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Chatsworth: The Gardens and the People Who Made Them

“There is an indefinable quality about the setting of the ‘Palace of the Peaks’ which has always exerted a hold over me and caused my spirits to rise and my heart to flutter” (p.17). Alan Titchmarsh begins his tour of the gardens and people of Chatsworth with this personal response and then compares it to that of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice on first seeing Pemberley, the vast estate of the man she eventually marries.

Both Chatsworth and the fictional Pemberley are in Derbyshire in central England. Chatsworth, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, consists of 35,000 acres, 105 of which are gardens. Titchmarsh combines a history of the gardens and the gardeners who created them – including famous landscape designers like ‘Capability’ Brown and Joseph Paxton – with accounts of the owners’ family over the centuries. Luscious photographs and historically accurate pictures of family members combine to excellent effect.

Interestingly, the women of the family seem to have been a major, if not the predominant, influence on the gardens. From Bess of Hardwick, who convinced her husband to buy the property in 1549, to Deborah Devonshire in the 21st century, a number of decisions about gardens have been made by women. Titchmarsh tells good stories about all these characters. He enjoys a personal friendship with the current family, calling Deborah “Debo” in the text.

Each of the estate gardens receives a chapter, noting its planting history and challenges over many years. The formal gardens, the rock garden, Arcadia, the arboretum and pinetum, the maze, the glass houses (several!), the follies, and the sculptures all receive admiring descriptions. Titchmarsh also shows how the family has maintained solvency by inviting in the public for carefully chosen events, such as art exhibitions and fairs.

Mostly this book is a work of admiration for both the gardens and the people. Titchmarsh very rarely gives a less than completely positive opinion. Of the monkey puzzle trees, one originally introduced by Paxton, he notes, “Victorian plant collectors . . . seemed to prize oddity as much as beauty” (p. 192). Monkey puzzle trees here in Seattle may reflect the same taste.

Descriptions of visiting royalty and historic cricket matches add variety to this very engaging, as well as beautiful, book.
Review by Priscilla Grundy published in Leaflet for Scholars, volume 11, issue 7, July 2024.

An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children

An Encyclopedia of Gardening for Colored Children is an innovative book by writer Jamaica Kincaid and artist Kara Walker. Despite the title, it is not for the youngest of readers, and the word ‘colored’ is a pointed, satirical use of an antiquated term. The second half of the title indicates the book’s purpose: An Alphabetary of the Colonized World. In form, the book calls to mind children’s books of centuries past, which were meant as vehicles of moral education. This aim is true here, too, but the content is distinctive for its intense focus on plant discovery and naming in the historical context of conquest, colonial exploitation, and slavery. This book is a necessary counter-narrative to traditional white Eurocentric perspectives on botany and human-plant relationships.

Kincaid is known for her literary style and her deep botanical knowledge; Walker is best known for her silhouettes and large art installations that both employ and transform racist imagery of past eras. Though each alphabetical entry is brief, all are dense with layers of meaning. Kincaid’s sentences twist and turn as they disentangle a plant’s context. Here are excerpts from the Amaranth entry:

“When the Spaniards were not committing genocide against the peoples they met, who had made a comfortable life for themselves and created extraordinary, glorious monuments to their civilizations, they were forcing them to abandon this source of physical and spiritual nourishment and replace it with barley wheat, and other European grains. This, along with many other cruelties, led to the decline of the Aztecs and the Inca.” Contemporary gardeners are not immune to a bit of sly critique: “Some gardeners, when reflecting on its [amaranth’s] history and its appearance in their garden as an ornamental, have a very fleeting debate within themselves over the ethics of growing food as an ornamental.”

Walker’s illustrations are thought-provoking: two enslaved Black men laboring under the weight of enormous cotton bolls while, on top of one puff of cotton, a white man in colonial dress takes his ease, smoking a pipe. The illustration accompanying the Guava entry shows a Black woman reaching toward a fruit while poised on a shipping crate marked “Exotic Fruits,” “For Export,” while an impish white boy lifts up the back of her dress. The visual double entendre here speaks volumes.

Though at times veering toward didactic or opaquely allusive language, there is much to learn from this book and its illuminating explorations of plants and their complex histories.

Reviewed by Rebecca Alexander.

Mystery-themed books

For students contemplating a career in the plant sciences, being a forensic botanist is probably not at the top of the prospective career list. Reading Planting Clues by David J. Gibson may change that viewpoint. As the author observes, “an appreciation of the value of plants in forensics is often lacking.”

