Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger

It took me nine weeks to read Ruth Kassinger's A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants. Not because it isn't good, only because I kept being distracted by other books.*

I always have more than one on the go, and if I'm not totally hooked by something, I'll set it aside for when the right mood strikes. In the case of library books, this means that they sometimes go back to the library unread. A Garden of Marvels is about botany, a subject I love. It's also full of intriguing scientific information, like why orchids tend to remain in bloom for months. (It's so that their highly specific insect pollinators have time to find them.) Kassinger's style is personable and light, as exemplified in the following passages.

"Flowers dressed in green petals are generally not dressed for evolutionary success. They are less likely to catch the eye of a pollinator, and therefore less likely to produce offspring. (Wind-pollinated plants, like grasses and many trees, needn't invest in gay apparel.)"

"Insects favored flowers that provided not only a pollen dinner but a sweet postprandial drink. Over time, as plants whose flowers always kept a well-stocked bar prospered, mutations in nearby structures evolved into nectaries. Ever more attractive petals and scents evolved, too, to ensure that the location of the restaurant would be no mystery."

Anyway, the book was approaching the end of its maximum loan period and so I finished it yesterday morning. I don't know if the last third is so much better than the earlier part, or if I was just in the perfect mood, but I loved it.

Prompted by Kassinger's enthusiasm, I went off exploring. I searched YouTube for clips of bees tricked into pseudocopulation by orchids of the Ophrys genus. I looked for more information about Miscanthus giganteus, a type of grass that grows 12 feet in a season and is grown as a source of heating fuel for a greenhouse in Ontario. I investigated fruit cocktail trees (and, as a consequence, knew exactly what my friend Cathy was talking about when she said she was getting one). Kassinger notes that seeds from a 2010 prizewinning pumpkin sold for $1,200 each. Prices have risen. In 2013, they could be purchased online for $1,600 per seed. With all these tangents to follow, it's no wonder it took me a while to actually read the book!

If you enjoy popular science writing along the lines of Mary Roach, Amy Stewart, Diane Ackerman and Michael Pollan, A Garden of Marvels is for you.

The final lines in the book echo my own sentiments: "[Earth's] garden is more than a marvel. It's as close to a miracle as there is on Earth."

*During the same period that I was reading A Garden of Marvels, I started and finished:
5 adult novels
3 YA novels
3 nonfiction books plus 1 cookbook
8 graphic novels
1 short story collection
1 poetry collection
and listened to 8 audiobooks, including Middlemarch.
I also abandoned 4 books after an hour or two of reading.
Shelfari makes it easy to track these stats.

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