Summer Reading List: 5 Books Depicting the Magical World of Plants

It’s truth universally acknowledged that plant lovers are book lovers.

Ok, maybe it’s not so universal and maybe I just made that up. But that’s because it makes sense and it’s totally intuitive if you think about it. What can loving plants and loving books have in common, you ask.

+ Plant lovers are homebodies. Or at least, they like to spend some time at home taking care of their green treasures. Book lovers like to spend time at home absorbed in stories of someone else’s making.

+ There is something contemplative about taking care of plants. The same can be said about immersing yourself in a good book (or the right book for the occasion).

+ Taking care of plants requires us to be equipped with a sense of hopefulness. We’re hoping and expecting that something grows and evolves under our care. The same goes for fiction. Being able to put your trust, hopes, into the growth of a fictional character works along the same mechanisms.

Here are five books – in different genres – that will transport you to the magical world of plants.

Historical Fiction: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things (Penguin Randomhouse)In a nutshell: Let’s get this out of the way: this is a book of historical fiction, and a very good one at that. So if you’re expecting another Gilbert memoir, you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you have a penchant for strong and complicated female characters, you’re in for a treat.

The Signature of All Things tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a consummate botanist, who leads an extraordinary life as the intellectual recluse daughter of a very wealthy Philadelphian. That is, until she lands on the island of Tahiti.

What you’ll learn about

You’ll gain a wealth of knowledge about mosses and orchids. There are long passages describing the founding of Kew Gardens and the voyages of Captain Cook. It’s historical fiction, so take the accuracy of the events with a pinch of salt. To be fair, the botanical details are very well-researched and painstakingly crafted to give more depth to the narrative.

Murder Mystery: The House with No Rooms by Leslie Thompson

The House with No Rooms (Head of Zeus)In a nutshell: This murder mystery weaves together three timelines in search of a killer who struck in the past and, again, in the present. You’ve got quirky amateur detectives entangled in believable relationship drama.

You’ll like it if you’re into slow revealing mysteries with a dash of good guy gone bad. Even though it’s part of a series (The Detective’s Daughter), it reads well as a standalone.

What you’ll learn about

The author offers detailed descriptions of Kew Botanical Gardens, and dwells quite extensively on the Marianne North Gallery. You’ll also get a glimpse of the competitiveness in the world of botanical illustrators. Part of the story takes place in the long hot summer of 1976, so if you’re reading this in winter (like I was), the detailed description of the sweltering heat will do you good.

Classic: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden (Harper Collins Edition)In a nutshell: If you’ve read this book when you were a child, I urge you to revisit it. There are so many complex emotions at play that a child reader could never understand.

It’s a wonderful story about the healing – emotional, psychological, and physical – of two children. In the process of discovering a magical secret rose garden, they learn how to trust and care for someone other than themselves.

What you’ll learn about

Beyond the human story, there’s a wonderful underlying theme of nature meeting human needs. The secret garden is a rose garden, so the descriptions revolve around rose-trees, rose bushes and climbing roses. You get a million bonus points if you can spot the metaphors.

Historical Nonfiction: The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf

The Brother Gardeners 2 (Penguin Randomhouse)In a nutshell: Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, gardens in Europe (and in the United Kingdom in particular) were drab affairs. The leading French and Italian horticulturists had mild weather to work with, so they were the main inspiration for the Brits. That all changed with the work of American naturalist John Bartram, who started sending bulbs and seeds from the American colonies to England.

Together with his old continent counterparts, he continued to do so for forty years, and in the process he helped transform and shape the way gardens look like today.

What you’ll learn about

How to pronounce fuchsia correctly.

How the British garden craze took over the world – from Russia to France and the United States.

Carl Linnaeus’ sexual system for classifying plants and how that turned botany into a genteel pastime.

Narrative Nonfiction: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

The Orchid ThiefIn a nutshell: This is a story of obsession, desire and longing. The protagonist, the real-life John Laroche, suffers from orchidelirium – the Victorian-era name for the flower madness that led to the discovery of hundreds of species of orchids. Except this book is not set in Victorian times, but in the Florida of the late 1990s.

The book grew out of a New Yorker article, itself based on a piece of local news which inspired Susan Orlean to immerse herself into the world of obsessive orchid collectors who are not above breaking the law.

What you’ll learn about

More than you’ve ever wanted to know about orchids, competitive orchid breeding and plant poaching. Bonus moral dilemma: does the quest for an obsession justify the means?

Do you have a favorite book that immerses you in the magical world of plants? You can share with us on Twitter or on Instagram.

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