Book Review: The Secrets of Great Botanists

For my birthday this year I received the ultimate present – money to buy gardening and nature books. Matthew Biggs’ The Secrets of Great Botanists was one of the books I bought and it turned out to be an excellent choice…

RHS-The Secrets of Great Botanists

The Secrets of Great Botanists by Matthew Biggs is published by Mitchell Beazley in collaboration with the RHS, £15.99.

From Pedanius Dioscorides’ seminal work De Materia Medica to Patrick Blanc’s modern, innovative mur végétal structures, Matthew Biggs explores the lives and scientific endeavours of 35 of the most influential botanists of the past 2000 years. Although the histories stand alone as individual vignettes, the beauty of this book is in the way it reveals the progression of botanical knowledge over time, exploring developments like James Edward Smith’s purchase of Carl Linnaeus’ botanical collection after the Swedish botanist’s death and his founding of the Linnean society in 1788.

The author recounts the lives of famous botanists like Leonhart Fuchs, John Lindley and Joseph Banks, but also introduces less well known pioneers such as the botanist-pirate William Dampier who was collecting plants in Australia seventy-one years before Sir Joseph Banks, and the botanical illustrator and plant collector Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe, who designed and oversaw the development of the Maymyo Botanic Garden in the early twentieth century.

Although only eight of the 35 stories focus on female botanists, they comprise some of the most remarkable tales in the collection. Who could fail to be inspired by Anna Atkins, who perfected the art of the cyanotype and produced the first book in the world to be illustrated with photographs? Or the indomitable Jeanne Baret who accompanied naturalist Philibert Commerçon on his plant hunting expeditions around the world disguised as a boy, collecting specimens and acting as chief botanist when Commerçon was ill?

The Secrets of Great Botanists is beautifully illustrated with period botanical images including Marianne North’s painting of the pitcher plant, Nepenthes Northiana, and several of Anne Atkin’s fern cyanotypes. The text covers daring exploits and exciting discoveries, but I most enjoyed seeing how the legacies of these botanists influence horticulture and design today. Nikolai Vavilov’s work to conserve genetic diversity and Philipp von Siebold’s introduction to Europe of over twenty hosta species, Wisteria brachybotrys and the infamous Japanese knotweed have never seemed so relevent.

If you would like more inspiring gardening and nature reading, here are some other reviews of books I’ve enjoyed:

Book Review: Dahlias by Naomi Slade and Georgianna Lane

Year Of The Almanac

Book Review: James Wong’s ‘How To Eat Better’

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge

Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

 

Book Review: Dahlias by Naomi Slade and Georgianna Lane

Published earlier this month, Dahlias: Beautiful Varieties for Home and Garden is a captivating celebration of the dahlia combining Georgianna Lane’s sublime photography of single cultivars and mixed arrangements with Naomi Slade’s lyrical and engaging text. I’ve been looking forward to reading Dahlias since May, when Naomi mentioned the new book she’d been writing. Having been kindly sent a review copy a couple of weeks ago, the first half of August has been filled dahlia joy – watching the first flowers emerging in the garden and discovering new cultivars in the book.

Such variety of colour and form

The History and Botany section offers a fascinating insight into the Mexican origins of our garden dahlias and the history of dahlia breeding and classification. Recently, I’ve become interested in the physical manifestation of colour and the language used to describe it, so I particularly enjoyed the section on ‘Colour Magic’ where Naomi explores the relationship between optics, biological systems and our perception of colour. If you need help to distinguish your Balls from your Pompoms or to differentiate between a Collerette and a Waterlily dahlia, then Naomi’s explanation of dahlia classification is a good place to start.

Pompom and Ball dahlias are particular favourites of mine

Once I began reading about individual varieties, the temptation to compile a list longer than the depth of my pockets was overwhelming. Naomi explores different dahlia styles from ‘Romantic’, through ‘Fabulous and Funky’ and ‘Dramatic and Daring’ to ‘Classic and Elegant’ and it’s easy to see why there’s a dahlia for every border, container and flower arrangement. Details on each variety include height, spread, flower size, its suitability as a cut flower and practical advice about which other plants and colours make good combinations. There’s even a list of alternative varieties in case you can’t get a particular dahlia or if you wish to explore flowers with similar forms or colours.

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Cafe au Lait is one of the best for soft arrangements

It’s almost impossible to pick favourites as Geogianna’s images capture the essence of each flower so beautifully and Naomi offers compelling reasons to grow each variety – even those which you wouldn’t normally choose. I might have considered Dahlia ‘Pooh’ a tad on the garish side with its ‘dark orange petals dipped in custard at the tips, and a handsome golden ruff in the centre’, but the three pages of images of ‘Pooh’ in a garden setting alongside the information that it has a RHS Award of Garden Merit and is a prolific flowerer with blooms that are ideal for cutting, had me reaching for the pen to add it to the list.

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Cricket enjoying my blazing Dahlia ‘Firepot’

I was pleased to encounter old favourites like the refined ‘Twyning’s After Eight’, the cheerful Happy Single series and the sultry depths of ‘Thomas A. Edison’ and I fell for some new varieties too. ‘Jomanda’ is a delicate ball dahlia with petals that ‘wax and wane in size’ washed with sunset tones. It has an Award of Garden Merit and is a good cut flower. ‘Neon Splendour’ attracted my eye with its flamboyant decorative form and neon orange, apricot and gold petals. Described as ‘cheeky, riotous and slightly decadent’, I like the advice to ‘grow it with plants that are equally splendiferous – the smaller sunflowers, delphiniums, Amaranthus caudatus or Leycesteria formosa.‘ This type of pragmatic knowledge about how the plant performs in a real garden setting and as a cut flower helps to set each dahlia in context and, in this case, demonstrates the practical potential of showy ‘Neon Splendour’. 

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‘Happy Single Date’ combines compact growth with deep chocolate maroon foliage

The dahlia at the top of my unfeasibly long list by the time I’d reluctantly reached the last page was the fresh, understated ‘Eveline’. The patterning on this small Decorative dahlia is exquisite and the mauve eye is surrounded by petals of the purest white. Naomi introduces ‘Eveline’ as ‘romantic and ethereal, this lavender-flushed bloom recalls milky dawn mists over a late summer meadow.’ It’s the combination of these evocative descriptions with the clarity and detail of the photographs that makes each new variety irresistible. Once you’ve read Dahlias there’s no return – it’s a one-way ticket to a lifelong obsession.

 

 

Book Review: James Wong’s ‘How To Eat Better’

On Tuesday evening, David’s Bookshop in Letchworth hosted a talk by botanist, writer and broadcaster James Wong on his new bestselling book. As usual James gave a lively and interesting talk in which he demonstrated a broad knowledge of the scientific data behind the ideas in the book. How To Eat Better is a cookbook with a difference. Inspired by scientific data, James discusses how to SELECT, STORE and COOK food in ways which maximise its nutritional value. The recipes are fresh and simple with old favourites like ‘One-Pot Mac and Cheese’ and new ideas such as ‘Blueberry and Chilli Cheese Toastie’ and ‘Double Sweet Potato Pie’. I rate my recipe books based on how many pages display the evidence of the meals I’ve made with them. So far for How To Eat Better it’s looking good – not only has it been fascinating reading outside the kitchen, but at least two pages are now indelibly marked with tomato juice and mustard – not bad for a book I bought this Tuesday!

Coming from a family of scientists (although I sit on the fence with a literary and horticultural background), some of whom work in science communication, I find James’ evidence-based approach to nutrition refreshing in a world where ever-changing sensationalist headlines inform many people’s food choices. Rather than beginning with nutritional rules and then searching for data with which to support these ideas, it seems sensible to start with the data and see what it tells us. I particularly liked the table explaining ‘The Hierarchy Of Nutritional Evidence’ which explores systematic reviews, clinical trials, observational studies, animal studies and test-tube studies considering the methodology of each type of research and the strength of the evidence each provides. This knowledge allows a greater understanding of the ways in which scientists reach conclusions, helping people ‘sift through fact and fantasy in the next nutritional headline’. I was also impressed, although not surprised, by the non-dogmatic approach to the selection, storage and cooking of the foods studied in the book. James explained that the methods suggested should be viewed as ways of ‘tweaking’ what we already do in the kitchen – small, practical changes rather than a radical overhaul of how we view our food.

