ruth Kassinger tends to her “Garden of Marvels.” (Stone Photography Inc.)

About 15 years ago, writer and Chevy Chase, Md., resident Ruth Kassinger was helping her kids with their science fair projects. As she wrestled with those infernal tri-fold foamcore banes of existence, she thought, “You know, this is fun, but is there any science being taught here?”

That set her on the path of writing eight books for young adults on science. All of them concentrate not only on what makes things tick, but also on the people who figured out what that ticking was.

“My whole idea is to slip in the science in an integral way to what are basically human stories,” says Kassinger, who’ll discuss her latest book, “A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered That Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants,” on Saturday at Politics and Prose.

“A Garden of Marvels,” which is aimed at adults, is about botanists who, early on, did a lot with very little. In the 1670s, for example, English plant scientist Nehemiah Grew produced incredibly detailed drawings of plants without the aid of a microscope.

“People cut open animals all the time and, even if you didn’t know how things worked, you could see the organs,” Kassinger says. “Take a plant and cut it open and you learn almost nothing.”

Botany really started to flower with the emergence of a new attitude toward learning as a whole and science in particular.

Beginning in the mid-17th century, people began to move from “just assuming that everything had been created by God for a purpose and there was really no point in investigating further, to wanting to know how things work,” Kassinger says.

The 1660 founding of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge by Experiment was evidence of that shift. In addition to holding weekly meetings that fostered the sharing of research, the Royal Society began publishing scientific papers.

“All of a sudden, the information was there to be read across Europe,” she says. The Royal Society was like an Enlightenment-era Internet.

Today’s botanists have the real Internet and lots of neato plant-related tech. And the spirit of collaboration is still strong.

“To think about a plant as an integrated system, it takes people looking at all aspects of it to put it together,” Kassinger says.

In the journey of botany, it seems no one travels alone.

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW; Sat., 1 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

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