Please welcome Ruth Kassinger, author of Garden of Marvels, to the Book Club Girl blog! Her book is a witty and engaging history of the first botanists interwoven with stories of today’s extraordinary plants found in the garden and the lab. Click here to read an excerpt of the book!
A Garden of Marvels started with a murder, a murder I committed. My victim was a graceful, five-foot tall kumquat tree that I had nurtured for years. She lived outdoors on our patio in a cobalt blue pot in the summer, and indoors under a grow-light in winter. When she was about eight, the leaves fell from all but her branch tips. She looked as if she were holding out bare arms and wearing green gloves.
I thought I’d solve her problem by pruning. Every fall, my husband cuts back a crape myrtle outside our house to windowsill height. The next summer it blooms just where we can enjoy the magenta blossoms. I decided I’d give the branches of my kumquat tree a similar pruning.
Her branches didn’t sprout new leaves; they turned brittle and brown. I had killed her.
It occurred to me that there was some biological difference between a crape myrtle and a kumquat tree, but I had no idea what it was. I realized there were other botanical mysteries all around me. Why, for example, does the vibrant green fescue in my backyard always lose out to scraggly crabgrass? And could I safely trim the ugly roots of houseplants that poke out the bottom of their pots and circle their saucers?
A decade earlier, when I first became interested in gardening, I turned to gardening books and hang tags for instruction. I was moderately successful, although my kumquat tree was far from my first failure. Now it dawned on me that blindly following instructions without any insight into the physiology of plants might be a problem. I set out to educate myself, hoping to become a better––or at least less lethal––gardener.
Reading a textbook, however, was not for me, and I decided to learn by retracing the stories of the early discoverers of the basic of botany. It turns out that these men were a diverse, quirky, and unfairly neglected bunch. Among them: a persecuted Italian professor, an English minister whom the poet Alexander Pope found “imbued with blood,” a French surgeon who scandalized French academicians with a lewd lecture that revealed that flowers––those symbols of purity––have sex, and Charles Darwin who discovered plant hormones.
Discoveries in botany are far from over, and I thought readers––because my personal quest to understand plants had become a book project––would want to know what was going on in today’s gardens and labs. So, I wove stories of my encounters with one-ton-pumpkin growers, the breeder of the black petunia, a scientist who studies the only animals that photosynthesize like plants, and a number of other fascinating plants and people.
And I replaced my poor kumquat tree with two new ones. By the time I needed to prune them, I’d learned enough––from Darwin, as well as a botanist at the University of Florida––that they not only survived but that winter produced a bumper crop of their sweet/tart fruits.