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Choose red chillies and peppers over green and yellow to up carotene and polyphenol levels by up to 5 times

The kids were fascinated by the idea that fruit and vegetables are living organisms which are affected by the chemical changes initiated by different storage and cooking methods. Although this seems like a rather obvious point, we do have a tendency to consider these foods as somehow unaffected by their environment once they are no longer growing on the plant or in the ground. I already keep our tomatoes out of the fridge as this allows the fruit to ripen, become sweeter and develop twice the levels of lycopene, but I wasn’t aware that the shape of a tomato is important in terms of its phytonutrient levels too. These chemicals are largely concentrated in the skin of the fruit, so baby plum tomatoes with their high ratio of skin to flesh, pack a denser phytonutrient punch than beefsteak tomatoes. The book also explains that lycopene levels almost double again upon cooking – another easy way to increase the nutritional value of these popular fruits.

The colour of fruit and vegetables is another interesting topic explored in some detail in the book. I love growing different varieties of colourful crops (‘Green Zebra’ tomatoes, ‘Purple Dragon’ carrots, ‘Kohlibri’ purple kohl rabi), so the fact that most colourful varieties (the book discusses pink grapefruit, purple cauliflower and black rice among others) contain higher levels of nutrients than their white counterparts means that growing these types of fruit and vegetable makes good nutritional sense as well as being engaging for both children and adults.

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The darker the carrot, the more polyphenols it contains

Cooking is another area where science offers interesting data about our food and whether nutrient levels are higher (and more available for our bodies to absorb) when fruit and vegetables are eaten raw or cooked in different ways. Broccoli, for example, is better eaten raw if you are after higher levels of beneficial isothiocyanates as cooking destroys the enzyme responsible for producing these chemicals. However, a team at the University of Reading found that adding a tiny amount of powdered mustard seeds can reverse this process as they contain a heat-resistant form of the enzyme which allows the reaction to occur. Magic! And raw broccoli chopped finely and left for a couple of hours contains more isothiocyanates, making it even better for you. Unlike broccoli, evidence suggests that blueberries are more phytonutrient rich when lightly cooked in the microwave for 3 minutes.

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Purple Sprouting Broccoli is best as fresh as possible

Some sections of the book confirmed what I already do in the kitchen (like rushing the purple sprouting broccoli in from the garden and lightly steaming it) whilst other information challenged my preconceived ideas about food (that buying local always means fruit and vegetables are better for you). But what is most refreshing about How To Eat Better is that it isn’t an instruction manual on better eating, but a way of transferring ideas based on scientific research into practical advice for the kitchen. To what extent you choose to adopt changes to selecting, storing and cooking food is up to you, but you’ll end the book more knowledgeable about the biology and chemistry behind your food. You’ll have a range of tasty, healthy recipes to inspire you to eat more fruit and vegetables however you decide to select, store or cook them and because James is donating all the royalties from the book to UNICEF, you’ll also have helped fight hunger across the world too.

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Green tomatoes like ‘Green Zebra’ contain high levels of tomatine which may inhibit cancer cell growth

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If you’d like to read more of the book reviews in Write Plant, Write Place, you could take a look at the following articles:

Around the World in 80 Plants

The Paper Garden: Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work] at 72

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

Book Review: Around The World In 80 Plants

Rock samphire, eternal cabbage, wild garlic, Woburn perennial kale, cabbage thistle, stinging nettle, Bath asparagus, our wild heritage mapped out in salad greens. How did we come to accept mediocrity, the anodyne, now endangered, iceberg lettuce, the tedium of endless cos hearts, the apologetic slack round lettuce? In restaurants, the epithet ‘side salad’ is a precursor to gustatory disappointment. Will my baked potato come surrounded by a rainbow of salad greens, cucumber, pepper, celery, radish, chives, lightly dusted with edible petals? I’d champion any establishment that offered fresh ideas in a fresh salad, or even old family favourites: a mix of grated carrot, beetroot and apple softened with a dash of cider vinegar. All fairly basic ingredients, surely that’s not too much to ask?

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Now that’s what I call a salad, harvested from my garden last summer

Stephen Barstow’s homage to world salad history fights back, detailing the part perennial leafy greens have played in our culinary past and their potential for our future. Around The World In 80 Plants is a fascinating book, documenting the hidden variety of leafy edibles and their uses across six continents from Australia to the author’s own garden in Norway, not far from the Arctic circle. The journey begins in Western and Central Europe with Crithmum maritimum or rock samphire. Once a commonplace leafy green in London, it is now a little known edible, protected from commercial harvesting on UK coastlines. Stephen’s own location (near Trondheim) adds another element to his study as all the plants he trials are grown close to 64°N where mean monthly temperatures range from -3°C in January to 15°C in June. Rock samphire, he notes, began appearing along the Southern coast of Norway around 2000 – a strong indication of climate change. So we follow ‘death samphire’ (so called because its habitat on sheer cliff-faces has caused the swift death of many foragers) from its appearance in King Lear as part of a ‘dreadful trade’, through its use in the 17th century as a popular pickle ingredient, to its colonisation of new areas, creating fresh opportunities for harvesting and eating.

