Book Review: The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa

by Eric Hsu

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While South America claims the distinction for the center of diversity for the amaryllis family, South Africa holds it own with 18 genera and approximately 240 species. Ever since the Europeans began navigating new oceanic trading routes in search of new colonies, the ornamental appeal of the South African Amaryllidaceae has been well known to gardeners. Foremost in advancing the study of the Amaryllidaceae was the British horticulturist, botanist, and artist William Herbert who specialized in these bulbs at his Spofforth, Yorkshire home. Herbert undertook the ambitious project of delineating and describing all the known members of the Amaryllidaceae in a work that remains the only publication on the family. Subsequent work from other botanists and horticulturists examined specific genera like Cyrtanthus, Nerine, and Haemanthus – the advent of molecular work has elucidated relationships especially for a family that has witnessed intense speciation. Only in 1999 did a general picture emerged when Piet Vorster researched and published the geographical distribution and concentration of the South African Amarylliadaceae. The same publication  African Plants: Biodiversity, Taxonomy and Uses included a paper on growth and flowering from Deirdre Snjiman. Now the Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa (Kew Publishing, 2016) has come to step into the gap that brought different information previously scattered in disparate sources.

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The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa is certainly a magnum opus on Southern Hemisphere geophytes that spans 45 years, 28 of which were devoted to botanical illustrations by Barbara Jeppe. Jeppe’s daughter Leigh Voigt continued the work for the next 16 years. Graham Duncan is highly qualified to pen this monograph as he has been the Curator of the Indigenous bulb collection at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. He has the uncommon dual talent of being a botanist and horticulturist, which allows him to understand the geophytes thoroughly. If his prior monograph The Genus Lachenalia (Kew Publishing, 2012) is a good indication, then there are no doubts about the quality of  Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa (Kew Publishing, 2016). Topping 710 pages, the book weighs 1.7 pounds (0.77 kg), making it impractical to carry in the field. However, the production justifies its price of US $100, being that the paper is thick and smooth, a purple ribbon bookmark is bound to the spine, and color appears faithful to the illustrated plants.

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Gardeners will already recognize Amaryllis, Clivia, Crinum, and Nerine amidst the less familiar Apodolirion, Gethyllis, and Stumaria. In mild climates, Amaryllis belladonna has become naturalized, flowering leafless in autumn. However, even within the familiar garden genera are relatively unknown or less common species. Few know the rarer and less easily cultivated Amaryllis paradiscola, which is restricted to one population in the Richtersveld National Park.  Clivia miniata is the most horticulturally significant representative, yet other species C. caulescens, C. gardenii, C. mirabilis, and C. nobilis possess the same resilient qualities that make them good houseplants. Graham Duncan calls Crinum acaule ‘a most beautiful species wit large, showy flowers and a strong sweet fragrance’, but it has yet reached the popularity of C. bulbispermum or C. mooreiNerine sarniensis better known as Guernsey lily now sparkle conservatories and greenhouses with their jewel-like flowers. It sits squarely among 30 or so taxa that are found in South Africa.

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The book is peppered with color photographs depicting plants in the wild, such as thie one of Cyrtanthus verntricosus after fire. Photograph courtesy of Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa and by John Manning.

The book is peppered with color photographs depicting plants in the wild, such as the one of Cyrtanthus verntricosus after fire. Each color botanical illustration accompanies each species, showing the diagnostic characteristics of the infloresence, individual flower, foliage, seeds, and the bulb. Because leaf development does not always synchronize with flowering, Jeepe and Viogt would examine the specimens over the course of a year. It is a welcome change to defer to the time-honored tradition of using botanical illustrations when color photography has become the norm in monographs nowadays. Information is organized under the following subheadings: description, synonyms, etymology, flowering period, brief history, distinguishing features and affinities, distribution, habitat and life cycle, conservation status, and cultivation.

