The Word

Confessions of an amateur horticulturist

Confessions of an amateur horticulturist

Posting in Environment | From Issue 14 March 24 & 31, 2014

A review of A Garden of Marvels: The Discovery that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of the Way Plants Work, by Ruth Kassinger.

A Garden of Marvels: The Discovery that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of the Way Plants Work (William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, $25.99) brims with details while remaining vague. The book is quasi-travelogue, encyclopedia, history, practicum and diary. With 29 illustrated chapters divided into five parts (“Roots,” “Leaves,” “Flowers,” etc.), Ruth Kassinger’s latest release contains lots of structure, but the formatting doesn’t enhance readability. 

Unlike fiction, new books related to science and the environment almost require an element of timeliness: in the introduction, the author clarifies why we should read this book now. Maybe some sort of discovery has happened, or a global policy threatens the status quo. Non-fiction writers often deliver an argument and a call to action. A Garden of Marvels has neither.  

Kassinger writes in first-person, as a studious home-gardener who wonders things and then travels to experts who educate her. This is not a book that a young person would write; Kassinger went back to her passion, writing, after a career in government service. Thanks to her stable life situation (and finances), she is able to learn firsthand why tomatoes grown in Canada are priced the same as those grown in Mexico. 

 

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During the most tumultuous time in her life, Kassinger took a major interest in plants, yearning for the day-to-day structure their upkeep required. She was grieving her sister's death, having just grappled with her own mortality in the form of breast cancer. In 2010, she published the memoir Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden. While tending this now-thriving conservatory—home to approximately 50 different species—Kassinger found the material for this lighthearted sequel.

“Flowers have sex” and “leaves eat air” are synonymous for pollination and photosynthesis, two natural cycles we’re taught in elementary school. When we need a refresher, the rest of us simply search Google instead of crisscrossing the country. I admire Kassinger, both for her dedication and her ability to make adventures out of mundane musings. Her book just isn’t a practical read.

But Kassinger isn't a practical person, and I adore the theatrical snap of her narrative voice. The story starts with her saga to procure a "cocktail tree," a manmade invention that bears several different fruits. When the grower she's found asks what produce she'd like to procure from her custom plant, she cares only about color. "I didn’t plan on eating my crop—I can buy fruit in the grocery store—I just wanted to look at it," she writes ("Typical Ruth!" I laughed. I quickly began to think of my copy of A Garden of Marvels as "Ruth").  

Too late, she finds out there are laws preventing her from taking her Florida-born tree (christened "Dorothy Parker") across state lines, back to her home in Maryland. And so Kassinger enlists her mother, a local, as thankless caregiver. Determined to (virtually) see the tree thrive, Kassinger even has a moisture meter placed in the soil configured to a Twitter account, enabling her mom to receive Tweets every time the couture tree gets thirsty. 

Kassinger's roundabout thought process (and how she self-deprecates without apologizing for who she is) make A Garden of Marvels an engaging read. 

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure