Review: The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee

I’ve never been to Japan and, aside from Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Artisan Gardens at Chelsea, know little of the country’s gardens. Ask me to sum them up and I’d have probably muttered something about moss, rocks and gravel. So, I was hoping to learn more with Helena Attlee’s The Gardens of Japan.

gardens of japan

It definitely falls into the ‘coffee table’ category, despite being a paperback reprint of the original 2010 edition rather than a hardback glossy. This is not a ‘how-to’ book but one to inspire further research.

Attlee takes us on a whirlwind tour of Japan’s finest gardens, pausing in each long enough to give only a little historical background – vital to understanding many of the gardens – and a brief overview of what’s there. It is brief and would be insubstantial were it not for the stunning photography of Alex Ramsey, which helps to flesh out the description.

What she does do is give a sense of a different way of appreciating gardens and even of what constitutes a garden.

Many, especially the kare-sansui, dry gardens created from gravel and stone, were, she tells us “not made for touching or walking through. They were designed like paintings, to be viewed from a static position.”

gardens of japan
A representation of the Mystic Isles at Tofuku-ji

This is taken to the extreme at the Adachi Museum of Art and Gardens where the carefully constructed landscape can be seen only through specially constructed ‘picture frames’ on a viewing platform around the building.

Everything in Japanese gardens is carefully controlled from the precisely raked gravel – often done daily – to the carefully positioned rocks and, when you can enter, the route you must take; there is only one way around Katsura Rikyu. Surprisingly, a string-bound rock is universally recognised as a ‘no entry’ sign, something I cannot see being effective in open gardens in Britain.

In Kenroku-en, pine trees have their needles thinned by hand to give the trees a more transparent feel; at Heian Jingu, weeping cherries are supported by a bamboo frame and pruned annually to create a lattice effect; in Daichi-ji, azaleas are clipped tightly to produce undulating topiary.

Gardens borrow from the landscape – shakkei – and create a false perspective by using small trees to suggest distance. In some cases, the view beyond is vital.

“Without its view the garden is nothing,” Attlee says of Entsu-ji, which has one of the most famous examples of borrowed landscape.

gardens of japan
Early morning at Suizen-ji

Some have little in the way of plants beyond trees and moss – there are 48 different mosses in Ginkaku-ji – and Ryoan-ji has no plants or trees but just gravel and rocks.

There’s a sense of time slowing with stepping stones, double bridges and zig-zag paths all designed to stop a headlong rush from one end of the garden to the other.

Where there are flowers, they are revered with thousands celebrating the cherry blossom season with flower festival picnics, or hanami.

The Gardens of Japan would be a good starting point for anyone who is thinking of creating their own Japanese-style garden or planning to visit not least because it has a map and contact details for the gardens. I certainly feel as though I know a little more and will be looking at Ishihara Kazuyuki’s Chelsea entry this year with greater insight.

The Gardens of Japan by Helena Attlee, photography by Alex Ramsey, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £14.99. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: The Thoughtful Gardener by Jinny Blom

Some years ago, I encountered a garden that has left a lasting impression. With its perfectly choreographed borders, striking design and air of romance, it was a slice of Chelsea Main Avenue style transported to the Cotswolds. The garden was at Temple Guiting Manor and it features in designer Jinny Blom’s new book, The Thoughtful Gardener.

the thoughtful gardener

Using examples drawn from gardens she has created across the world and her own modest-sized London plot, she explores her approach to the process of making gardens. The result is a beautifully illustrated and thoroughly enjoyable glimpse into the thinking of one of our top designers.

The creator of four Chelsea Flower Show gardens with a gold medal in 2007, Jinny came into the business obliquely. She describes her life as one that “unfolded as I walked” and it has taken a varied route encompassing drama college and work as a psychologist, a “career I loved”.

Then, on a holiday in Northern Spain, she discovered an unspoilt area in the Picos Mountains, full of wild flowers.

“Always obsessed with plants I was now on fire with them,” she tells us. She left her safe job and “armed with energy, enthusiasm and blind faith,” began her design career, choosing not to study the subject but to learn by doing.