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The alphabetical organization of the genera rather than a phylogenetic one makes the book easy to reference for specific species. However, the minor oversight is the placement of the keys in the back (pages 660-677) rather than the front before the genus and species treatment. It is a departure from other monographs or floras that have keys prefacing the descriptions. Following the keys are sections outlining cultivation of these amaryllids, which can be confusing for a novice grower. Duncan is careful to differentiate the amaryllids in winter rainfall and summer rainfall regions because their cultivation requirements are dissimilar. The inclusion of cultivation guidelines for those gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere is welcome as well. Asexual and sexual propagation is both covered, with seed for the former and  the offsets and twin scaling for the latter. Every geophyte have their insectivorous nemesis, and the lily borer (Brithys crini) feeds voraciously on the foliage before moving downwards into the bulb. However, with due vigilance, the borer larvae can be controlled mechanically or with a carbyl-based insecticide. Duncan makes it clear that viral disease and bacterial soft rot can do undue damage and death in amaryllids. A glossary and an index of plant names (including synonyms) is included in the last couple pages.

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Gethyllis ciliaris subsp. ciliaris. Photo by Graham Duncan

Graham Duncan must be applauded on the herculean task of writing such a thorough and systematic treatment of the Southern African Amaryllidaceae. It would be a disservice not to honor the mother-daughter team Barbara Jeppe and Leigh Voigt whose unfailing commitment and patience in illustrating these geophytes inspired the book in the first place. The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa will continues confidently in the tradition of botanical references that document the Cape Flora.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Kniphofia: the complete guide by Christopher Whitehouse

by Eric Hsu

One outcome of the European colonization in South Africa was the establishment of botanic gardens and the affiliated research centers. Today Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden can trace its founding back to 1913 when a British expatriate Henry Harold Pearson, who had moved down in 1903 to chair the botany department at South African College (University of Cape Town), agreed to serve as its first director in spite of difficult beginnings. Botanists wasted no time in documenting the floral biodiversity of South Africa by publishing their finds and preserving specimens in herbaria like the Compton Herbarium. Books were published as people clamored to learn more about the exotic flora, some of which was then dispersed to other parts of the world (with some disastrous ecological consequences). These books followed the European tradition of commissioning skilled botanical illustrators to produce watercolor paintings and having botanists prepare the scientific descriptions.

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A treasured plant monograph in my library is The Genus Dierama by O.M. Hilliard and B.L. Burtt, which I was fortunate to purchase from the RHS Wisley Bookshop despite being out of print! The watercolor renderings and pencil sketches of these photogenic iris relatives by Auriol Batten are among the best in the South African botanical illustration. Dierama, better known as Venus’s fishing rods, are best in mild maritime climates, such those of Ireland, northern California, and United Kingdom. They were in full glory when I interned in plant records at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and some were actually type plants from which Hilliard and Burtt described new species. Another plant monograph The Proteas of Southern Africa by John Rourke follows the same format with illustrations by Fay Anderson. I am often reminded of my days in Australia when I would buy cut protea flowers for floral arrangements. A local grower would arrive at the weekend market with buckets of different proteas to sell, and sometimes the temptation was too much to leave without them. Months later, I found myself transplanting Protea cynaroides, rightly called the king protea for its majestic large flowers, in a friend’s garden.

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Kniphofias always drew snickers from my non-gardening friends who knew them as red hot pokers for they saw bawdry humor instead. However, I wasn’t always appreciative of what these South African natives had to offer.  I first knew kniphofias as tritoma when I purchased plants from the bargain table, and watched them thrive in my modest garden plot. Unfortunately their lanky foliage always looked unkempt and became a liability as the flowers faded quickly in summer heat. Frustrated one day, I pulled out the plants to create space for more desirable perennials. Christopher Whitehouse’s horticultural monograph on Kniphofia, the first to be published in the RHS’s five year long horticultural taxonomy project,  may change my perception for the genus. Christopher was the Keeper of Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium when he was one of my advisors on my M.S. project on putative Erica hybrids. I was aware of his life long affection for South Africa flora especially when he had worked on his doctorate on Cape roses (Cliffortia) in Cape Town. The Royal Horticultural Society Botany Department would not have found a more qualified person to study and publish the Kniphofia monograph, and the last authoritative reference was in the botanical journal Bothalia. Sorting out the species is already a monumental task, and adding the hybrids and various cultivars turns into a slippery path because Kniphofia interbreeds easily.