 

Rock Samphire (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

The next five chapters range through Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, the Caucasus to the Himalayas and Siberia, the Far East and Australia, the Americas and Norway (and Scandinavia). Many of the plant descriptions developed my knowledge of edibles I’m planning to include in my perennial vegetable allotment bed (Daubenton kale, sea beet, chicory, mallow, sea kale, Egyptian onion) and plants I already grow (hostas, wasabi, horseradish, oca, garlic chives). I’m astonished that I’ve not yet tried dandinoodles (dandelion flower stalks cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes with a knob of butter), or that my hankering for hosta shoots hasn’t yet led me to raid my pots for a quick sushi supper. Although I was aware of the edible history of both plants, my knowledge was sketchy at best. Stephen’s descriptions of edible plant histories alongside his own growing and cooking experiences have fed my obsession with edimentals – plants offering a combination of beauty and practicality which enables small gardens, courtyards and window boxes to offer a combined salve for the stomach and the soul. Nothing pleases me more than designing an ornamental border which leads a double life as a hidden larder. Nothing is more intriguing than a plant, hitherto a delightful, yet one-dimensional ornamental, which I discover to have a sweet tuber which can be baked, seeds which can be sprinkled on homemade bread or leaves with a sharp, lemony tang. These plants really earn their place in my garden.

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I’m looking forward to trying dandinoodles (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

I’m unlikely to be attempting to grow or eat Urtica ferox, the New Zealand giant tree nettle at four metres tall with needle-like hairs capable of killing a person. I’m also not queuing up try Angelica archangelica ssp. archangelica var. maiorum dipped in cod liver oil (like the author, I grew up being force-fed the stuff) and I dare not attempt to grow ground elder, even if its absence leaves my botvinya (a cold Russian soup) in need of that special something. But it does grow in the garden margins just around the corner, so I’ll be found one morning, on my knees, hiding behind my neighbour’s hedge, carefully checking my identification before surreptitiously snipping off a few leafy shoots for a real mixed salad.

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Truly terrifying Urtica ferox (image courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Be warned: Stephen’s engaging plant histories, his propagation, cultivation and seed/plant sourcing information and his accounts of growing edimentals are not likely to restore sanity to anyone already teetering on the brink of a furtive life spent sniffing, rubbing and nibbling unsuspecting plants. In Chapter One, there’s an image of the National Trust property Knightshaye Court in Devon with its elegant lines of Allium ampeloprasum cultivars which is described as ‘an excellent edimental!’ I’ve grown elephant garlic for its bulbs and scapes, but haven’t yet used the leaves in an Egyptian falafel as suggested in the book, so I’m afraid the collection might be in danger next time I’m visiting. Especially if the mixed leaf salad in the cafe isn’t up to scratch…

Knightshaye Court – edimentals at their best (images courtesy of Stephen Barstow)

Stephen Barstow (‘Extreme Salad Man’) is one of the world’s great edible plant collectors. His website – http://www.edimentals.com/ – includes a collection of articles by Stephen on a wide range of edimentals, forest gardening, talks, courses and foraging trips, and further information about the book (which can be purchased here).

For more book reviews and further explorations of wild edibles, please see below:

Exploring Wild Flowers: 5 Coastal Plants With Interesting Edible Histories

Nettles Revisited: How Time Removes The Sting

Book Review: The Paper Garden Mrs Delany [Begins Her Life’s Work At 72]

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book Of Hygge

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Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge

A cosy window seat has to be the best place to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book. As a child, I preferred to read near the top of our tall Scots Pine, with a Famous Five and an apple from the garden. Now I favour the cushion strewn window seat in the lounge  which overlooks the front garden. When we redecorated, I wanted to recreate the feeling I had as a child reading endless stories on a little sheepskin covered window seat overlooking the fields and woods in a Scottish holiday cottage. I’ve recently discovered there’s a word to describe that feeling – ‘hygge’ – a Danish word roughly translated as an atmosphere of warmth, relaxation, security and love or even ‘cosiness of the soul’¹. Snuggled in the corner of my window seat, I am connected to the outside world but protected from cold winds and rain (increasingly important with winter looming), there’s room for a selection of books and magazines, and a cup of tea and piece of cake on the window ledge. I have my own secluded nook, a hyggekrog: a place to relax and find inspiration, before re-entering the frenetic, demanding, yet delightful world which revolves around my two young children and my work.