Her initial emotional response to the Spanish countryside still underpins her work. Despite utilising the nuts and bolts of garden design from surveys to determine levels, exhaustive lists of what to include and even marking out a site with sticks, it is more a visceral feeling for the space that seems to drive her.

the thoughtful gardener
A tantalising glimpse at Temple Guiting Manor. Photo Andrew Montgomery

“More often than not when I arrive somewhere new I get to grips with what needs altering within hours. It’s a sort of fact-based intuition.”

Nevertheless, she will have carried out detailed research first into not only the geography and geology of the site but also its history and even what is growing in neighbouring plots.

Sometimes, as in Temple Guiting Manor, this research will form the blueprint of her plan; the garden at the manor house is laid out on the ancient framework of old farm buildings and animal enclosures.

Yet, her approach is not sentimental: ‘First we must destroy!’ is often her opening line, although she adds that her numerous ‘death warrants’ can be alarming to garden owners.

And it’s not just plants, trees and shrubs that are cleared, any building or structure not worthy of inclusion is swept aside. Conversely, she is quite prepared to build to perfect her design; a ‘little piggery’ was the solution to the meeting point between two sets of box-headed limes in one project. And she lavishes as much care on these constructions as she does on plant choice.

the thoughtful gardener
Vines housed in pots in Jinny’s own garden. Photo Andrew Montgomery

Some elements are regular features: she likes to include water; plants a hedge on every project “as a matter of course”; and ensures there is always something edible, telling us “There is no solace like a freshly pulled radish!”

While she admits to being nervous initially, Blom is now confident in her own judgement, although she believes fear is an essential ingredient in the design process: “only when this heightened state starts to calm down do you understand that a good design is within grasp”.

Written in an engaging, conversational style, The Thoughtful Gardener is also peppered with good advice from the choice of plants – “Plants that are popular are popular for a reason, so don’t be too clever – just plant them and enjoy.” – to the need to prepare the ground well – “Good soil is a reward beyond words.”

Above all, she is concerned with what we leave behind: “Making gardens well means leaving a legacy far in excess of our own short lifespan”.

At one point, she advises: “If you want to be seduced by the subject [gardening], then just look at the pictures and stop reading!” To do so would be to miss a treat.

The Thoughtful Gardener by Jinny Blom is published by Jacqui Small, RRP price £35. Buy now(If you buy through this link, I may get a small fee and it doesn’t affect the price you pay.)

Review copy supplied by Jacqui Small

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Review: The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow by Ben Raskin

Aside from the ravages of slugs, the menace of ground elder and the weather, two topics often crop up in my conversations with gardeners: how to encourage the next generation and the difficulty of growing in towns where space is short. So, it seems appropriate in the midst of National Gardening Week to be looking at two new books that tackle those issues.

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The Community Gardening Handbook and Grow have been written by Ben Raskin and draw on his experience both as Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association and as a father of two.

In them, he seeks to encourage us all to discover the joys of growing – whatever the space available or whatever our age.

The Community Gardening Handbook is a comprehensive guide on how to join a fast-growing movement in towns and cities across the world.

“There are plenty of ways to get your hands on some growing space,” Raskin assures us before going on to outline some solutions.

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Although he includes the more solitary individual allotment plot or rooftop garden, it’s clear his real passion is for group gardening and even the allotment section has ideas on how to collaborate with other growers.

Novel space solutions include ‘portable gardens’ in skips, sand delivery bags or trailers while he suggests land awaiting development or the corners of parks could yield growing room.

Guerrilla gardening, where otherwise neglected public space is cultivated, is also considered, although he concedes planting up potholes would be more a statement on road repairs than a horticultural benefit.

Having established the parameters, each with practical considerations that would need to be considered and often with an example from across the world of where it has worked, he goes on to lay down a route to a successful community garden.

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And it is thorough. Everything is covered from how to drum up support and, importantly, money to legal issues and how to ensure the project lasts more than one season. There’s even advice on running a public meeting.

More practical advice comes in sections on how to grow, including planning, watering and crop rotation, and what to grow with a list of his favourite crops complete with cultivation notes.

