"Tis the season for looking at the latest books and looking back at the year's best books in time for holiday giving. No matter how much I publish — and read — on the Web, nothing beats a book in the hand. A beautiful publication like the recently released "Flora Mirabilis" is a great example of why I can still be hooked on a new garden book. Despite the hundreds of gardening books I already own (I stopped counting at 196 with 5 shelves still to go!), there is always room for a worthy addition.
"Flora Mirabilis" — the title alone is enough to catch a gardner's eye. But the glossy black cover with a red and green Jamaican dogwood and red and green marblelized endpapers might be enough to seal the deal. "Flora Mirabilis" — subtitled "How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth and Beauty: An Illustrated Time Line" — is a joint project between two venerable and highly respected institutions, National Geographic and Missouri Botanical Garden. As such, it has the scholarship to match the wealth of incredible botanical illustrations that appear on every page of the book.
"Flora Mirabilis" is divided into six concepts and time periods: Origins, Discovery, Exploration, Enlightenment, Empire, and Science. Each section opens with a double-spread illustration, followed by a one page introductory essay and a double-spread timeline. Within each of those six sections are double-page layouts on the noteworthy plants of the given era. Date palm, wheat, rice and the olive are the plants of the Origins era (Prehistory to 1450).
While it is an excellent idea to highlight such plants, it can be disconcerting to be reading along in the middle of a sentence and then turn the page to what initially looks like a new section. It takes a couple of minutes to figure out how the book is organized and that you just need to turn the page again to find the continuation of your text. Once you've realized that, then you can jump around randomly to read about your favorite introductions.
The text is straightforward and highly readable and — with a subject such as this — touches on almost any aspect of plants that might interest you: myths, medicine, art or adventure. Of course, the book includes a formidable index, as well as a list of titles for further reading and the source of all the illustrations. You can read "Flora Mirabilis" as a serious study or just have fun looking up all your favorites to see what the book has to say about them. You'll find entries on everything from African violets to American ginseng, from yams to yews, along with Dr. Seuss, Johnny Appleseed, Thomas Jefferson and one of my personal favorites, Queen Hatshepsut. (She organized the first known botanical expedition).
At 256 pages, the book is not an unmanageable tome. In fact, author Catherine Herbert Howell and the two organizing institutions, beautifully manage an almost impossible feat in pulling together such a vast trove of information and illustration. And at $35, it's a bargain that belongs on the bookshelf of every gardener. You can purchase the book directly from National Geographic here.
Disclaimer: National Geographic contacted me about reviewing this book and provided a copy as recompense. The opinions expressed here are my own.