A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants


A witty and engaging history of the first botanists, interwoven with stories of today's extraordinary plants found in the garden and the lab

In Paradise Under Glass, Ruth Kassinger recounts with grace and humor her journey from brown thumb to green, sharing the lessons that she learned from building a home conservatory in the wake of a devastating personal crisis.

In A Garden of Marvels, she extends the story. "This book was born of a murder, a...

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A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants

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A witty and engaging history of the first botanists, interwoven with stories of today's extraordinary plants found in the garden and the lab

In Paradise Under Glass, Ruth Kassinger recounts with grace and humor her journey from brown thumb to green, sharing the lessons that she learned from building a home conservatory in the wake of a devastating personal crisis.

In A Garden of Marvels, she extends the story. "This book was born of a murder, a murder I committed," she begins. The victim was a kumquat tree. Though she diligently did her best—watering, fertilizing, repotting, and pruning—the plant turned brown and brittle. Why did the kumquat die when other plants in the garden that received the same attention thrived? she wondered. It was an experience that offered invaluable insight.

While she knew the basic rules of caring for indoor plants, Kassinger realized that she understood very little about plant physiology—how roots, stems, leaves, and flowers actually function. Determined not to repeat her failure, she set out to learn the fundamentals of botany in order to become a better gardener. A Garden of Marvels is the story of her wise and enchanting odyssey to discover the secret life of plants.

Kassinger retraces the progress of the first botanists—including a melancholy Italian anatomist, a renegade French surgeon, a stuttering English minister, an obsessive German schoolteacher, and Charles Darwin—who banished myths and misunderstandings and discovered that flowers have sex, leaves eat air, roots choose their food, and hormones make morning glories climb fence posts. She goes out into the world as well, visiting modern gardens, farms, and labs to discover the science behind extraordinary plants like one-ton pumpkins, truly black petunias, ferns that eat the arsenic in contaminated soil, biofuel grass that grows twelve feet tall, and the world's only photosynthesizing animal. Kassinger also introduces us to modern scientific research that offers hope for combatting climate change and alleviating world hunger.

She then transfers her insights to her own garden, where she nurtures a "cocktail" tree that bears five kinds of fruit, cures an ailing Buddha's Hand plant with beneficial fungi, and gets a tree to text her when it's thirsty. Intertwining personal anecdotes, accessible science, and little-known history, A Garden of Marvels takes us on an eye-opening journey into Kassinger's garden—and yours—offering us a new appreciation of this exquisite gift of nature: "Our garden is more than a marvel. It's as close to a miracle as there is on Earth."