Despite the wealth of advice packed into the book, it is an easy read thanks to the layout and numerous photos.

As a handbook, it would provide a firm foundation to any new community project but much of the growing advice, such as saving seed and calendar of tasks, is suitable for any new gardener.

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It’s new gardeners that Raskin is particularly concerned with in his other book, Grow. Billed as a family guide to growing fruit and veg, it is obviously designed with younger members in mind.

Colourful, illustration-heavy pages and a chatty style give it a children’s book quality. Yet, again it is packed with sound advice ranging from the structure of plants and what they need to grow to planning a veg garden and how to sow seeds. There’s even a simplified version of the periodic table showing what chemicals plants need and a checklist for spotting deficiencies.

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Pages of stickers – ‘Top Gardener!’ and ‘I Dig Fruit and Veg’ – add appeal for younger readers and there are two games, a gardening version of snakes and ladders and a card game pairing fruits, to encourage participation while a recipe for pizza suggests using vegetables from the garden for the topping.

gardening

With a list of his top ten crops to try and a great ‘growing wheel’ showing how long things take to mature, there’s plenty to inspire and the book would be ideal as a starting point to getting children growing.

The Community Gardening Handbook (buy now) and Grow (buy now) are written by Ben Raskin and published by Leaping Hare Press. Both are priced at £9.99 RRP. (If you buy through the link, I may receive a small fee and the price you pay will not be affected.)

Review copies supplied by Leaping Hare Press.

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Review: My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster

my life with plantsI first met Roy Lancaster when he led a guided tour of Plas Cadnant gardens as part of the North Wales Garden Festival. It was a slow procession not because the 80-year-old is unsteady – far from it – but because every time we moved a few feet along the path he found something else to talk about. Latin and common names, cultivation needs and where to find things in the wild were all delivered with such fervour I was left wondering what his reaction had been the first time he’d seen them.

This enthusiasm for his subject colours every page of My Life With Plants, which follows his life from a childhood roaming the countryside around Bolton to becoming one of the country’s most respected plantsmen. It seems that far from being a mere job, hunting out plants and then cultivating them is an all-consuming passion.

my life with plants
Roy on National Service in Malaya

Such is his obsession he dried plant samples under his mother’s carpet, turned down a ‘safe’ teaching job during National Service instead opting to fight in the Malayan jungle because of “its rich tropical flora and fauna” and once there turned his Bren gun ammunition pouches into collecting vessels, stuffing ammunition into his trouser pockets.

Yet, as we discover, it all came about by chance. His first love was bird-watching and on a trip led by a teacher he “spotted a strange plant growing as a weed in a potato patch”. It was eventually identified by the British Museum as the Mexican tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), the first found growing wild in Lancashire and only the second recorded in Britain.

my life with plants
Roy in his garden with Cordyline indivisa, photo RHS/Neil Hepworth

More importantly it sparked an interest in the young Roy that has led to him obsessively plant-hunting all over the world with many leading horticulturalists and the book is as much a who’s who of the plant world as it is about his life.

Although technically an autobiography, My Life With Plants doesn’t follow the usual style. True it charts his progress from an apprenticeship with Bolton Parks Department, through work at Kew, and Hillier Nurseries to television, radio and a successful freelance career but it doesn’t follow a strict chronological line. Nor is there a lot of the personal life that occupies many autobiographies. His wife, Sue, does feature and their children are mentioned in passing but it is the plants that are foremost.

my life with plants
With fellow panel members of Gardeners’ Question Time in 2000

Thanks presumably to the journals he has kept since childhood, he is able to recall exactly where and when he first saw a shrub or tree be it in cultivation or in the wild, while his descriptions bring the scenes he encounters to life.

He describes himself as “a plantsman who loves storytelling” and the book is a series of plant-based anecdotes: the Norwegian taxi driver who refused to stop in a storm when Roy spotted some saxifrage; lying in wait up a tree for thieves at Hillier; battling to give a talk against a séance. All are delivered with the same enthusiasm I encountered in Wales.

my life with plants
Roy in his front garden, photo Sue Lancaster

And his curiosity about plants is still as strong. I next encountered him the following morning at Crûg Farm, the nursery home of respected planthunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, where he and his wife were guests. Breakfast was on the table but Roy was in the nursery garden, eventually stepping through the French doors, eager to tell us what he’d seen.

