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Garden Books Pave a Path of Poetry, History and Adventure

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2006

The lull in the gardening year is alarmingly short. Next week, the days start getting longer (hallelujah) and then the seed catalogues will pour in. The next few weeks present a precious period to stop thinking directly about our own efforts and to consider how plants and gardens have enriched the lives of others.

It may be old hat to suggest grabbing a worthy garden book and a comfy chair and whiling away a winter hour or two, but I can think of no better antidote to the demands of modern life or the thin glamour of electronica.

A good book can serve its owner for decades, safe from exploding batteries, built-in obsolescence and server crashes. Any of the following volumes would be welcome as a holiday gift of friendship: Let's start with something really special.

Emily Dickinson's Herbarium

by Emily Dickinson

Belknap Press, 2006, $125.

This is a facsimile of Emily Dickinson's herbarium -- the dried, pressed plant collection that she made as a teenager -- and includes an introduction by Dickinson scholar Richard B. Sewall and a catalogue of the plants by Ray Angelo, of Harvard University. The original is part of the collection of Dickinson's archives at Harvard's Houghton Library; it was little known until now, in part because it is so fragile that it has been kept under wraps.

Modern photographic techniques (okay, the Digital Age has its uses) have permitted the reproduction, which is large and handsomely bound and includes a protective slipcase. The book offers a direct connection to the poet and the plants that were so formative to her creative life. Assembled when she was just 14, the herbarium contains both decorative flora from her family garden and wildflowers from the surrounding countryside of Amherst, Mass. Collecting and pressing flowers was a common pastime in the 1840s, but Dickinson's herbarium is clearly the work of someone deeply connected to botany at an early age. It contains 424 specimens on 66 pages. In an introduction, Sewall writes, "Take Emily's herbarium far enough, and you have her." The care she took with it and her need for plants would manifest themselves in her work.

As a piece of horticultural history, the volume tells us that gardeners in the 19th century had a far smaller palette of plants to decorate their environments than we have today and that wildflowers did double duty. Her wild flora include Queen Anne's lace, flowering dogwood and the pitcher plant, but she also preserved purely ornamental stuff such as tulips, passionflower and the moss rose. Interestingly, she includes a flowering stalk of marijuana, presumably a lawful and openly grown herb in her day.

Facsimiles tend to be expensive, and this one is no exception, but for gardeners and fans of Emily Dickinson (a pretty broad lot), this would be a cherished addition to the home library.

Flowers of the Amazon Forests:

The Botanical Art of Margaret Mee


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