Tag Archives: book

Book Review: Toki No Hana

Doesn’t that title just draw you in?  No?

Well, maybe that explains why everyone was rolling their eyes when I opened this Christmas present from my parents (which I had requested, by the way).  The Japanese book “Toki No Hana” is a 45 page monograph (book with one subject) with 480 photographs of plants from the genus Asarum.

Toki No Hana cover
Toki No Hana cover

Although I have only grown one species from this genus, I greatly admire the genus and I have plans to start a small collection.  In the United States, Asarums are grown most often as groundcovers in woodland shade gardens in the north.  There are a couple of species native to North America.  You might run across their mottled foliage in the woods of the northern states and in Canada.

In southeast Asia, it’s a completely different matter.  For thousands of years, the Japanese have cultivated different varieties for their variable foliage and subtle, but beautiful blooms.  The foliage can be anywhere from solid green to almost completely silver.  The blooms vary from yellow with red centers to solid purple.  They are treasured plants, grown in small pots where they can show off their blooms most easily.  You see, the inflorescence of Asarums is at the base of them stem, literally lying on the surface of the soil (or pebbles in the pictures below).  One of the most recognized blooms looks like a little panda bear, being white and a deep purple that looks black.

Asarum pictures from Toki No Hana
Asarum pictures from Toki No Hana

The book was compiled by the Japanese Asarum Preservation Society and is a collection of pictures of all of the different varieties that have been cultivated there.  It is fascinating to see the variation.  Some are stunning and others are… well, not so pretty.  After all of the pictures are several pages of notes on the identification and origin of the different species and cultivars presented in the pictures.  Of course, the notes are in Japanese:

Notes on Asarum species - did you get all that?
Notes on Asarum species - did you get all that?

Thankfully, my parents purchased this book from a US source (Asiatica Nursery) that had grabbed a bunch of these books in Japan and translated the notes to English.

Ah, much better.  Asarum notes translated from Japanese to English by Barry Yinger.
Ah, much better. Asarum notes translated from Japanese to English by Barry Yinger.

This Spring I will be checking the Atwoods store here in town where I have purchased Asarum splendens in the past.  I will probably get three or four plants to start with.  Since Asarums are actually a cool climate plant and will do very well in dimly lit, cool rooms, my plan is to start my collection in earnest this Fall by purchasing several more varieties from Asiatica Nursery, an online retailer that specializes in Asarums.  They usually have about 70 different varieties available.  I already have a short list of the plants I plan to purchase:

  • Asarum kiusianum var. tubulosum – solid white flowers, low clumping leaves
  • Asarum maximum Green panda wild ginger – one of the most famous species
  • Asarum splendens Chinese wild ginger – the variety I will buy at Atwood’s in town
  • Asarum subglobosum – pink/beige flowers, green leaves have center white stripe
  • Asarum takaoi ‘Ginba’ – solid silver leaves
  • Asarum wulingense
  • It will be great fun to watch my plants mature into specimens as beautiful as those pictured in Toki No Hana and to see my plants produce some of these amazing inflorescences.

    Stay tuned for pictures of my plants as I collect them!


    Book Review: Tempting Tropicals

    Tempting Tropicals: 175 Irresistible Indoor Plants by Ellen Zachos is a book about tropical houseplants.  Unlike most books on houseplants, the species highlighted in this book are a little less common and some are rare or exotic.  But all of the plants can be grown indoors, they’re just not necessarily easy to find.

    Tempting Tropicals by Ellen Zachos
    Tempting Tropicals by Ellen Zachos

    I really like the bold choices made by Zachos for this book.  She has apparently read her share of houseplant books that cover the same common species that you see in many houses.  She decided to pick out some odd balls from her years of experience growing tropical plants in a very non-tropical environment (apartment buildings in various parts of the northeast United States) and tell about her favorite plants from all of those little experiments.

