Here we are, hot off the press!
My new book, which I was working on last year. A reference book, a dipping-in book, an ideal Christmas present of course.
While this is my shameless Christmas promotion, I've been wanting to write a blog post for some time about why I wrote it.
Why does anyone write any book?
Primarily because we see a gap in the market. I see 'we', but which I mean an author (potential), commissioning editor, or the publishers' sales team. The latter often know nothing about the subject matter, but they are good at judging trends, and when to leap in with a new concept, or (more usually) a re-visit of a trend already established.
Garden Flora is a book which I think, fills a gaping hole in the market; Timber Press fortunately agreed with me. There are shelves of books of the A to Z 'how to grow it' variety. Almost nothing about the 'non-horticultural' aspects of plants - their history, their ecology, their uses, etc. Increasingly I find keen gardeners wanting to know about where their plants are from, in terms of their ecology and heritage. It's like the whole heirloom vegetable trend, wanting to know the context of a plant, where it is from, how come it is in cultivation, who first introduced it, who produced the cultivars and hybrids we all grow today? So, this is what Garden Flora aims to do for around 150 general of ornamental plant genera: mostly hardy perennials and popular annuals, quite a few shrubs, a few trees, and a very few non-hardies.
Begonias, from the 1959 catalogue of the Dutch bulbå company N.V.L.Stassen Jnr
|A boxwood parterre, on the Hampton estate, at Towson, Maryland. The photograph was taken c.1915 by Frances Johnston Benjamin, 1864-1952, who was one of the first woman professional photographers in the US. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.|
|An illustration showing the many uses of bamboo, with a caption in Malay and Dutch, produced in The Netherlands between 1868 – 1881. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.|
|What are clearly very similar to modern large-flowered clematis can be seen in this Japanese book, 1755. Courtesy of Chiba University Library.|
|Fritillaria imperialis in Iran, Baktiari Province. Credit: Bob Wallis.|
|A page of phlox varieties in Foerster's Gartenstauden Bilderbuch, illustrating a technique occasionally used in German catalogues of the period to show off a wide range of cultivars. Painted by Escher Bartning. Courtesy of Bettina Jacobi.|
A print by the great master of the Edo period woodblock print, Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849), made between 1800 – 1805, showing Fujiyama through a veil of mist and cherry blossom. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Japan was quite a big part of the story. I have long been fascinated by the way that western growers fell with glee onto Japanese nurseries when Japan opened up to foreign trade in the
mid-19th century, taking advantage of, but rarely giving the credit to what Japanese growers had achieved with variety selection and hybridisation during the Edo period from 1600 onwards - even discovering the principles of heredity first credited to Gregor Mendel a hundred years later. I had one very good Japanese source, a privately published book (again thank you ebay!), but also the help of my friend Ayako Nagase who was able to get me copies of some book illustrations from a university library in Japan.
|Primula sinensis as the 'fruit fly of plant genetics' – a diagram by a John Innes Horticultural Institution artist, made in 1929. John Innes Archives, courtesy of the John Innes Foundation.|
The very best source of images though has been the new system of Creative Commons, where institutions make digital collections available, for free, only seeking accreditation. Mostly the images are far too small to publish but the US Library of Congress has got a fantastic collection, which can be downloaded and used as large file sizes - there is a great collection of early photographs of Gilded Era gardens there, as well as yet more Japanese material. Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, under its previous director has also put its entire collection on line - you can ask them for large files for publication and they'll email them to you. Almost the most enjoyable part of this book was cruising Rijkstudio, where you can create your own virtual galleries to source pictures. It has been an incredibly generous policy and one which has done much to cement the museum's global reputation.
This has been a wonderfully enjoyable book to work on, and one which I hope one day to return to, to fill out the number of garden plant genera I have covered, and fill in gaps. One of those never-ending projects. I hope lots of readers will enjoy it too.
A Garden Flora, published by Timber Press