My Life With Plants by Roy Lancaster is available now, published by Filbert Press in association with the RHS, priced £25 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Filbert Press.

Review: A Little History of British Gardening

history of gardening

My father always used to say that if you hung onto something long enough it would eventually come back into fashion. It appears the same could be said of gardening. Reading Jenny Uglow’s A Little History of British Gardening, it seems that even fads and fancies of gardening taste have their roots in history.

Very little is new from the idea of a British wine industry – the Romans established vineyards and lifted restrictions on wine production – to seed swapping among enthusiasts, medieval monks we are told “exchanged and bought seeds across the Continent”.

Meanwhile, today’s assertion that growing things is good for physical and mental well-being echoes advice by Shirley Hibberd in 1877 that “Contact with the brown earth cures all diseases”.

history of gardening
Rosemary Verey’s kitchen garden spawned a fashion for potagers

Even the Dig For Victory campaign of World War 2 had its origin in a similar drive during the First World War when city parks produced vegetables and some gardens were turned over to medicinal herbs, themselves reminiscent of the ‘physic’ gardens of medieval times.

The book takes us on a journey through time from the earliest growers – broad beans go back to the Iron Age – to the ordered and organised Romans who “created our first plant-filled spaces intended purely for enjoyment”, the first use of gardens for self-expression under Elizabeth 1, to twentieth century modernist designers such as Brenda Colvin.

While Uglow deals with big movements and landed gentry, such as Lady Rolle, who planted a 500m-long monkey-puzzle avenue at her Devon home, sparking a craze for the trees, the history does not neglect more humble growers. We learn of catching bats with Victorian under-gardener William Cresswell and meet Friar Daniel who is believed to have had 252 different varieties of plants in his 14th century Stepney garden, “perhaps the first botanical garden in Britain and the friar our first gardening expert,” comments Uglow.

history of gardening
Humphry Repton originally designed Sezincote’s water garden

The text is peppered with facts: wheelbarrows arrived in the 1190s, possibly introduced by Crusaders who saw them in the Middle East; Catholics, barred from worshipping under the Stuarts, planted knot gardens with coded religious meanings; rhubarb in white wine was once used as a hair dye. These snippets and the engaging tone lift the book beyond a mere historical account.

A Little History of British Gardening was first published in 2004 and has now been updated and reprinted, with what Uglow describes as “some weeding and tidying of the text”, although the unfortunate placing of Hidcote in Oxfordshire rather than Gloucestershire remains.

At the outset, she says that “Gardens are like a gate into history, but still with a link to the present”. There’s a strange sort of comfort in discovering that in tending our plots we are continuing something that has been done for centuries.

A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £18.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Chatto & Windus.

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Review: Good Soil by Tina Raman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist & Justine Lagache

For many gardeners, feeding the soil is like the plumbing in a house, essential but frankly uninspiring. Indeed, the women behind Good Soil admit manures and fertilisers are unglamorous. It’s an image they seem determined to change.

From the start, it’s clear this is no ordinary book on the topic. Artwork images, catchy chapter titles – ‘Beauty Sleep’, ‘Magic Carpets’ – and a magazine-style layout lend a sheen of glamour to topics that plumb the very depths of the subject from the effects of different nutrients on plants to how to make a urine tea and the value of composting toilets.

good soil
The book has been beautifully styled

It’s written by Tina Råman, with photos by Ewa-Marie Rundquist and design by Justine Lagache. The trio make it clear that there is far more to good soil than just adding a bit of homemade compost or a dose of plant food. Only by understanding exactly what plants need from the basic nutrients to trace elements will we get the very best results.

The scope of the book is wide starting with why feeding plants is important and moving through different types of manure – cow, horse and even goat – to exactly how to make compost and what biochar is.

good soil
Manure in all its forms is explained

There’s a section on how to recognise nutrient deficiencies and how to correct them, an examination of the whole organic versus artificial fertiliser debate, and advice on mulches.

