Milkweed and Monarchs: A Spring Garden of Books

By Stuart Mitchner

Once upon a time I asked the owner of a second-hand bookstore, who sold vegetables from his garden there, how he disposed of the moldering throwaways on his back porch, this being years before books could be recycled. “Fertilizer,” said he. “Mulch for the veggies.” Glimpsing some trashed volumes of Shakespeare in the pile, I imagined eating tomatoes and cucumbers grown in Bardic book mulch, organic ingredients for a literary salad to serve on the side with shepherd’s pie.

The connection came to mind when I saw Roy Strong’s The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden (Thames and Hudson $19.95) among the new books on flowers and plants previewed here. I also found the flavor of the idea in Publishers Weekly’s observation that Sir Roy, a museum curator, writer, broadcaster, and landscape designer, “spills stories as if seated by a fireplace after a banquet” in prose that “layers fine, formal English over the crisp, juicy histories that he’s expertly researched.”

Twain at Wave Hill

Of the volumes pictured in this spring Book Scene, the one with the cover I found most intriguing is Nature Into Art: The Gardens at Wave Hill (Timber Press $40) by Thomas Christopher. I like the way the poetry of the view across the Hudson to the Palisades coalesces with the poetry implicit in the name of a country estate called Wave Hill. You can figuratively “get into” Ngoc Minh Ngo’s photograph, gazing at the distant vista as you stand knee-deep in the lushness of the garden. But what really makes the place come to life is imagining yourself in the company of the white-suited, white-mustached, white-maned literary legend who once lived here and walked here and admired the same view.

Perhaps aware that his introduction could use a celebrity boost, Christopher livens things up with a quote from Mark Twain, who resided at Wave Hill from 1901 to 1903: “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts [of wind] here I have ever known on land. They sing their hoarse song through the treetops with a splendid energy that thrills me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.” Not only did the author of Huckleberry Finn ride out some windy winters here, he hosted tea parties in a treehouse on the back lawn. While I can imagine sharing tea or some stronger brew (and possibly a game of billiards) with Twain, the thought of garden stroll, not to mention taking tea in the tree house, with other celebrated Wave Hill residents like Arturo Toscanini, Queen Elizabeth, and Teddy Roosevelt is a challenge.

As it happens, the 26th president is quoted up front in Douglas W. Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press $29.95), which shows how homeowners can turn their yards into “conservation corridors that provide wildlife habitats.” Tallamy’s introduction begins: “In 1903, with the state of Arizona on the verge of mining the Grand Canyon, President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the canyon’s lip, gazed out over its unique magnificence, and uttered the five words that would save it: ‘Leave it as it is.’”

Monarchs and Milkweed

Recalling pleasant walks in the word garden of D&R Greenway’s Poetry Trail off Rosedale Road in Princeton, where milkweed has been successfully cultivated to attract monarch butterflies, I was curious to see what Ken Druse has to say about Asclepias syriaca, “the common milkweed,” in The Scentual Garden: Exploring the World of Botanical Fragrance (Abrams $50). First, there’s nothing “common” about Ellen Hovercamp’s magnificent full-page photograph except the standard wording of a caption noting that “this easy-to-grow wildflower is threatened because of habitat loss.” A smaller photograph of a monarch alighting on a swamp milkweed underscores its dependence on plants like those seen along the Poetry Trail.

In the entry on Asclepias syriaca, Druse apologizes, in effect, for “unfortunate names” like butterfly weed and milkweed, in case they might “keep anyone from growing these fascinating plants,” which smell “thick and rich with honey, if a bit musty with lily, winter jasmine, powder, and indole.”

Being more or less botanically illiterate, I had no idea what to make of the word “indole,” which is listed as the plant’s “primary scent.” In Druse’s detailed account of “Indolic Plants,” he begins by confessing that with “some heavy-scented plants,” he can’t “smell the good for the bad.” The olfactory plot thickens when he refers to “a certain chemical compound … sometimes detected in mothballs or what some men may remember as public-bathroom urinal deodorizer cakes.” The scent can also be found in “the musk of human intimacy,” and “if you are smelling something a bit overripe … and with a strange sweetness, it could be indole.” At this point Druse thoughtfully encourages us not to feel left out if we “find this discussion a little icky.”

Things take a slightly erotic turn when Druse adds the “almost narcotic scent” of the winter jasmine species to the indole mix, pointing out that it was “the flower of prostitutes, and stayed that way until the free-spirited 1920s,” a decade that coincides with the introduction of Chanel No. 5.

Hoverkamp’s Art

Since so much of the excitement in The Scentual Garden is show-stealingly visual, thanks to Ellen Hovercamp’s masterful botanical photographs, I checked out Kristen Green’s online Fine Gardening article, “Connecticut Photographer Turns Plant Clippings Into Art.” Using a flatbed scanner with the lid off in a darkened room, Hoverkamp focuses on “the gesture and behavior of the plant” with the blossom as “the focal point,” carefully arranging “each element of the composition face down on the glass” while making “many passes with the scanner to evaluate and adjust the composition,” a process that “can take one to two hours of painstaking attention to details, followed by another two to three hours retouching the final image.” Hoverkamp is able to achieve, in Green’s words, “the immediacy of a plein air painting” by attention to “a three-dimensionality that powerfully engages the viewer.” Her mission is to create a “level of impact” necessary to “make someone stop and remember that despite all, nature’s beauty also grows and awaits our attention and care.”

“A Paradise Garden”

Apparently the team of Druse and Hoverkamp has created “a level of impact” at the expense of space I might have given to volumes as attractive as Chasing Eden: Design Inspiration from the Gardens at Hortulus Farm (Timber Press $35) by Jack Staub and Renny Reynolds, with photographs by Rob Cardillo. According to Anna Pavord, author of The Curious Gardener and Landskipping, “Vision, tenacity, and a perfectionist’s eye are the qualities that shine out from this account of a paradise garden created by two of America’s foremost stylists.”

Other books in this season’s crop include Carl Dellatore’s Garden Design Master Class (Rizzoli $60), set for mid-April publication. Due at the end of that month is a new paperback edition of Carol Gracie’s acclaimed Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History (Princeton Univ. Press $35), with a foreword by Eric Lamont.