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Whitehouse was able to draw from the RHS Plant Trial of kniphofias to sort out nomenclatural issues and confusion in the trade; the results compiled with the help of the RHS Herbaceous Plant Committee and RHS Botany Department resolved some contention over cultivars. He has had the good fortune and perspicuity to conduct field studies of the genus in the wild. Bringing together the cultivated plant nomenclature and field studies gave a better understanding of the polymorphic genus.

Throughout the book, one will find useful charts that categorize information, like the chronology of naming for various Kniphofia species, introduction of cultivars especially those raised by Maximilian Leichtlin, or the endemic species by geographic region. Gardeners will find the flowering period of the species and the color grouping of cultivars indispensable for planning their plantings.Most books on specific genera lack such charts that help readers make good decisions about plant selection.

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The range of colors from the Kniphofia cultivars at the 2007-2009 RHS Trial (Photo Credit: Tim Sandall from Kniphofia)

The chapter on relatives helps elucidate the relationship of Kniphofia to similarly confused genera (i.e. Aloe and Bulbinella) in the same family Asphodelaceae. Whitehouse points out that traits separate Aloe from Kniphofia in the former’s succulent nature, absent keel in leaves, and upward orientation of the floral pedicels (stalks connecting the flowers to main stem). However, Aloe and Kniphofia show ecological convergence in their tubular flowers, which are adapted for pollination by sun birds, although competition is avoided by different flowering seasons (Aloe dominantly winter). An interesting note is that kniphofias with V-shaped leaves are less likely to flop than those with less pronounced V-shaped ones. It is a diagnostic feature worth remembering for anyone who has had the unpleasant task of cleaning slimy, cold damaged leaves in spring. One thing that surprised me was the medicinal use of Kniphofia for female ailments, although their use for twine and threaded talisman necklaces seem expected.

Cultivation is not shortchanged here as it would be in other monographs. Readers need to be aware that the perspective is that of UK rather than other regions which would experience either warmer summers or colder winters. Waterlogged soil during winter is usually the chief demise of kniphofias in northern climates, hence drainage is usually recommended. However, some moisture is needed if plants are to grow and produce good flowering.

The remaining 2/3 of the book is given over to species and cultivars. Whitehouse has mercifully pared down the diagnostic descriptions in floras to those important for identifying the species in an accessible manner. Each species is prefaced by color photographs that depict the flowerhead, the plant in full habit, and the habitat. Additional comments are reserved below the bullet list of traits. Whitehouse follows with the chapter on cultivars. Organized by color, cultivars are condensed with short descriptions with the breeder, date of introduction, and dimensions. A checklist of epithets helps with cross-referencing correct names and their earliest discovered sources. With several hundred varieties in existence, a gardener can find sorting out the names a time consuming ordeal. The checklist does much to straighten out the nomenclature affair.

Conclusions drawn in Kniphofia are not necessarily firm.  A nurseryman friend who breeds kniphofias contends that Kniphofia thomsonii var. thomsonii ‘Stern’s Trip’ is not sterile, although it is not overly fertile. He has grown a few plants from its seed, despite the progeny not having any appreciable ornamental value.  Another nurseryman has likewise raised seedlings, one of which is currently evaluated for its ornamental quality. However, no disagreement will and should dissuade gardeners from seeking out Kniphofia as a reference. It is rare for books to bridge the gap between horticulture and botany.

Book Review: Landscape of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman

by Eric Hsu

All images are the courtesy and copyright of Isabel and Julian Bannerman.  


Garden designers are like fashion designers in that they memorialize their work through books. Their books are either modest affairs or expensive productions. The former can become deserving classics for their information dispensed with wit and poetry. The latter can lapse into the clichéd interior design format – large two-page photographic spreads, minimal or no text, and glossary to matt paper. A brief introduction may preface the photography. They have their sole purpose of mindless dreaming and fantasies of what money or time can achieve. Isabel and Julian Bannerman’s Landscape of Dreams (Pimpernel Press 2016) toes these two categories of being informative and visually slick.

