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Roses, Figs, & Pawpaws; Three Books to Grow On

Q. Anneke in Lake Leelanau Michigan writes: "Do you have a list of books that you like; or a list of books by authors you have had on the show? I am interested in diversity and like hearing what other gardeners are doing. I have raised beds, and of course use organic methods. (I live on a lake!) I have been listening to You Bet Your Garden for a long time and still enjoy and learn from your program. Keep up the good work for your Kat's and Kittens!"

A. I'm always reluctant to recommend 'how to' books about gardening, because no matter how close-to-perfect I judge the information to be, there's always something I disagree with; and even I have enough civility not to say: "this is a great book except for pages 73, 94 and 125 through 131." Heck--I even read things in some of my books that I'd change if I were writing--or rewriting--that book today. But there are several authors who I've interviewed on the show whose books have really stayed with me--so much so that I recently dug through the hoarder's dream that is my office to find and re-read them again. There is some instruction in them, but mostly inspiration, enthusiasm, wonder, and great writing.

"Chasing the Rose; an Adventure in the Venetian Countryside" by Andrea di Robilant (A Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knoff; 2014.)
Somehow this book manages to be a page-turner that still moves at the pace of a summer in Venice. Di Robilant (whose speaking voice is as exquisite as his writing) begins with a journey to a small farming community that was literally built by his great-great-great-great grandfather, but by page seven he's been invited by a curious caretaker to walk through a hidden garden that contains a riot of plants, including a silvery-pink, seemingly-wild rose that smells of peaches and raspberries.

From there its on to a library where he finds old papers left behind by his great-great-great-grand mother, who was friends with the Empress Josephine. (Like who's great-great-great-great grandmother wasn't?) Then it's a wild ride to the earliest days of the importation of roses from China; the Dupont family shows up (don't they always?) and we're in the middle of both the French and Rose revolutions.

But you know that it's all going to lead back to that silvery-pink seemingly-wild rose that smells of peaches and raspberries. And to grandparents four times great.

"Gods, Wasps and Stranglers; the Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees" by Mike Shanahan (Chelsea Green Publishing; 2016)
Figs are, we soon learn, intertwined with all of life. They rely on perhaps the strangest wasp on the planet for pollination--and the wasp relies on the fig for her continued existence. Figs provide food for birds and animals (including giant tortoises, jackals, bearded pigs and speckled bears) that in return, spread the plants' figgy domains far and wide.

The book is both a thriller (as the author begins, we learn that ecological changes have driven that essential species of wasp to extinction in an important fig-producing region) and a mind blower (the Buddha is said to have gained enlightenment after meditating under a fig tree).

And then up pops Alexander the Great, whose troops took shelter under what they thought to be a canopy of trees, except that it was a single banyan, or strangler fig. Alexander's Admiral said it could have sheltered ten thousand men. Later on, a bigger one actually shelters twenty thousand. We learn that DH Lawrence wrote passionately about figs; that the fruits were the basis of hallucinogenic rituals; that a cutting from the Buddha tree travelled thousands of miles as a priceless gift, housed in "a vase of solid gold that was eight-fingers thick"; and that the Tree of Forbidden Knowledge in Genesis was probably a fig. And we're barely on page 50.

"Paw-Paw; In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit" by Andrew Moore (Chelsea Green Publishing; 2015).
"It is said", Moore begins his book with a quote from an old gardening magazine, "that no habit gets a stronger hold on a man than the pawpaw habit." I can tell you from my travels around the country that this is hardly an exaggeration. Gardeners are fascinated by pawpaws!

It's one of only two Native American fruit trees (the other is the puckery Persimmon); its leaves are among the biggest of any plant in the forest, but the trees themselves top out at a petite ten feet. It is the only member of the custard family (yes, there is such a horticultural designation) that grows outside of the tropics. Its flowers smell of rotting flesh and so are pollinated by flies; and everyone who tastes a ripe one defines the flavor differently.

While searching for wild plants in the Ohio River Valley, Moore discovered that 'you smell them before you see them': a fragrance he describes as "a sweet tropical aroma". And of course, they grow abundantly in the wild but frustrate the heck out of home gardeners.

And since we're name dropping today, let's add Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and John Bartram (who traded pawpaw seeds and stories). Audubon drew them; the Lewis and Clark expedition was saved from starvation when they found a patch....

You get the idea.

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