    Because the book does not focus on the typical houseplants, I would not recommend this book as a good reference for someone who doesn’t already have a general houseplant book or two.  But for someone who already has some of those books in their library, you won’t find a lot of repetition on these pages.  And if you are interested in growing something that you haven’t seen before or something that will surprise your peers, this would be a great book to reference.

    The first quarter of the book covers the care of tropical plants in the home environment.  Chapter topics include classification, growth information, container choice, potting media, fertilization, light exposure, artificial lighting, humidity, pruning, repotting, propagation, pest profiles, pest management and diseases.  This front quarter of the book has generally good information from someone that obviously has a lot of experience.  Though I had read much of this advice before from a number of different sources, I picked up new tips and especially gained a lot of knowledge from the section about artificial lighting options.

    The remaining three-quarters of the book is occupied with plant profiles for 175 different plants, many of which I was not familiar with.  The profile tells about the physical characteristics of the plants and how to care for them.  Additionally, each plant’s “winning attributes” are described.

    I won’t list all of the great plants in the book, but here are a couple of highlights:

    Climbing Onion – Boweia volubulis – This is a unique onion plant with very delicate foliage above the large, flaky onion bulbs that sit on the soil’s surface.

    Peacock Plant – Calathea lancifolia – I am a lover of Calatheas anyway, and this is one of the less common ones, with lance-shaped leaves.  This plant is towards the top of my wish list.

    Coconut Palm – Cocos nucifera – This is the common coconut palm tree, which looks really cool as a specimen tree, because the stalk of the tree grows directly out of the coconut.  I have twice tried growing this plant in my house and it simply will not survive in my low-light conditions.

    Sealing Wax Palm – Cyrtostachys renda – This is a really intriguing plant.  It looks just like a palm tree with bright red stems that are waxy looking (as the name implies).

    Elephant’s Foot – Dioscorea elephantipes – This plant reminds me a lot of the climbing onion (above).  It has a large above-ground base, in this case not a classic onion but more of a hard sphere of wood.  The upper growth of the plant has wandering branches with small roundish leaves.  It is a true oddball.  I hope to run across one of these someday.

    Butterwort – Pinguicula ehlerserac x. P. oblingoloba – This little plant has bright lemony-green leaves with tall stalks of dainty magenta blooms.  Apparently this is a very easy plant that grows rapidly and likes a lot of water.

    The plants are alphabetized by genus name and many times there are a couple of species covered under each genus.  At least one picture accompanies each genus in the profiles.  There is a lot of variation in plants described in the book – from colorful, showy blooms to beautiful foliage plants to spiky cacti.

    There is a final, short section with some miscellaneous topics, including traveling with plants, bark mounting and summering plants outdoors.

    As I said, this book is for the person who already has some experience with growing the typical houseplants (and already has a couple of books in that department).  It is for someone who is ready to try something new and maybe venture in to the world of ordering something rare, exotic and outlandish (maybe even from a foreign country) and growing it in your own home.


    Book Review: Botany of Desire – A Plant’s Eye View of the World

    For some reason I want to say this is my first plant book review of a Fiction book.  However, Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World is not fiction.  I guess it’s just that it’s the first non-reference book I’ve reviewed on my blog.

    Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan is more of an historical account of nature’s interaction with plants – and specifically human kind’s interaction with plants.  It chronicles the influences of man on “natural” selection.  It also conjectures about the influence of plants on humans! No, that wasn’t a typo. 🙂

    Plants have natural variations in their offspring.  Some of those offspring are more successful than others.  The variations that succeed are more likely to reproduce than those that fail.  This is natural selection, of course.  Well, you might have heard someone say that since humans are so all-powerful, we have begun to trump nature’s selection by choosing ourselves what species we want to live, etc.  For instance, it might be that the prettiest rose survives, rather than the rose most immune to certain diseases.

    We know that plants have generated natural variations that take advantage of other living beings to profit themselves.  For instance, many plants produce beautiful flowers that appeal to pollinators (bees and birds).  Why do the plants do this?  They do it for their own benefit – so that the plant gets pollinated and reproduces.

