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.

Nic Wilson Dahlia 'Cafe au Lait'

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.

You can buy Dahlias here

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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!

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I wasn’t that impressed with purple sweet potatoes last time I tried them, but this orange and purple sweet potato pie looks delicious and I’ll definitely be trying it (image from the book)

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

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

Biography, art history, botanical study – none of these terms do sufficient justice to Molly Peacock’s expansive, lyrical and thoroughly readable account of the life of Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700-1788). Over a period of ten years, Delany created nearly a thousand cut-paper botanical images of flowers from all over the world. Living in a period of intense botanical exploration and investigation, Delany had access to Kew for specimens through her friendship with Sir Joseph Banks.

The parallels between Peacock’s contemporary investigation into 18th century artistic life and Delany’s progress towards ‘a new way of imitating flowers’ add depth and a personal warmth to the story. Peacock considers eleven of the botanical collages, including ‘Opium Poppy’ (Papaver somniferum), ‘Magnolia’ (Magnolia grandiflora), ‘Bloodroot’ (Sanguinaria canadensis), ‘Portlandia’ (Portlandia grandiflora) and ‘Winter Cherry’ (Physalis alkekengi) in great detail, relating each to stages of Delany’s personal and artistic development. Occasionally the botanical analogies feel a little strained, the mental contortions necessary to compare human and plant lives a little jarring, but on the whole these parallels enrich the text as they suggest echoes of life in art, in nature. As Peacock writes about the flowers in the Delany mosaics:

Each of Mrs. Delany’s flower mosaicks is a portrait, highly individual, full of personality, the bloom posed as a human figure might be positioned in a painter’s portrait… The flowers are like dancers. Like daydreamers. Like women blinking in silent adoration. Like children playing. Like queens reigning or divas belting out their arias. Like courtesans lying on bedclothes. Like girls hanging their heads in shame. Like, like, like. Along with the scissors, the scalpel, the bodkin, the tweezers, the mosaicks make use of one of the main tools of the poet: simile. By comparing one thing to another, a simile leaves the original as it is – say, just a flower – but also states what that is like, making a threshold into another world.

Art and nature are seen, by Delany and Peacock, as being intrinsically linked. Delany’s eye for detail, her botanical dissections and biological knowledge underpin the beauty and verisimilitude of her art. Science is an intrinsic part her of artistic endeavour and her art reveals the glory and power of science. As Peacock writes ‘The lines between science and art in [Delany’s] day were fluid, but in 1966 [the time of Peacock’s education] they had become as thick as the stays in eighteenth century ladies’ clothes.’

In 1993, when I began my university education, an interest in mathematical and scientific issues within the arts (in my case, English Literature) was still viewed suspiciously in many quarters – as if it somehow diluted the essence of language and art, rather than enhancing it. In 2006 interdisciplinary studies were becoming more mainstream and I wrote an MA dissertation on the ways in which contemporary science profoundly affected the style and structure of the early nineteenth century novel. The tyranny of subject boundaries was dissolving and both the arts and sciences were benefitting from increased integration. This integration continues to develop, with many universities now running courses such as ‘ecocriticism’, ‘digital studies’, ‘interdisciplinary work for policy-making’ and ‘wild writing – literature and the environment’. We are rediscovering the power of connections, of contextual knowledge and mutual respect which an eighteenth century education took for granted.

The Paper Garden celebrates Mary Delany’s life, her artistic endeavours and the way her mosaics reveal a love of both art and science through her minute observation of the plant material. This is a book which offers hope for all of us who feel our best is yet to come. It is a book for art lovers and plant lovers alike. Indeed, when leafing through the Delany mosaics, it’s hard to imagine being one, without becoming the other.

The extensive collection of flower mosaics is available to view on the British Museum’s online catalogue – for individual flower mosaics mentioned in the text, click on the links above. Individual mosaics can be studied or the entire Flora Delanica viewed, with 1,005 images held in the catalogue.