Garden Books Pave a Path of Poetry, History and Adventure

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

by Margaret Mee

Natural Wonders Press, 2006, $39.50

And speaking of remarkable women, Margaret Mee was an illustrator in England who in her 40s made a fateful trip to see her sister in Brazil. She spent the rest of her life painting the rare and beautiful flowers of the Amazon jungle. She is credited with discovering several species. She was an early crusader against the loss of the rain forests, and her paintings became widely admired for capturing the fragile beauty of her subjects.

In this new title, her watercolors are paired with the diaries she kept during her expeditions dating from 1956 to 1988. Her prose is as sparkling as her paintings. In a 1972 trip along the Rio Marau, she recounts her guide's seeking to pry a bromeliad from its host tree. Climbing into the tree, he "picked out the big spiders and scorpions with the tip of the knife and started to hack at the roots, which were hard and woody. At the first slash, armies of aggressive ants swarmed over him. I shouted to him to stop, knowing how painful these stings were, but he smiled stoically and continued."

Ironically, for all the perils Mee faced in Brazil, she died in a car accident in England in 1988, not long after her last, successful search for a night-blooming succulent named the selenicereus.

The English Garden

by Ursula Buchan

Frances Lincoln, 2006, $50

In the 1970s and '80s, U.K. publishers sent second-rate coffee table books here in the belief that pretty pictures of British gardens would fool the Yanks. Often, the images of staid gardens were washed out or out of focus, or both, but still they came. On this side of the pond, horticulture and landscape design have since come of age. It is rewarding, thus, to see a new generation of English gardening books that acknowledge the intelligence and sophistication of the reader. Lavishly illustrated by the photographs of Andrew Lawson, this volume is one of the best and captures the essential delight of the English garden in its now myriad forms, from the picturesque landscapes of the 18th century to the same sort of herbaceous planting schemes that have enlivened our best gardens.

Lawson uses the thick golden light of an English dawn to evoke his subjects. It is not so much the grand as the intimate spaces that I find appealing: the dewy path through daffodils at Docton Mill in Devon, or the amazing woodland at Windsor Great Park, where the spring ground cover of choice is not bluebell or snowdrop, as sweet as they are, but the dainty hoop-petticoat daffodil. Most of the featured gardens, and there are hundreds, are open to the public. For anyone planning a gardening tour of England, this book would be invaluable. And if not, it would be the next best thing.

The New York Botanical Garden

Edited by Gregory Long and Anne Skillion

Abrams, 2006, $50

This horticultural institution describes itself faithfully as an oasis of calm and civility -- no mean feat in the Big Apple -- and within its large expanse it has amassed in the past century a truly amazing collection of plants artfully grown and displayed. This volume offers a history of the garden, in prose and in lavish photographs and illustrations. The domed Haupt conservatory is a jewel, but so, too, is the inspiring Perennial Garden around it. The Rock Garden, the Rose Garden, the Conifer Arboretum, the Home Gardening Center, all are beautiful and uplifting and well captured in these pages. This is what I like about the NYBG: It is the opposite of moribund, it understands the importance of horticulture in the cultural health of a nation, and its benefactors have poured a great deal of money and resources into freshening and expanding the institution for the 21st century. This book captures that vitality. For the native or adopted New Yorker in your life, this quality book will be well received.

Landscaping Earth Ponds

Tim Matson

Chelsea Green, 2006, $30

Very few people with acreage in the country have not created a pond, or thought about it. A body of water has practical value for swimming and fishing and as a fire pond, but it also brings a placid contrast to the surrounding property and draws wonderful wildlife. There are a number of books about the engineering aspects of building and maintaining ponds, but few about the value of landscaping them. And yet, an artfully planted pond environment is one of the most powerful landscapes you can effect. I can think of public gardens where this has been done well: The trusty New York Botanical Garden, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Chanticleer in Wayne, Pa., and Stonecrop in Cold Spring, N.Y., come to mind. But Matson's softbound book offers great insights into what to do (and not; invasive plants can soon consume your feature). It includes an illustrated section on suitable trees, shrubs, perennials and bog plants that will make your pond something beyond the ordinary. It also lists suppliers, nurseries and other resources you will need.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company