Botany for Gardeners,Third Edition by Brian Capon. Timber Press, 2010. 238 pp.
$19.95 list price, $13.56 Amazon
Review by Carol Eichler
It has been a long time since that college freshmen course in biology that I took – required – where I first learned about the fascinating world of plants- xylem and phloem, stamens and pistils, and so on and so forth – and it was at once challenging (especially the biochemistry) and eye-opening. Even though it would be years before I developed much interest in gardening, a “seed” must have been planted back then.
Since knowledge generally leads to understanding, I thought it worth a return to some of that basic biology and the book Botany for Gardeners seemed like a friendly, maybe even practical, approach to do so. I can’t think of a better reference book to explain the A to Z’s of plant behavior (from seeds to senescence, flowers to fruits, and more).
This book is packed with technical information so it is not an easy read but the many photos and illustrations (the latter by Capon) make complex concepts easier to grasp. He offers many quotable sentences, some bordering on the poetic, and, for me, a few aha moments. He makes some decidedly unscientific comments that suggest Capon’s personal appreciation for plants. Here’s one such gem: “None of the wonders of our technological age can match the miraculous awakening of a tree from winter sleep…a spectacle of regenerative power that only nature is capable of performing.”
Fortunately, the book is not lengthy and can be digested one chapter at a time. It is well organized into sections on growth, organization, adaptation, functions, and reproduction. And unlike my college days, I can enjoy the book without the concern for having to regurgitate the information in an examination.
As gardeners we may understand plant behavior from a practical point of view. Plant a seed, supply water and light, and a seedling emerges. Supply certain growing conditions and a plant thrives. Much of what we learn is through experience. Or to quote Capon, “As gardeners we develop an intuitive knowledge of a plant’s needs.” We become “experts” in observation without a deeper understanding of what is going on “from the plants’ point of view.” That’s the gap that this book supplies.
I’m not convinced that I need to know this information or that this knowledge will make me a better gardener. For me the greatest value of this book is to realize the enormous complexity of plants that we take so much for granted as well as the many still unanswered questions of how plants function. As Capon states, “Throughout every moment of a plant’s life, activities of inconceivable complexity take place beneath a deceptive façade of effortlessness and tranquility.” For me learning about this complexity - how plants have evolved and continue to adapt – contributes to an even deeper respect for plants and their mysteries – something that borders on the miraculous.
Carol Eichler is a long-time member of the Adirondack Chapter and the current newsletter editor, though she has held almost every chapter post. She graduated from troughs recently to build and plant her first rock garden and admits to finally being fully hooked.