Scattered through the book are ‘guest’ appearances by some of Sweden’s foremost gardeners, including Lars Krantz of Wij Gardens, who talks about the need to understand your soil’s temperament, and Göran and Margareta Hoas, whose organic farm is world-renowned.

good soil
Knowing the make-up of your soil is essential

Given the amount of scientific fact that is packed into Good Soil, there was a danger it could have ended up reading like a school textbook. That this trap is avoided is largely down to the jaunty style. Plants, we are told, like “to snack” and the soil is seen as a larder for their food and drink. This meal-time theme runs throughout with compost compared to stock and an application of fertiliser in spring referred to as ‘a hearty breakfast’.

Having examined the reasons for feeding the soil, the authors turn in the later chapters to the different elements of the garden: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, fruit and vegetables. What to apply and, more importantly, when is explained, with a useful ‘diary’ and rotation plan.

good soil
Fertilising needs to follow the seasons

Some plants, we are told, benefit from growing together, such as, rather aptly, peas and mint, while putting beans among your spuds is another suggestion as the beans “seem to have a ‘generally favourable influence’ on their bedmates”.

It’s useful tips like this that make the book a winner if you want to really understand how to feed the soil rather than the plant.

At the outset, the trio say “being able to wallow in manure has been great fun”. They have done it in style.

Good Soil by Tina Råman, Ewa-Marie Rundquist and Justine Lagache is published by Frances Lincoln priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through this link, I get a small fee. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster

It’s been some years since my gardening was confined to a few houseplants and some pots balanced precariously outside a window but I still remember the compulsion to grow despite the lack of space.

It’s a challenge faced by many city dwellers with little more than a balcony or at best a small garden. Yet with just a little thought even the tiniest area can be turned over to plants.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster is the perfect guide to getting the best out of what little space you have.

Visually appealing with informative and inspirational photographs by Jason Ingram, it’s the sort of book that invites you in and I found myself starting to read as soon as it was delivered.

urban flowers

Dunster, a florist and award-winning planting designer – she won the People’s Choice Award at the 2016 RHS Hampton show with a small cutting garden – specialises in planting for urban spaces.

She starts by outlining why urban flowers are important: “the absence of greenery can actually cause us to feel stressed,” she says, urging us “plant it rather than paving it over”.

Examples are given of enlightened municipal planting, community schemes and small steps that make a big impact, such as putting flowers below street trees.

She then takes us through the basic steps required to turn an urban patch green from assessing the space available, including soil type and aspect, to drawing up a detailed plan.

Privacy, gloomy spots, maintenance and even buying compost without storage space are all tackled along with suggestions for using roofs, walls and steps for plants.

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There are some nifty ideas for containers, including transforming the plastic trugs many gardeners use, old catering-sized tins and wooden boxes.

“With a little imagination you can create a container garden almost anywhere,” we’re told.

She outlines three contrasting styles – classic, contemporary and rurban, a mix of rural and urban – and details how to achieve them with ideas for hard landscaping and plants.

For me, the section that makes this book a winner is where she deals with colour and plant combinations.

Using five different colour combinations, she outlines plant partnerships for every season, including cultivation tips with each suggestion.

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Thyme is suggested as a space filler in containers

Woven through are projects ranging from hiding ugly drainpipes with plants and creating a rose tepee to making a ‘herb wall’ and putting alpines in crates. I loved the dahlias grown in an old wooden box but wasn’t sure about growing pelargoniums suspended upside down.

The book ends with advice on getting more out of your plants including how to make cut flowers last, creating a preserved wreath and seed-harvesting.

And that’s the book’s strength: it may be primarily about urban flowers but the advice and ideas are applicable wherever you garden.

Urban Flowers by Carolyn Dunster, photographs by Jason Ingram, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £20 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy through the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray

If gardening books should inspire or inform, then Gardens of Marrakesh succeeds on both fronts.

Part history lesson, part traveller’s guide, it opens the door on a place rooted in its gardens.

gardens of marrakesh

Marrakesh was, author Angelica Gray tells us, planned as a garden city “with orchards, market gardens and pleasure gardens as part of its urban model”.

