Tag Archives: Book Review

Book Review: Wild Orchids Across North America

Ever since I found a Spiranthes growing in my front yard, I have been scouring all nearby landscapes with my eyes.  I wanted to know about other wild orchids in this part of the country, as well as in areas where I might be traveling around the US.  So I ordered a book on Amazon called Wild Orchids Across America: A Botanical Travelogue by Philip E. Keenan.  The book is published by Timber Press.  I am finding myself reading more and more books by this publisher.

This was a very enjoyable read, which tells about many (but not all) of the orchids which can be found in the Canada and the continental US (including Alaska, but not Florida).  It is primarily a description of the orchids themselves and their habitats, but there are some nice stories about the orchid hunting. It is called a “botanical travelogue” so the stories of the travel are part of the ride.  I’ll be checking this book before I go on each vacation to see if I’ll be in range of any blooming orchids that I can visit.

The accompanying photos for each species, taken by the author, are very nice and necessary for a book about orchids – in my opinion.

There is a considerable chunk of the book dedicated to northern climates (Alaska 28 pages, Canada 40 pages and New England 72 pages), which is not my area of interest.  There are some really cool orchids growing in these locations, but I don’t see myself going to these places for orchid viewing any time soon.  The coverage of central United States orchids was very poor.  There were sections of the book that focused on “Midwestern states” (just Ohio) and “Western states” (California, Washington, Utah and Arizona), but nothing focusing on any area close to me.  Somehow the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri are entirely skipped, although a couple of species are mentioned as originating in these locations.  It’s too bad that Keenan didn’t feel the need to explore these areas for his book.

All in all, I enjoyed reading the book.  I would say it is a “must read” for those who want to see orchids in the eastern United States, as those areas are very well covered in the book.

Book Review: The Black Tulip

Over the last year I have read several plant-related books that have referenced a classic historical fiction novel by Alexandre Dumas, The Black Tulip.  Alexandre Dumas is the author who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.  After reading about the importance of this book and its portrayal of a very real tulip obsession in Holland, I found myself an old copy of the book and read it last Fall.

The book focuses on a tulip fancier who is committed to being the first person to breed a truly black tulip, a challenge issued by the royal plant society.  The story intertwines historical figures and events, to really put the reader into the time frame of these events.

I have to say that this book was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in quite a while.  It has a nice love story, with the main character being equally entranced in his love interests: a female and a trio of tulip bulbs.

I would recommend this book to anyone, really.  You don’t have to be a plant nut to enjoy the book, and it might even shed a little light on what may otherwise seem to be a crazy obsession.

Do you know of any other great works of fiction that involve plants in pivotal roles?


Book Review: Wicked Plants

I mentioned several weeks back that I was waiting on a copy of Amy Stewart’s newest book Wicked Plants to be available at my library.  I got my hands on it a couple of weeks ago and have been reading it off and on.  It is an easy book to read in pieces, as most plant descriptions are just a couple of pages in length.

In Wicked Plants, Amy Stewart writes about all sorts of mischievous plants.  Those that have acted as mere annoyances by getting stuck in your socks when out for a walk, or those that have killed hundreds of people throughout history.  The stories I enjoyed most were those that played a role in history.  For example, Abraham Lincoln lost his mother at a young age.  She was poisoned by drinking milk from a cow which had eaten a dangerous weed.  Actually, this is the subtitle of the book: Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities.

One of the more interesting accounts in the book is about a specific plant whose effects may have resulted in myths about vampires.  The plant is a common food plant, that when eaten as a staple food can result in dietary deficiencies and leads to the following ailments: dermatitis, dementia, diarrhea and (eventually) death.  These symptoms made the offenders appear pale and sensitive to sunlight.  When exposed to sunlight, they would develop ghastly sores.  Additionally, the symptom of foul-smelling mouth and bloody sores in the mouth might have led to the ideas that vampires have sulphuric-smelling breath and are drinkers of blood.   The dietary deficiency can lead to brain degeneration which can manifest itself through insomnia and aggression.  I’ll leave the name of this food a mystery, as Amy Stewart would probably prefer you read her book. 🙂

My favorite story was probably that of a young teenager who wandered into a patch of Poison Sumac, which left him completely blinded for several weeks.  Even when his eyesight returned, it was never the same again.  During this period, he was not able to attend school and says that his seclusion nurtured his love of the outdoors.  This young man, named Frederick Law Olmstead, later went on to design New York City’s Central Park – a tribute to the outdoors that he loved so much.

If you would enjoy reading about poisonous plants and even a couple of antidote anecdotes, I would suggest Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants as an entertaining read.

The next book review will likely be One River by Wade Davis.  Look for that one in about a month.


Book Review: Flower Confidential

Have you ever wondered how far the flowers at your local florist shop traveled to reach your vase?  Have you ever wondered what their life is like or who brought them to flower?

There’s a new book available by Amy Stewart called Wicked Plants, which doesn’t tell you any of that.  Wicked Plants has been getting lots of publicity in the plant world lately, so I put my name on the hold list at the library.  While I was waiting on that book to become available, I looked into other books by Stewart, including Flower Confidential, which tells the story of the international flower producing market.  That book does answer all your questions about the cut flower industry.