    The premise of The Botany of Desire is this:

    Maybe plants have been using us humans just like they do bees and birds.  Maybe plants have been specifically creating variations that appeal to humans in order to sustain their own populations.

    It sounds kind of science fictiony and far-fetched, but on the most basic level you almost have to agree that it is true.  In many cases, the variations of plants that have been promoted by humans have not been for the betterment of the plant.  For instance, the apples we buy in the grocery store today are thickly coated with insecticides (more than ever before in history) for one specific reason.  Because we found an apple that we liked and have been spreading it forward by grafting (rather than allowing natural variation through seedlings), the apple tree has not adapted to the insects that feed on it.  If mankind were to have left the apple alone, it would have adapted to it’s natural predators.  Therefore, it only makes sense that some plants would begin to make the best of a bad situation and start to produce variations that are appealing to humans, who have begun to more or less control the spread of plant life.

    In the end, the premise is not so much that plants are using us, but that there is a reciprocal relationship.  Plants have merely begun to notice that we have desires and that by meeting our desires, they can benefit, as well.

    Michael Pollan elegantly weaves his story, following four separate plant species which have appealed to different human desires:  the apple (sweetness), the rose (beauty), marijuana (intoxicant), and the potato (control).  The story is well-written, following Johnny Appleseed on his journey across the frontier, and recounting the quest for the perfect black tulip in Amsterdam.  Pollan also talks about his own experiences of growing marijuana and the genetic engineering that has been performed on the potato in recent decades.  The four plants are selected well in terms of highlighting four different desires, as well as progressing his story forward in time.  This is an entertaining and insightful book that I would recommend to any gardener.

    My plant list and suggested reading

    I wanted to call attention to some new features on The Variegated Thumb.  On the sidebar, under “Pages” you will notice a number of links, including About, My Plant List, Photo Albums, Some Vocabulary, Suggested Links and Suggested Reading.  Most of these are new and some are in progress.

    My Plant List is nearly a complete list of the plants I have at home – whether in pots in the house or planted out in the yard.  I know there are some missing items (a couple of trees, some unwanteds, and just some overlooked plants), but most all of my plants are on the list.  The list contains 137 distinct plant species/varieties/cultivars, categorized by family.  I’m not sure that categorizing by family is the best way of looking at my plants, since I only have one plant from many different families.  But, it is kind of interesting, because it shows where my interest is most invested.  I have far more Araceae (Aroids) than I do any other family.  In compiling the list, I had to look up almost every plant to see what family it is in.  So, my own collection held many surprises for me.  I was surprised to see that I had 8 plants from the family Ruscaceae.  And I guess I had forgotten that I have 4 species from the genus Ficus.

    The Suggested Reading list is just a couple of plant books from different genres that I have read and enjoy – books that I would recommend to a friend.  I have only read a limited number of books on gardening and plant care, so it is certainly not a list of the best plant books on a given topic, but it does represent the best books I have read on each topic.

    The Suggested Links list includes most of the websites that I frequent concerning plants.  In fact, since I compiled that list, it’s like I have a bookmarks away from home.  I can just go to The Variegated Thumb, click on Suggested Links and have all of my favorite websites at my fingertips.  It’s kind of handy for me, and hopefully you can find something useful there as well.  The real trove of information is kind of hidden in the links to the GardenWeb Forums and Dave’s Garden.  There is enough information on those sites (and constantly growing) to keep you busy for hundreds of human lifetimes!  I also compiled a pretty good list of some online plant stores that have plants that interest me (Aroids, aquatics, houseplants, exotics).

    Feel free to look at the other links on the Pages tab.  About simply tells about my blog.  Photo Albums is a collection of links to the photo albums I have included in some of my blogs.  I will probably add a new album about once per month.  Some Vocabulary is a list of some words I may use on my blog to talk about plants.  The definitions are nothing fancy – some may sound like a dictionary, while others are obviously my own words.