Today, the majority of historic sites are beloved as much for their gardens as their ancient buildings, several hotels have notable grounds and throughout the city high walls shield lush courtyard spaces from public view.

Gray takes us on a journey through the three main areas of the city: The Medina, its historic centre; The New Town created by ex-pats in the early 20th century; The Palmery, a thick band of palm trees described by Gray as “one of the wonders of Marrakesh”.

The gardens themselves mainly fall into one of two types: riad and arsat. The former is an enclosed, inward-looking, urban garden, the later a productive, irrigated space that often doubled as a space for relaxation.

gardens of marrakesh
Green and white tiles imitate the ripple of water at Dar Si Said

It is a journey into the unfamiliar for a Northern European gardener. Not only are the plants exotic – think cacti and citrus – the style is formal with blocks of planting offset against brightly coloured tiles, fountains and columns far removed from English herbaceous borders and rolling lawns.

While many of the gardens explored are centuries old, some are more modern and not all have been created by locals; Brazil, Sweden, Swiss and France are among the countries represented by designers of notable gardens.

Among the most memorable is The Jardin Majorelle, made by painter Jacques Majorelle. It first opened to the public in 1947 and is known for the startling cobalt blue that is used throughout the garden. It was rescued from decline following Majorelle’s death by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

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Cobalt blue is used throughout Jardin Majorelle to memorable effect

Gardens of Marrakesh is a paperback edition of the original hardback, published in 2013 and, if there is a fault, it’s that the text has not been revised or updated. So, we are told The Bahia Palace is undergoing restoration and due to reopen in 2013 while a restoration project is planned at The Agdal, Marrakesh’s most important garden and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The current state of either project is not clear.

That said, Gray’s deft weaving of historical fact and personal anecdote into the text make it an easy read while heat shimmers from the pages thanks to Alessio Mei’s atmospheric photographs.

Gardens of Marrakesh by Angelica Gray, photographs by Alessio Mei, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced at £14.99 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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Review: The Book of Orchids

orchids

I’ve always been nervous of orchids. Partly because I’m not known for my skill with houseplants. Things that grow outside always fare better than those reliant on my care indoors.

My lack of confidence wasn’t helped by a delivery of plants from friends in Australia. Alarm bells rang when the accompanying leaflet opened with ‘Instructions for attaching your tropical orchid to a tree’. These were plants that needed far more than my usual neglect and hope regime.

But perhaps it’s the fear of becoming too attached to these exotic blooms than makes me keep them at a safe distance. I’ve interviewed many orchid growers over the years and all shared the same all-consuming passion.

orchids
Bulbophyllum lobbii

It’s a trait that Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda, the authors of The Book of Orchids, obviously have. This book oozes enthusiasm and even devotion to plants that “have gripped the psyches of many humans”. They are in good company: Darwin was so entranced by orchids that he dedicated an entire book to them.

And orchids are now the top seller when it comes to ornamental plants with a huge industry devoted to filling supermarket and garden centre shelves.

Yet, as the book, produced in conjunction with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, reveals, there’s far more to them than just a beautiful flower.

The range is vast: there are 260,000 species, making them one of the two largest families of flowering plants, and they cover all but the most inhospitable parts of the planet.

If that were not enough to make them worthy of study, orchids are consummate deceivers. They have an awe-inspiring ability to trick pollinators into assisting them in reproduction for little or even no reward, while their relationship with soil fungi is decidedly one-sided.

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Bletia purpurea

Naturally, with such a huge topic boundary lines have been drawn and the book covers just 600 species, illustrating the diversity of habitat and the range from showy blooms to the smaller species.

Some, such as the ‘Yellow Grass Orchid’ are not obvious members of the family while the ‘Northern Banana Orchid’ lives underground until it flowers and ‘The Mother of Hundreds’ is so named because of its wide use in commercial hybridisation.

There’s no stinting on detail within the 600 featured with size – both flower and plant – habitat, flowering time, type, family details and even conservation status listed. There are details of pollinators and explanations of common names, some as eye-catching as the flowers themselves; I loved ‘Enchanted Dancing Lady’ and ‘Spotted Pixie Orchid’.