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In a NY Times T Magazine profile of their Cornish garden, Tim Richardson describes the husband and wife team as to-go ’90s landscape designers for high profile clients that included the Prince of Wales (at Highgrove), Lord Rothschild (Waddesdon Manor), John Paul Getty Jr. (Wormsley) and the Marquess of Cholmondeley (Houghton Hall). Their projects veer heavily towards grandiose ones rather than the townhouse and urban gardens other designers take on.  Their gardens have the bold armature of wooden or stone structures embellished with anthers, finials, and carvings that are dramatic peers to their plantings. Grasses are seldom used as they are in contemporary gardens, but roses, aquilegias, tulips and topiary, all archetypal elements of classic country gardens, are liberally deployed. As prescriptive as this look may seem, the Bannermans have developed a knack for blurring the lines, muffling out the formality with self sowers, perennials that flop decadently over the hedges, and curvaceous topiary forms. They admitted this feat a slippery one: “Trying to make it look as if gardening is not happening particularly is a very tricky deception, full of contradiction since it is actually tuned up and put on steroids.”

Cultivated wilderness as seen in these garden scenes from Tremarton, the Bannermans' second personal garden in Cornwall.

Cultivated wilderness as seen in these garden scenes from Tremarton, the Bannermans’ second personal garden in Cornwall. Image credit: Julian and Isabel Bannerman

A foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales opens the book with an enthusiastic acknowledgment of the Bannermans’ interdisciplinary talents in architecture, landscape, and interior design. This royal endorsement hardly adds to the book apart from the seal of approval to readers unsure about the book’s contents. What follows is an autobiographical chapter in which the Bannermans recount their upbringing, early influences, and philosophy. Their reminiscences are revealed with surprising candor especially about people whose lives happened to collide with them. Reading passage after passage unwinding about these quirky individuals is like a communion with the fantastical characters who populate Alice in Wonderland. DV or David Vicary is described as [a] magical scarecrow of a man, beautifully turned out in his uniform of dark brown alpaca long waistcoat – a sort of subfusc outfit after Doctor Johnson – had a mop of excellent hair definitive nose, and wry vivacious eyes.’ Coincidentally the Bannermans allude to  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for its ‘illusory, hallucinatory quality’ they strive to instill in their work.

Detailed sketches for Wormsley, one of the Bannermans' commissions.

Detailed sketches for Wormsley, one of the Bannermans’ commissions. Image credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

 

The Bannermans are not shrinking violets when it comes to theatricality in the garden. They have marvelous fun poring over historical texts, paintings, and references to pierce together imaginative gardens that would have delighted garden goers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is precisely what they have achieved in half of the former walled kitchen garden at Arundel Castle, Sussex. From the Somerset House garden plan the Bannermans tailored the two-terraced garden – the upper terrace being a trio of courts interlocked by a oak pergola, and the lower terrace a miniature castle, Oberon’s Palace. Two graveled courts with a fountain and four catalpa trees each flank the central court with its canal of water. Oak urn fountains topped with gilded bronze agaves squirt water into this canal. A  large open lawn planted up with alliums transition between the upper and lower terrace. Oberon’s Palace, which takes after the Little Castle at Bolsover, is miraculously mounted on a plinth of Sussex ragstone rocks. The interior palace walls are encrusted with shells and corks, and the room centerpiece is The Dancing Crown. The Bannermans left no detail undone – dolphin, dog, and lion figurines adorn the fountains in the catalpa courts while deer anthers adorn the Park Temple. Sea monkeys guard the arch entranceway of Oberon’s Palace. One cannot help smile at the playful atmosphere of  all the features, even if the embellishment may come across over the top for some.

