I've had this book for years, and now it's been re-issued by the New York Review of Books. The author, of course, is Katherine S. White, long-time fiction editor for The New Yorker, and it contains a number of gardening-related columns that she wrote for that magazine. In her book, Onward and Upward in the Garden (New York Review of Books Classics, 2015), White reviewed gardening titles and plant catalogues, and in the process educated and entertained tens of thousands of dedicated gardeners. As White notes in an early essay, "The Burpee people go for ruffles in anything. To me a ruffled petunia is occasionally a delight but a ruffled snapdragon is an abomination."
All of us in the gardening and design business, of course, have great respect for the men and women who bring us wondrous new plants every year. And in Visions of Loveliness: Great Flower Breeders of the Past (Ohio University Press, 2015), horticultural historian Judith M. Taylor introduces us to those who've had such an illustrious impact on our careers. Some names you'll find familiar -- Louis Van Houtte, Karl Foerster, Luther Burbank, W. Atlee Burpee -- but others will be new to you. And you'll find them more than fascinating. As Taylor reports, "Foerster allowed his cultuvars to be formed by pollination. The witty Irish garden writer Helen Dillon commented that each morning he would march through his trial grounds, followed by a terrified garden boy, and smash any plant with inferior flowers into oblivion."
In addition to bios of some of the great breeders, Taylor also has some chapters on specific plants, such as hydrangea, camellia, roses, peonies, lilac -- and the top breeders of each genus. Perfect to dip into on lazy afternoons.
And finally, Peter Crane, former director of Kew Gardens in Britain, has written a lovely book on the 250-million year history of the ginkgo tree. Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot (Yale University Press, 2015).
It's a captivating biography of this tree, loved by many, hated by others for its foul-smelling fruits. It once flourished throughout the Northern Hemisphere, then waxed and waned at different times due to climate change and competition with other plants. About a thousand years, ago, the plant was brought in to Chinese temple gardens from the wild ... it spread from there to Korea and Japan ... and eventually, horticulturists brought it back again to Europe and North America. Crane also notes the tree's cultural and historical significance, its medicinal and nutritional values, and of course its use as one of the most popular street trees because of its great tolerance of urban conditions.