What brings the book to life though are the colour photographs that illustrate each flower while the accompanying captions are more than just merely a name label and give even more information.

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Anguloa virginalis

The opening sections, covering everything from evolution and pollination to the threats facing wild orchids, are easy-to-read and informative, making this far more than just a book for the collector.

I learnt a lot: vanilla is an orchid; some orchids are eaten; chemical extracts from orchids are used in cosmetics and shampoos. The latter the authors believe is unsustainable and they urge us not “to purchase any products that contain orchids, regardless of what the labels on these products might say”.

Will the book tempt me to grow them? Let’s just say I’m intrigued and a step closer to joining those who are “wildly obsessive about orchids”.

The Book of Orchids by Mark Chase, Maarten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda is published by Ivy Press, priced £30 RRP. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Ivy Press.

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Review: The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants

medicinal plants

As a child, I was always given swede and brown sugar at the first sign of a cough. An old recipe passed down by my gran, it tasted not unpleasant but I was never sure it did any good. Yet, like most of these old country remedies, there was possibly more to it than just a sweet, soothing syrup.

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants aims to give some scientific backing to the use of healing plants and shows that many of these traditional remedies have some substance. Lavender, for example, has long been used for aiding sleep and now studies have shown it “reduces alertness and memory, while improving general contentment”.

medicinal plants
Rosemary can boost mental performance

Often the clue to a medicinal plant’s uses lies in the name: lemon balm is a traditional remedy for stress; self-heal was made into a poultice to help wounds heal; feverfew was used to combat fevers and pain.

Running through the plants in alphabetical order, the authors give the scientific and common names, traditional uses, often quoting herbalists such as Culpepper and Gerard, and a brief overview of modern research results, some of which validate the old remedies, while others just give the compounds discovered that might suggest a possible health use.

With 35,000 plants worldwide having a medicinal use, there has naturally been some selection. The list has been limited to those with a long history of use to treat a range of complaints and, where possible, to have been subjected to some scientific research. Those that are well-known to pharmaceutical companies – such as foxglove and yew – have been left out.

medicinal plants
The book includes recipes such as rosemary-infused oil

And there are some surprises: who would have known that the diminutive wood anemone, Anemone nemorosa, has antibacterial properties, or that the teasel, Dipsacus inermis, is being studied for possible use in treating cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

In fact, the range is wide from trees, shrubs and perennials to those that we usually consider weeds, such as nettles, couch grass and cleavers or goosegrass. Unfortunately, there is little scientific proof that the traditional use of horsetail, Equisetum arvense, for a range of medicinal uses is valid so I won’t be able to make millions from the plants infesting my garden.

The book has been produced by the world famous Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and written by Jason Irving, a forager and qualified herbalist, Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes, a registered pharmacist and chartered chemist, and Professor Monique Simmonds, Deputy Director of Science at Kew.

medicinal plants
The book is illustrated with botanical drawings

Yet this is far more than just an encyclopaedia of scientific fact. Beautifully illustrated with botanical drawings it is an easy read with occasional tips on cultivation, and more in-depth sections including the history of herbals, traditional medicine – records date back almost 5,000 years in China – and the importance of plant conservation.

For those interested in producing their own ointments and syrups, there are recipes for making remedies, including fennel tincture, marshmallow lozenges and passionflower sleep tea.

They are, we are assured, easy so long as you have “basic cooking skills” while the equipment required is “the same as those used in jam making”.

medicinal plants
St John’s Wort oil

Remedies should be used in small amounts and their effects assessed before another dose to ensure there is no allergic reaction. Labelling is essential. As we are warned: “it is very easy to forget what that strange smelling liquid is at the back of your cupboard!”

The Gardener’s Companion to Medicinal Plants, An A-Z of Healing Plants and Home Remedies by Monique Simmonds, Melanie-Jayne Howes and Jason Irving, is priced at £14.99 RRP and published by Frances Lincoln. Buy now. (If you buy via the link, I receive a small payment. The price you pay is not affected.)

Review copy supplied by Frances Lincoln.

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