Not all garden books are how-to-garden books. Some books for fun are filled with weird and wonderful facts, and others are full of beauty and history.
One book sent to me by Storey Publishing last month is Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants ($19.95) written by Tammi Hartung.
Because milkweed was in the title I began by reading those pages. When we lived in New York City I was doing some research for an article on herbs. I went to the big library on 42nd Street and trolled through the enormous card catalog (no online catalog in 1976) and found amazing books. One book (name lost) told the patriotic story of children during WWII who were paid 15 cents for every onion bag full of unopened milkweed pods. Hartung fills out that story saying that during the war the government lost its access to Java and its kapok which filled life jackets. I don’t know who first suggested milkweed fluff as a substitute, but “the seed floss is hollow and coated with a natural plant wax which makes it waterproof and allows it to float.” The Navy made over a million life jackets with milkweed floss during the war.
That’s not the first time milkweed was found to have important uses. Several Native tribes have used it medicinally, for removing warts, as an eyewash to heal snow blindness and to treat pleurisy and other ailments. In fact, up until 1936 it was included in the National Formulary as a drug to treat pleurisy.
Nowadays new uses are being found for milkweed. The floss is being used to absorb oil spills more effectively than polypropylene. It can also be used in insulted jackets, pillows and comforters. The seeds and seed pods can be used as biofuel in woodstoves.
The pages on milkweed are just one example of the weird and wonderful facts about the other 42 native plants. Who knew that amaranth was nutritious enough, providing protein, folic acid, calcium and other necessary nutrients that NASA says it is an essential food for space missions.
Of course, hickory trees produce hickory nuts, and wood that is turned into lumber. Wagon wheels of covered wagons were made of hickory for the trek across our country, and Michael Thonet used green hickory wood to make his iconic bentwood furniture. Its bark can be used to make a smoky sweet syrup.
Lovely drawings and clear photographs illustrate this book that would be a treat for the whole family. Each topic from Agave to Yucca could send a student off in a dozen directions for a homework paper; parents will be fascinated by the ethnobotanical information involving so many familiar plants. Hartung writes in a clear and conversational way; she has also written Homegrown Herbs and The Wildlife-Friendly Vegetable Gardener.
The gorgeous photographs and paintings of Noel Kingsbury’s Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden ( Timber Press $40) is an alphabetic stroll through a garden from Abutilon to Zinnia.
The first 20 pages of the book are a substantial lesson in botany from taxonomy, evolutionary history, ecology, and history in cultivation. Then it is on to the bright seductive illustrations of flowers from old catalogs and garden magazines, as well as serene Japanese drawings and paintings. The brief histories of each flower are both scholarly and engaging.
The familiar maple (acer) is illustrated by an autumnal print made by the Japanese master Utagawa Hiroshige, with a brief history of its uses from maple syrup to attracting tourists. The diversity of maples has spread them around the world from North America, Russia, Japan and China. A theory based on Jurassic era fossils suggests that the maple first originated in Southern China.
Chrysanthemums are such popular flowers now, with numerous cultivars and flower forms that it might not be so surprising that records of Chinese cultivation go back to the Shan dynasty almost 4,000 years ago. I once attended a Kiku (the Japanese word for chrysanthemum) display at the New York Botanical Garden. The flowers were displayed as solitary potted plants, but the pots set out in symmetrical arrangements, as well as in cascades, and as Ozukuri where a single plant has been pruned and trained to produce “one thousand blooms” in a pyramidal form. Kingsbury’s book gives a good idea of that practice.
Garden Flora is a perfect example of the way a garden path leads into mythology, history, science and art. One of the things I like about gardening and the gardeners I meet is that there is so much to learn, to enjoy, to marvel at, and to appreciate.
It is always good fun to have a story about plant hunters like Ernest Henry Wilson, known as Chinese Wilson, who gave us certain hydrangeas, honeysuckle and the Lilium regale.
Kingsbury who lives in Britain on the Wales border has written many other books including Natural Garden Style. He also lectures and has a website, noelkingsbury.com and a blog.
When winter means we can’t wander in our own garden, the pages of Garden Flora are a happy substitute.