Flower Confidential is an entertaining read, written in the same format as Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire.  The sections of the book are divided into Breeding, Selling and Growing.  Each chapter uses separate flowers from different parts of the world as illustrative examples of the flower industry.  Gerbera daisies, Roses, Tulips and Lilies are all used to tell about different facets of this unique industry.

I have to admit, the book had more information on the cut flower industry than I cared to know.  But it was the subject of the book, so I can’t fault Amy Stewart for that.  The parts I most enjoyed were sections describing the different growers with whom she visited and what their growing methods and interests were.

Some things I learned

The entire book was filled with information that I had never heard before, but a couple of little things struck me as particularly interesting.

When flower breeders began to try to force plants to bloom out of season, it was loosely determined that photoperiod determined when many different plants bloom.  Photoperiod is number of daylight hours available each day.  Most people would be content to know that this is important in determining when flowers would bloom.  Growers could either force plants to flower or hold them back by manipulating the hours of light available to their plants.  The manipulation could be done by using artificial lighting during dark hours and shades during the light hours, to make sure the desired photoperiod was met.  However, there were some horticulturalists that were a little more curious than the average grower who wondered, Is it really the number of daylight hours, or is it the number of dark hours? You might say that it doesn’t really matter, since the two are related.  However, the scientists were able to set up a completely controlled growing environment, in which they created different day lengths.  For example, in a covered building, they were able to simulated 26 or 30 hour days and varied the number of hours in which the plants received light.  They determined that the number of dark hours was the actual trigger that initiated the blooming process.  In other words, regardless of the time from one sunrise to the next sunrise, a plant requires a specific number of dark hours to initiate the blooming process.  If the length of the entire day varies, but the number of dark hours stays constant, the plant would still be triggered to bloom.  Cool, huh?

On a completely different note, I learned about a unique type of flower auction that is held in the Netherlands.  I didn’t know that flower auctions were even held in the Netherlands, but I was more surprised to hear about the format of these auctions.  A large round scale is available for each cut flower that is being put on auction.  Picture a produce scale from the grocery store, except that the value is displayed with a little digital light around the rim of the circle.  And the value is the cost per stem of a particular cut flower.  The top of the “clock” represents $1.00 and the bottom represents 50 cents.  For a value greater than $1, a different colored light is used to represent dollars, much like an hour hand on a clock.

But the clock itself is not what is so unique about this auction, in my mind.  These auctions are held in Aalsmeer in the second largest (by floorspace) building in the world!  But even that is not the unique factor I found so fascinating.  The unique factor here is that the flower auctions are descending-bid auctions.  That is, the auction starts off with a value that is much more than anyone would pay for the item, rather than much less.  Then, the “clock” device begins to tick downwards.  Everyone interested in the available flowers is anxiously watching the dial to see the light approach the value they are willing to bid.  But unlike other auctions, the first bid that is placed is the winner.  So you can decide ahead of time that you will buy this bundle of flowers if the price falls to $1.43 per stem.  You sit there watching and it gets down to $1.47, $1.46, $1.45 and DING!  Your price was too low.  Someone just snatched them up at $1.45!  Next time you might get a little more anxious as the price nears the value you had planned to bid.  This time you end up bidding on the flowers at $1.46 – just to be safe.

Amy Stewart pointed out that, while this form of auction seems very backwards to most people at first hearing, it is actually a lot like how most people make their normal purchasing decisions.  You see an item at the store that you are interested in buying, but you shop around until you find the price low enough that you are willing to purchase it.  Or you wait until later in the season, hoping the store will discount the price.  Either way, whether shopping around or waiting for a mark down, you run the risk of the items all being sold before a lower price is offered.  This is just how the descending-bid auction works.

So it doesn’t have much to do with plants, but I found it very interesting.  I hope you did, too.


Book Review: The Orchid Thief

On vacation last week, I took a couple of books with me – both having plants as their main subject.  One book was a field guide to plants and trees in Hawaii.  It proved very handy in identifying much of the plant life along side the road – plants that aren’t found growing in Oklahoma, outdoors or in greenhouses.

The other book is a non-fiction novel called The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.  (I always want to put an “s” at the end of her last name.)  The story revolves around an Orchid fanatic in south Florida that has stolen some rare Orchids from a protected nature preserve with a plan to clone them and make lots of money.  The author does a wonderful job of pulling in the reader from the first couple of sentences.  I loved the descriptions of this character that I could vividly picture and felt like I knew.  I also loved the portrayal of south Florida, which is unlike any other area I have visited.

It was a really fun read for my trip to Hawaii, too.  Even though the scenery is very different from Florida, I was getting to enjoy orchids growing outdoors in natural settings while reading this book.

There are lots of deviations from the story (which I enjoyed).  Many of these deviations are historical accounts of the Seminole tribes that occupy Florida.  Did you know that they are the one native people who never signed a treaty with the US?  I didn’t.

On the downside, by the time I was 3/4 of the way through the book I kind of started to realize that the book wasn’t really going anywhere.  When you write fiction, you can do something about that.  When you’re a reporter, relaying the true story of a crazy man obsessed with orchids, well…  you can’t.

Anyway, I would thoroughly recommend this book to any plant lover who has at times felt “obsessed” with plants (I am one of them), and especially to those who have a great admiration for Orchids.  It is a fun read and easy to identify with the characters, if you happen to be one of these people.