This gripping book relates many cases in which identifying plants is key to solving crimes or making convictions. This includes some very famous cases, such as the kidnapping of the infant child of Charles Lindbergh in 1932. A forester was able to identify the wood in the homemade ladder used to take the child from the second floor nursery. During the trial, the defense moved to have this expert testimony disallowed, but the objection was overruled and the findings helped convict the kidnapper.

This is only one of several grisly murder cases in which plants linked the criminal to the crime. Other stories are less gruesome. These include smuggling expensive orchids by mixing them in with less valuable but similar plants. Out-of-bloom, only an expert can tell the difference.

This garden of horrors provides fertile ground for fiction writers, too. Marta McDowell writes a rollicking book titled Gardening Can Be Murder, recounting all the ways in which mystery writers have used plants (or fungi) to kill characters, or incriminate killers. As the author observes, “criminal investigation, whether vocation or avocation, calls for many of the same skills as horticulture.”

This is a widespread genre and from my own reading I know it is only growing! Nineteen of Agatha Christie’s stories have a garden or plant component, as do four of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle.

My personal favorite series is Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters. Set in a 12th century abbey on the Welsh-English border, the eponymous monk is the abbey’s herbalist. Although these are works of fiction, the garden practices are informative and largely accurate for the time. More about this can be found in Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden by Robin Whiteman, published in 1997.

Reviewed by Brian Thompson in the Leaflet, Volume 11, Issue 6, June 2024.

Forgotten Masters: Indian Painting for the East India Company

Forgotten Masters  (edited by William Dalrymple) focuses on restoring to art history the paintings and the forgotten names of the artists in India who worked for British government officials during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the text suggests a mostly benevolent relationship between the artists and their patrons, the goal of reclaiming the names of at least some of the artists works to right one colonial wrong.

The book is based on an exhibition of the same title at the Wallace Collection, a museum in a historical house in London, Hertford House. Sir Richard Wallace, the “likely illegitimate son” of the 4th Marquess of Hertford, collected  art and left it to his wife, who donated it to the British government (except some she gave her secretary).

Each of the book’s six chapters is accompanied by essays by one or two specialists in Indian art. Of particular interest to Miller Library readers is the section on “Indian Export Art? The botanical drawings,” with an essay by H.J. Nolte. He writes he had more than 7,000 botanical drawings to choose from, in just four British collections, plus many more in private hands. The Indian artists were shown examples of European botanical drawings and instructed to copy them. They were very successful. Nolte makes clear throughout that the paintings retain some qualities of the techniques the artists had learned previously in various Indian locations. One early example, Trapa natans (p. 83), by an unknown artist, shows more of these techniques than others in the book with its two-dimensional presentation and near symmetrical arrangement. Others, such as Spray of Green Mangoes (p.86), by Bhawani Das, and A Cobra Lily (p. 87), by Vishnupersaud, display a crisp, representational style.

The variety of subjects makes this book particularly impressive, all elegant reproductions in the coffee-table-sized book. Paintings of animals and birds, portraits of individuals and groups of both Indians and British, drawings of buildings (including the Taj Mahal) — the book shows many aspects of Indian life at the time. And it is all a delight to look at.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in Leaflet for Scholars, Volume 11, Issue 6, June 2024

The Signature of All Things

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert weaves a narrative that follows the life of Alma Whittaker, a dedicated botanist driven by an insatiable curiosity for the world. The novel, encompassing elements of historical fiction, botanical exploration, and an unyielding pursuit of knowledge, immerses readers in Alma’s journey as she grapples with love, loss, and the intricate facets of the natural world.

Gilbert’s prose paints a picture of Alma’s experiences across continents and decades, capturing the essence of an era marked by scientific breakthroughs and societal transformations. I will note that the book incorporates outdated and offensive terms prevalent in the 19th century, particularly in describing Black and Indigenous people, as well as gay men. While I personally was hoping for a more critical examination of colonization and historical injustices, the narrative predominantly reflects Alma’s European-centric experiences. This focus may be regarded as both a reflection of the prevailing attitudes of the time—where Eurocentrism was prominent—and a limitation that, unfortunately, neglects the exploration of other diverse perspectives that existed during that historical period.

I did love Gilbert’s portrayal of how Alma’s unwavering passion and devotion to the botanical world shapes her entire existence. Rather than remaining a mere backdrop, botany becomes the cornerstone of Alma’s life events, resulting in a narrative where nearly every moment is interwoven with her botanical pursuits. This centrality of botany offers a unique depth to the narrative.

I especially appreciated the contrast between Alma’s exploration of moss and the portrayal of glamorous tropical plants, like orchids. Moss, with its associations of resilience and understated beauty, provides a window into Alma’s character, revealing her preferring and embodying the overlooked and intricate. Meanwhile, the allure of orchids symbolizes exoticism and societal expectations, but also offers a reflection of cultural and historical values, adding depth to the broader context of the story.

In essence, the novel is an interesting blend of historical fiction and botanical fascination, offering a portrayal of Alma’s life while prompting reflection on the societal issues of the era.

Reviewed by Ashlyn Higareda in the Leaflet, Volume 11, Issue 4, April 2024

Enchanted Forests: The Poetic Construction of a World Before Time

Boria Sax owns a forest. About 80 acres in upstate New York, it’s twice the size of the 40-acre farm once thought enough to support a family. From his investigation of the history of his woods, Sax moves to consider the many ways humans have thought and written about forests over centuries.

“Enchanted” can mean either “bewitched” or “charmed.” As Sax points out, forests can instill terror. He cites mythic “figures of terror, which give tangible form to amorphous fears that the forest can inspire” (p. 50), such as the Windigo of Canada and the northern U.S. and the Nandi Bear of Kenya, both of which devour humans.

A forest, Sax reports, “has always been defined far more by its mythic character than by its vegetation” (p. 82). It’s the opposite of civilization, a wilderness, but not necessarily full of trees – often “a sort of indeterminate landscape, with rocks, caves, mountains and trees” (p. 82).

One theme running through this account is the gradual diminishing of forests worldwide. Sax’s own forest is a regrowth after previous use for farming. For most of the United States, no regrowth has occurred – the woods are just gone. Even in classical Greece and Rome timbering began the clearances which have left few wooded areas across Europe and the U.S.

Sax provides chapters on various ways of viewing forests: “The Classical Forest,” “The Forest and Death,” for instance. In “Law of the Jungle” he shows how the word “jungle” appeared first in late 18th century England, applied to forests in the southern hemisphere and associated with Empire: “The word suggested a place of primordial violence and disorder, which was only good for testing one’s manhood and making one’s fortune” (p. 201).

All in all, Enchanted Forests is an enchanting read.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in Leaflet for Scholars, Volume 11, Issue 4, April 2024

Through the Woods

A wood should never be vast. The best woods are small, a few acres in extent, not much more than copses” (p. 82). H. E. Bates’s book is as paean of praise to these small woodlands in England. As the title suggests, the book takes the reader through the seasons, April to April. Bates describes changes in plants, animals, but also air and atmosphere.
“Children are never frightened in fields . . . But they are often frightened in woods, by the very mystery and seclusion of the place, by the sudden soft hushings of leaves, by the magnified echoes of feet, by the leaping up of rabbits, by the savage sudden screeching of unknown birds” (p. 42). Bates’s sentences are marvelous.
The few interruptions to the admiring descriptions of woodlands relate to people who misuse them. A favorite target is the keeper, the man (if there were any women, they were not mentioned) hired to prevent damage, especially poaching, to the pheasants needed for those riding to the hunt. Keepers suspect anyone walking in the woods of poaching, and this book centers on walking in woods. Unpleasant encounters ensue. Bates writes in 1936; I wonder if many keepers remain in 2024.
Particularly charming, the next-to-last chapter, “The Darling Buds of March,” describes with wonderful detail changes that occur in tree buds as spring is about to arrive. For example: “The first buds of elm are little fluffy French knots of dark pink wood securely sewn on the jagged branches. The gray-black buds of ash are like arrow heads of iron” (p. 137).
Agnes Miller Parker’s wood engravings, like the book’s prose, convey the feeling as well as the physical components of the woods. Presented without captions in the text, each is titled in the contents section in the front. They elegantly supplement the words to make a very worthy whole.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy in The Leaflet, Volume 11, Issue 3, March 2024.

Elysium Britannicum

John Evelyn (1620-1706) was one of the great diarists of 17th century England. His observations written over 65 years give historians keen insights to turbulent times that included a civil war, the execution of a king (Charles I), an outbreak of plague, and the Great Fire of London.
Evelyn also wrote several books, including one on forestry in Britain, but his passion was for gardening. Short publications, including a gardening calendar, and another on making salads (he was a vegetarian), were small expressions of this passion.
However, he hoped to produce a comprehensive gardening book. He wrote and illustrated a manuscript of nearly 400 pages, which he continued to update over many years. He was unable to bring it to publication, but the work and its many notes and additions were kept after his death, and eventually came to be owned by the British Library.
In 2001, under the editorship of John E. Ingram, this manuscript was finally published as Elysium Britannicum or The Royal Gardens. This is a working manuscript, filled with crossed-out words and sentences, inserted notes, and other changes made by Evelyn. It is also a fascinating look at the horticulture of the time. Much is still applicable today.
Since Gardining is one of the noblest and most refined parts of Agriculture, and hath, as all other Arts and Professions certaine Instruments and tooles properly belonging to it, and without which we can hope for little Successe in our Labours.
This is followed by descriptions of the spade, the rake, the hoe (spelled “haues”), and the fork (“forke”) and many more tools, a total of 70, all illustrated. I recommend this book for a glimpse of gardening from over 300 years ago and to appreciate that many of today’s cultural practices date back centuries.
Reviewed by Brian Thompson and published in the Leaflet for Scholars, Volume 11, Issue 3, March 2024.

Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science

When I was very small, my mother often called me “Little Miss Mischief.” It meant I had once again done something wrong, but not terribly wrong, and maybe a little bit cute. I was happy with the title. Elizabeth and Margaretta Morris, the sisters of the title of Catherine McNeur’s book, were not so fortunate. Their mischief was seen as serious; they were challenging the exclusive male 19th century science establishment as they sought opportunity and recognition for their work.
Not travelers, the two women conducted their efforts in botany (Elizabeth) and entomology (Margaretta) in the neighborhood of their Germantown, Pennsylvania home. Neither married, but the family wealth (some, alas, gained from the slave trade) allowed them comfortable single lives together. Their social status enabled them to connect with other scientists in this era when the distinction between professionals and amateurs was blurry.
Collecting plants and insects was central to both their fields of study. Elizabeth, for instance, sent many plant specimens to Asa Gray, the first professor of botany at Harvard, and received some from him in return. Though other scientists collected from the far corners of the earth, the Morrises did their work near home, often along nearby Wissahickon Creek.
Elizabeth resisted publicity for herself.  She wrote at least 77 articles about her studies, all anonymous, using initials or such names as “A Friend to Farmers.”  Margaretta was different. She studied insects that damaged crops in her neighborhood. In 1836 the Hessian fly, Cecidomyia destructor, was attacking wheat throughout the region. Through close observation, she determined that the current understanding of where on the wheat the flies laid their eggs was faulty. In the spirit of helpfulness she allowed her paper describing her discovery to be read aloud by a male cousin at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. McNeur’s description of the resulting uproar shows clearly the challenges faced by women scientists.
Margaretta did not back down. Her efforts to gain acceptance led in 1850 to her membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She and the astronomer Maria Mitchell were elected at the same meeting, the first two women members. Margaretta did not attend.
Mischievous Creatures shows in impressive detail how personal contacts, correspondence, and hard work allowed these two women to participate in the development of science in America in the generation after the Revolution.  The reader wanders along the creek with Elizabeth and Margaretta as they collect specimens and learns with admiration how they spread their discoveries across the country.
Review by Priscilla Grundy in the Leaflet, Volume 11 Issue 2, February 2024.

The Writer’s Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett actually knew a tame robin in her garden, just like the one in The Secret Garden, her famous children’s book. In The Writer’s Garden by Jackie Bennett, the reader discovers many such connections. The book offers short essays on authors and their gardens, accompanied by lavish photographs. Some authors were inspired by looking at their gardens, some supervised construction, and a few dug in themselves. 
This new volume is a second and heavily revised edition. The Miller Library has both books. In the 2014 first edition, the 19 authors are all British – the subtitle is “how gardens inspired our best-loved authors.” This new book presents 28 writers from several countries. I imagine Jackie Bennett enjoying visits to Germany (Hermann Hesse), Italy (Antonio Fogazzaro), and even the U.S. (William Faulkner). Besides adding non-British authors and gardens, Bennett also deleted some lesser-known British ones. Farewell, Rupert Brooke and Laurence Sterne. 
Bennett heavily re-edited the entries in the new edition. For Jane Austen, she reduced the number of pages from ten to eight. The new version has a different photo of the Wilderness that figures prominently in Pride and Prejudice and different illustrations for Chawton Cottage, where Austen lived for several years. For Beatrix Potter, eight pages in the first edition became ten in the second. Many photos are the same in each volume but laid out in different designs. Editorial changes include eliminating a sentence that said Potter acquired plants, “shamelessly taking them from other people’s gardens,” and removing “slightly ill-timed” from the description of a gift plant. Maybe Bennett wanted a kinder effect.
Especially for a reader who combines love of gardens with love of literature, these are both charming and elegant volumes.
Reviewed by Priscilla Grundy, published in The Leaflet, Volume 11, Number 1, January 2024.