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Daniel Mytens’ portrait of Alathea Talbot painted in 1618 – the Bannermans enlarged the background detail of the garden with its hornbeam pergola, fountain and the doorway on which the Collector Earl’s Garden and Oberon’s Palace’s interior were modelled. Image Credit: Wikipedia

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A gilded crown is propelled into the air by the jet of water from a fountain at Arundel Castle. This water trick was inspired by the one the Bannermans had seen at Hellbrunn, Palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Image Credit: Julian and Isabel Bannerman


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The yellow Chinese bridge at Woolbeding. Image credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

If Arundel Castle is the court jester in the Bannerman design portfolio, then Woolbeding is the royal advisor who parlays a sensible and sympathetic strategy for problems. In tackling Woolbeding, the Bannermans realized: “Lightness of touch is an intangible quality, something we all always seek to achieve and can never be sure of finding.” The late Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw already established the formal and productive gardens since purchasing the property in 1970s. For a long time, they struggled with unifying the ‘Long Walk’ to the woodland garden, a large copse of trees, and a placid body of water. A painted Gothic pavilion was positioned listlessly on a grassy knoll without any incentive to visit it. To announce the change from open pasture to arboretum with its structural elements, the Bannermans constructed a Gothic ruin archway entrance. A visitor then would take this entrance as the cue to anticipate the next episode. Because the owners did not wish to move the pavilion, it became the reference point under which a 12′ cliff fashioned out of Sussex sandstone was created. Water would cascade from this cliff, breaking up the still waters and giving impetus to the pavilion views across the lake. A Chinese bridge painted yellow to echo yellow flags and skunk cabbages hovered enchantingly close to the water surface and provide views towards the pavilion. The Bannermans continued the ‘journey’ to a thatched hermitage and the cave of the Rother god, conceived to be the ‘father’ of the river. They installed a tufa monolith, which oozed water from the Rother through clever engineering, in the circular glade where Simon and Stewart had positioned statues of four seasons. This monolith,  “a strange and powerful beast, slumbering, closed-winged but latent”, introduces mystery and a note of danger without which a garden can be atmospheric. It is a light theatrical touch that brings cohesion to the woodland garden, lake, and the pavilion.



 

A view of the house and the garden at Hanham Court, the Bannermans' residence for 18 years.

A view of the house and the garden at Hanham Court, the Bannermans’ residence for 18 years. Image Credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

Hanham Court and Trematon Castle, the last two gardens in the book, are personal ones which the Bannermans patiently and diligently wrestled out of their derelict, overgrown status quo. Had not for the help of the antipodeans (one Kiwi who looked after the children and cooking, and seven Aussies who helped with the construction), the garden at Hanham Court would not have materialized given the sorry state of the property at the beginning. The inception of the garden at Hanham Court prompts a comedic recollection of a conservation officer who, initially horrified at the swimming pool within the remnant medieval ruins, was less than enthused about being duped by the architectural chicanery the Bannermans constructed. It was not simply enough to undertake the house and garden restoration for the impoverished soil needed earth backfills and compost additions before anything was to be planted. The ancient tangle of wisteria was forcibly pulled down to wire the house and retrained to maximize their flowering productivity, and roses like Rosa bankisae ‘Lutea’, ‘Felicite Perpetue’ and ‘Rambling Rector’ joined in the climbing chorus. Nonetheless each project led to another until Hanham Court became civilized with the requisite romanticism. It’s a place that is breathtaking in scale when you visit as I did several years ago on an open garden day. Like Alice who crawls into the rabbit hole or mirror only to end up in an alternate world, you first enter through the wicket gate that is a brief dark interlude before the colors, scents, and all that is the Bannerman magic overwhelm you.

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Native wildflower scenes at Tremarton. Photo credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman

Despite its Cornish location, Trematon proved no picnic either. Archaeological restrictions (no duplicitous ruins and no gullible enforcers) meant no wanton digging. Years of neglect had allowed winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) to spread aggressively and smother out the native wildflowers. Sloping terrain doubled the time it took to complete projects. The Bannermans describe their first year as grey and disconsolate from the rain that fell incessantly. ‘Grey skies, grey granite, grey shaley soil, bitter and wet it was, and the boiler was bust, when we landed with a lot of furniture in a heap from Bristol.’ Just as they had done with their previous derelict projects, they valiantly persisted as they replanted their losses, wrenched out boulders, and excavated new planting holes. Bramble, ground elder, and heliotrope were either sprayed or pulled out from the banks. Judging from the photographs, much of their efforts appeared to pay off. The removal of the invasive and aggressive weeds allowed some of the native wildflowers to return, and made what was once impenetrable promising canvas to ‘paint’. Given how the castle walls already provided the essential backdrop, the Bannermans describe a dizzyingly range of plants, especially those scented, added over the last five years. Their emphasis on scent is purposeful for ‘Cornwall is good for scent, being warm and wet and, when the sun does appear, aromatic plants exude their turpentine tang.’

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Bannermans often turn to climbing roses in their work – Rosa ‘Albéric Barbier’, ‘Paul’s Himalayan Musk’, and ‘Rambling Rector’ clamber over a ruined wall at Euridge Manor Farm. Photo credit: Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

One of the admirable aspects about the Bannermans is their fluency with different plants, a skill that is becoming more uncommon among garden designers and landscape architects. They act like discriminating magpies who retain their proven prizes, experiment a bit, and fold in new possibilities to an existing scheme. Philadelphus (mock orange), old roses, pinks, lilies, sweet peas and lupines are always introduced to gardens with tour de force herbaceous borders.  It is easy to pooh pooh these plants in these gardens, but the Bannermans cherish them for their ‘lived in’ effect they inject in a youthful garden. They are familiar and sensual, evocative of the dreamy past.

If a criticism is to be volleyed at the book, the photography occasionally fails to match the exacting high standards of the garden. Either the authors or the editors have taken the unusual step of not commissioning a garden photographer to illustrate the text, instead opting for the authors’ photography. The downside of such photography is their uneven quality, which can be a letdown for those accustomed to crisp and sharp images in other garden books. Some of the photographs would have been culled to prevent repetition  – one or two close-ups of the plantings would simply suffice. On the upside, the ‘homemade’ feel of the photography gives the text a personal touch as if we were peering through a creative scrapbook or compendium of the authors’ work.

Landscape of Dreams is a book which deserves periodical poring for its sophisticated fluency in landscape and garden design. It demonstrates that truly talented designers do not produce products of hubris, but of respect and humility to the sites they are commissioned to work on. The Bannermans are sensible to realize that each site has its limitations that require their plans to be specific and individualistic.

Summertime Reading

If you’re an experienced gardener like ourselves, chances are that you may have purged your horticultural library of books that are visually arresting, but offer little way of substance. One may argue that it is impossible to have too many gardening books – although I disagree about holding on some titles. After going through a phase of English-garden mania, I’ve given away or donated several books long on garden photography, but short on practicality (the maritime English climate is a different creature than that of the Northeast climate). You can only gaze lovingly at those lush Edwardian herbaceous borders, crumbling aged brick walls, and moss-encrusted statuary before you realize that time, money, and history is finite on your own grounds. However, a few do leap over that ‘garden fantasy’ realm to provide erudite commentaries on regional gardening styles or just pulsate with the gardener’s personality that the photography and text collude together perfectly.

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The late Frank Cabot created a magnificent garden, Les Quatre Vents, in the chilly reaches of Charlevoix County, Quebec, Canada, which he fortunately wrote about its creation in The Greater Perfection: The Story of the Gardens at Les Quatre Vents. At first impression, the garden appears to be a pastiche of different garden styles poached from England, Japan, China, and India, but studied closely, become something different as interpreted through Cabot’s vision. The Palissades, with its double row of lindens underplanted with spring bulbs, bear a passing resemblance to that of the Lime Walk at Sissinghurst, except for its mirrors at both ends to give an illusion of infinity and its diagonally split square paved pathway lifted from Tintinhull. A photograph of an arch designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the Royal Mughal Gardens in New Delhi, India, motivated Cabot to commission and erect a version to frame the view of the Laurentian Mountains, and the swinging bridge through the Ravine took root of an idea during a visit to Wakehurst Place, the country satellite of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Cabot is not only a skilled visionary of spaces and structures, but also a sharp-eyed plantsman whose interests range from alpines to delphiniums, which tower to legendary spires in cool climates. We gardeners in more southerly locales can only envy the Himalayan blue poppies and primroses that have become flourishing colonies at Les Quatre Vents. However, failures do bedevil Cabot who details the ups and downs of choreographing herbaceous perennials for optimal display, or his horrified reaction at the Arch’s sudden collapse from rot and tree roots. His honest tone is ever more enthusiastic, a change from the manicured perfection of the writer’s voice in other glossy garden tomes. Sometimes the voice of an external observer is necessary for a realistic appraisal of a garden as Tony Lord demonstrates in Gardening at Sissinghurst.