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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
“A sumptuously written history of greenhouse horticulture.”
Boston Globe
“[M]y favorite gardening book of the year...But be warned... you might feel a need to start acquiring houseplants, or even a greenhouse.”
International Herald Tribune on Paradise Under Glass
“Ms. Kassinger’s writing is chatty and intimate, but she has clearly done her library research.”
New York Times Book Review on PARADISE UNDER GLASS
“Ms. Kassinger’s writing is chatty and intimate, but she has clearly done her library research.”
Columbus Dispatch on A GARDEN OF MARVELS
“Kassinger has a knack for explaining without oversimplifying, so that xylem andphloem finally make sense, and the discovery of photosynthesis becomes an exciting event.”
Discover magazine on A GARDEN OF MARVELS
“Garden is a lively alternative to traditional botany books…”
Cold Climate Gardening on A GARDEN OF MARVELS
“…if you told me I was going to find a book on the history of plant physiology fascinating, I would have snorted. But there you have it: truth is stranger than fiction.”
Shelf Awareness on A GARDEN OF MARVELS
“That [Kassinger] makes botany so approachable is a feat; that she makes it downright enthralling is almost as miraculous as an adorable photosynthesizing sea slug.”
Meaghan Walsh Gerard of A Cineaste's Collection on A GARDEN OF MARVELS
“This is a delightful compendium of botanical discoveries.”
My Garden Group on A GARDEN OF MARVELS
“…gardeners, if you’re looking for a good read, I recommend the book. Yay science!”
Cleveland Plain Dealer on A GARDEN OF MARVELS
“This is an entertaining, sophisticated primer on botany itself…”
A Garden of Marvels is a delight.”
“A self-taught, infectiously enthusiastic home gardener… intrepid journalist and indefatigable plants woman, Kassinger ferrets out the most entertaining and educational aspects of plant science with a researcher’s fervor and a collector’s zeal… Kassinger has a knack for uncovering horticulture’s quirky side.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-04
From award-winning history and science writer Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden, 2010, etc.), an informal, entertaining account of how early researchers discovered how plants work and what scientists are still learning about plants today. The author combines her lively botanical history with personal anecdotes about her own plant adventures and misadventures, and she also chronicles her visits to universities and nurseries, where accommodating, knowledgeable people shared their expertise with her. It is clear that Kassinger has done considerable research as well, for her account is rich with portraits of men from the 17th century struggling to understand the anatomy and physiology of plants. She writes of the techniques they used, the observations they made, what they misunderstood and what they got right. Other chapters reveal what is known now about the functions of leaves, stems, roots and flowers. She even explores the world of competitive giant pumpkin growing. Along with some tips on how to grow a one-ton pumpkin, Kassinger takes readers to an annual fall festival in Maine, where pumpkin lovers turn them into competitive racing boats. The author also introduces readers to green slugs that can photosynthesize; a "cocktail" citrus tree that bears limes, lemons and oranges; and a fern that can remove arsenic from polluted soil. Kassinger briefly considers the promise of the perennial grass miscanthus as a biofuel and the possible benefits of genetic engineering of food plants. A bonus of the book are the simple line drawings by Eva-Maria Ruhl, which illustrate Kassinger's lucid prose, making some botanical details even clearer. Especially charming is her drawing of a borametz, a plant that even educated Europeans in the early 17th century believed grew a tiny, living baby sheep on its stalk. A delightful book, fun to read and share—green thumb not required.
Publishers Weekly
★ 11/18/2013
Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass) plays a chatty and knowledgeable tour guide on a pleasant ramble through the world of plants, taking time not only to stop and smell the flowers, but to investigate their histories. Inspired by her desire to understand the plants in her greenhouse and her neighborhood, she bounces between the evolutionary history of plants, from the first time a eukaryote engulfed a cyanobacterium to create a chloroplast to the emergence of C4 metabolism in tropical grasses; the gossipy social history of the people who studied, debated, argued, and discovered the principles of modern botany; and personal interviews with modern researchers and growers who specialize in quirky plants and breeding programs. In this last element, Kassinger is at her most delightful, exploring giant pumpkins, polyploid black petunias, photosynthesizing slugs, multigraft cocktail citrus trees, nickel-mining flowers, and giant grasses able to produce enough biomass to run a high-efficiency tomato greenhouse with vines 60 feet tall. Kassinger weaves a huge amount of information into what still feels like a personal memoir, and by the end of this effortless afternoon stroll with her, readers will be startled to realize how much they have learned. Drawings. (Mar.)
Library Journal
★ 01/01/2014
Reluctant science student (she wanted to be a poet) and confessed plant murderer (her victim: a kumquat), Kassinger has traveled an unlikely road authoring numerous popular scientific articles and books (Paradise Under Glass). Here, she aims to "saunter" through the history of botany. An amiable and enthusiastic guide, she avoids a strict chronological treatment of the evolving science of botany, instead moving easily back and forth between historical and modern times. Kassinger punctuates her account with practical plant conundrums: Why, for example, did a neighbor's old hickory tree die? How do those megapumpkins get to be so big? How do breeders engineer black petunias? Kassinger shows the progress of botany as resembling other branches of knowledge—i.e., built on the shoulders of giants—and she brings to life pioneering figures such as Robert Hooke, Marcello Malpighi, Nehemiah Grew, Joseph Priestly, and Charles Darwin. She also meets living plant researchers who are continuing the tradition. VERDICT Kassinger's witty approach to a complex subject will win readers, but her really neat idea is to fit a personal quest for greater botanical knowledge within the larger historical development of the science. Students unsure about their fitness for scientific careers will be reassured by this book; gardeners will be intrigued.—Robert Eagan, Windsor P.L., Ont.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062048998
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/25/2014
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 137,552
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 5.90 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Ruth Kassinger is the author of Paradise Under Glass, as well as a number of award-winning science and history books for young adults. She has written for the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Health magazine, Science Weekly, and other publications.

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