    Book Reviews of two NY Times plant books

    I have a collection of 20 to 30 books on plants.  Among those are two books that I really enjoy, both published by the New York Times.  The first is the 1973 book The New York Times Book of House Plants by Joan Lee Faust with illustrations by Allianora Rosse.  The first section of the book contains the requisite general care guide that explains watering, lighting, repotting, etc.  It also contains a Calendar of Care, that outlines when certain tasks (repotting, fertilizing, dormancy) should be performed with your houseplants.  The meat of this book is a section of profiles and hand drawn pictures of 150 different common house plants.  The plants are alphabetical by their common name, but there is at least a Genus (and usually a species) included for each plant (most of which are correct).  I remember looking at my mom’s copy of this book a number of times growing up and purchased a copy of my own in a used book store about a year ago.  I think what I like most about this book is the illustrations.  It’s weird to say this, but it almost seems that the illustrations convey more about the plants than a picture could.  I know that a photograph is worth a thousand words and all that, but there is a simplicity in the illustrations that speaks louder than the detail of photographs.  There is something very elegant about them.  The qualities of the plant that are apparent to the human eye are accentuated very well in these pictures.  Here is one such example:

    NY Times Book of Houseplants - Philodendrons
    NY Times Book of Houseplants - Philodendrons

    [On a separate note, there is a really good catalog of aquatic plants with illustrations at the Tropica website.  It is linked on my sidebar.  Check it out if you are interested in aquatic plants, or this type of plant illustration.]

    The plant descriptions and care guidance are decent, but nothing special.  After the 150 common plants is a list and very short description (with no pictures) of 19 “unusual” houseplants.  These include impatiens, lantana and hydrangea.  I find nothing unusual about these plants, so it is either the book showing its age, or it is simply the fact that these books are not usually kept as houseplants.  You normally find them planted outdoors or in pots on front porches.

    This book also contains a section on miscellaneous topics, including gardening under lights, bottle gardens & terrariums, bulb forcing, and propagation.  The most outdated section of the book is a short directory of places to buy houseplants.  It is one of those things that will forever identify this book as being written pre-internet.  I probably would not have much of a plant hobby if the nearest place to buy houseplants and supplies was a five hour drive from me.  🙂  In a book published in the last couple of years, this section would not even be considered.  It’s unlikely that there would even be a list of website URLs where you could find information or buy plants or supplies.  With the onset of the internet, that type of information is easily accessible to anyone interested.  The internet is a wonderful thing – though I often find time slipping away all too quickly in its grasp.

    If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of this book, you can get one very cheap on Amazon.

    The other NY Times book in my collection is a more recent one.  The New York Times 1000 Gardening Questions and Answers: Based on the New York Times Column ‘Garden Q & A‘ is a really long title, huh?  Well, it’s also a great reference book.  I came across this book on a shopping spree (of sorts) at a huge book store in the Dallas/Fort Worth metro area.  I had about an hour to choose any one book that I would like to take home for free.  This was a crazy idea of my parents-in-law.  [A crazy idea that I enjoyed very much, might I add.]  Anyway, after an hour of looking, this is the book I wanted to take home with me.  The book is divided into sections on flower gardening, landscape gardening, kitchen gardening, potted gardening and garden keeping.  Each of these topics is broken down further into some subcategories.  Questions range from the very general “What type of plant would you suggest for such and such location?” to the more specific “Most soil recipes call for perlite, vermiculite, or both.  What are they, and what’s the difference between them?”  Okay, well that’s not all that specific.  As I thumbed through the book looking for a specific question I realized that it doesn’t get too specific.  This book is fun to read through and to learn some things.  But it’s really not a great reference book for learning everything there is to know about any one subject.  It’s aim is definitely breadth over depth.

    If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of this book, they are going for about $14 new and less than a dollar for a used copy on Amazon.