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No seasoned garden tourist leaves Sissinghurst without a lasting impression, even if some have harped about its institutional, ‘fossilized’ feel and the loss of Vita Sackville West’s disheveled, romantic atmosphere tamed by her partner Harold Nicholson’s Italianate axes. Its magic was not lost on me during my first visit – as I climbed the spiral staircase to the top of the Elizabethan tower for stunning views of the garden and the surrounding Kentish Weald, I imagined Vita herself clambering upside, retreating into the writer’s alcove with its windows flung open on a still English evening. There she may have penned the following: “All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn-owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight – the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow” (In Your Garden).  Dwarfed by the yew hedges, I felt childish stirrings, flung open only by that elusive quality of mystery we gardeners endlessly and hopelessly attempt to nail. The borders were all billowing with all manners of shrubs, vines, herbaceous perennials, and bulbs. For those unable to experience Sissinghurst, Tony Lord’s Gardening at Sissinghurst (Frances Lincoln 2000) comes closest for its sumptuous photography, enlightening and well-penned chapters on each specific gardens, and the behind-the-scenes eavesdropping. Lord himself is a photographer and a horticultural taxonomist whose expertise once extended to editing yearly the RHS Plant Finder, the horticultural Yellow Pages. His prose moves fluidly between horticultural and botanical terminology and the garden’s narrative. Importantly Lord gives overdue recognition to the late Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger, the two female head gardeners who elevated the art of planting at Sissinghurst during Harold and Vita’s tenure.

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The trans-Atlantic horticultural love affair does not start or end with Sissinghurst as Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and Shaping of the American Nation (2010) and The Brother Gardeners: A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession (2010) both convey the beginnings of American’s horticultural heritage and the English fad for North American plants. Thomas Jefferson, considered the father of American agriculture and horticulture, visited English gardens, which certainly influenced his estate at Monticello. The English landscape movement was partly reliant on North American trees and shrubs to fulfill that ideal ‘Arcadian’ idyllic. Although the subject matter may seem dry, Wulf keeps the pace moving without becoming bogged down by factual details or historical arcs and the personalities involved are fully drawn out, not hastily sketched caricatures.

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What new books will land on my summer list this year? As I peruse the farmers’ market groaning with local summer produce, I hope to read Dan Barber’s The Third Plate (2014). Barber runs the Blue Hill restaurant, the Northeast’s answer to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in California, in rural New York, and is perfectly positioned to elucidate his views on the American cuisine and food production. Barber recently published a compelling editorial ‘What Farm-to-Table Got Wrong’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/opinion/sunday/what-farm-to-table-got-wrong.html?_r=0) calling for consumers to support lesser known crops, such farro (emmer wheat), cowpeas, and mustard greens, eclipsed by asparagus, strawberries, peaches, and tomatoes, the equivalent of ‘charismatic megafauna’ in the farm-to-table movement. The editorial, certainly a subset of The Third Plate, had me curious to read more on what Barber will write. I always wanted a summer holiday in Italy (having limoncello on the Amalfi Coast wouldn’t hurt), a desire that will only grow with Helena Attlee’s The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and Its Citrus Fruit (2014).  A resident of Italy for 30 years, Attlee has written four books about Italian gardens and her background should serve her well in her focus on the Italian obsession with citrus. The Land Where Lemons Grow should satiate the culinary-curious as well as the botanically-inclined. Both books will enhance my usual diet of magazines and weekend newspapers, and leafing through pages rather than the glow screens of IPad or Kindle is a soothing ritual.