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My hyggekrog

Bookish Hygge

Looking along the window ledge, my book selection currently includes H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, The Well-Tempered Gardener by Christopher Lloyd, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking, The Twins at St Claire’s by Enid Blyton (I’ve been raiding the children’s shelves again), A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and RHS Plants From Pips by Holly Farrell. The last title was a happy chance find in the library with the kids last week, lost for a while between Harry and the Robots and Emily Prickleback’s Clever Idea and finally resurfacing a few days ago. Its subtitle is ‘Pots of Plants for the Whole Family to Enjoy’ and I like the rustic style of the images, the range of ‘pips’ which can be nurtured into interesting house plants (from avocados to dragon fruit and pomegranates) and the clear instructions, equally suitable for the beginner or the more experienced grower.

Childhood Hygge

My children (4 and 7) enjoyed looking at the pictures in RHS Plants From Pips showing how seeds grow and how they are dispersed. We chatted about which fruits they were familiar with and which new ones we might try (since then they’ve tasted their first pomegranate and both enjoyed it very much.) Several of the pips appealed to them – avocados, olives and lemons, but we decided to start with a peanut in a clear container so we can watch the new peanuts develop beneath the surface. Farrell rates each pip for ‘easiness’ (of growing) and the ‘patience’ required. The peanut scores 1 for each, which is good because the kids are neither patient nor particularly adept at growing plants yet. The method is relatively simple – soak the peanuts in water for 12 hours, sow in pots in pre-watered compost and place in a warm, sunny spot. Germination takes 2-3 weeks. As the kids watch the plants developing, they should be able to see the leaves folding up at night and the flowers growing downwards into the compost where they will produce new peanuts. They will be nurturing a new life and learning about the ingenuity of the plant kingdom.

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Shelling and soaking the peanuts

Botanical Hygge

As well as the chapter on ‘How Plants Grow’, RHS Plants From Pips also has sections on how to grow your pips successfully, how to repot, plant out and what pests, diseases and other problems you might encounter. There is also useful advice on how to restrict growth – particularly relevant as some of the plants would grow to a considerable size in natural conditions. A plant like the papaya (Carica papaya) is suggested as suitable as a ‘novelty plant for a single season’² due to its fast growth habit and full height of 3.5m, whereas mango (Mangifera indica) can be restricted by removing the top bud/leaves and tips of stems to keep it well below its natural height of 2m. By differentiating in this way, it is easy to choose a plant which will suit the position and space available. Most of the plants from pips are unlikely to fruit because their natural habitats differ greatly from household conditions, but they can make unusual houseplants which will give pleasure for many years and the act of experimentation is a valuable and interesting one, especially for children.

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The peanut in its homemade transparent plant pot

Community Hygge

In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking describes five ways to achieve summer hygge, number three being ‘Join or Build a Community Garden’. This acknowledges the hyggelig (hygge-inducing) aspect of taking the time to tend crops, get together as a neighbourhood and develop a sense of community spirit. Hygge is about relaxing with friends and loved ones after a day’s hard work outside, eating hearty food and having a drink together. These are all things I value about gardening, whether in the community garden or with my own family in the garden or allotment.

Family Hygge

Not everyone has access to a garden, allotment or community growing space, but anyone can have a go at growing a plant from a pip – a free resource which would otherwise be thrown away. Everyone can experience the excitement of seeing an embryonic shoot emerge and the seed leaves unfurl. Watching such miraculous beginnings can spark a lifelong passion for plants and establish the foundation for plant hygge in adulthood. When my children experience the natural world as adults, I hope they will have just such a store of memories to draw upon. The call of a buzzard, eating raspberries with red fingers, the smell of apples stewing and the first spring bulbs emerging have all created moments of hygge in my life. In the same way that I get the kids involved in cooking with crops from the garden and allotment so they can share the satisfaction of producing a tasty meal for the family, so I want them to share the pleasure that I get from watching plants grow. Plants From Pips is a great, accessible way to share this experience and create warm family memories for the future.

1. The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, page 6

2. RHS Plants From Pips, Holly Farrell, page 68

 

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