My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love

Overview

A delightful compendium of writing on plants.

The passion for gardening and the passion for words come together in this inspired anthology, a collection of essays on topics as diverse as beans and roses, by writers who garden and by gardeners who write. Among the contributors are Christopher Lloyd, on poppies; Marina Warner, who remembers the Guinée rose; and Henri Cole, who offers poems on the bearded iris and on peonies. There is also an explanation of the sexiness of castor ...

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Overview

A delightful compendium of writing on plants.

The passion for gardening and the passion for words come together in this inspired anthology, a collection of essays on topics as diverse as beans and roses, by writers who garden and by gardeners who write. Among the contributors are Christopher Lloyd, on poppies; Marina Warner, who remembers the Guinée rose; and Henri Cole, who offers poems on the bearded iris and on peonies. There is also an explanation of the sexiness of castor beans from Michael Pollan and an essay from Maxine Kumin on how, as Henry David Thoreau put it, one "[makes] the earth say beans instead of grass." Most of the essays are new in print, but Colette, Katharine S. White, D. H. Lawrence, and several other old favorites make appearances. Jamaica Kincaid, the much-admired writer and a passionate gardener herself, rounds up this diverse crew. A wonderful gift for green thumbs, My Favorite Plant is a happy collection of fresh takes on old friends.

Other contributors include:

Hilton Als Mary Keen Ken Druse Duane Michals Michael Fox David Raffeld Ian Frazier Graham Stuart Thomas Daniel Hinkley Wayne Winterrowd

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An ingenious, varied, and pleasurable collection, certain to strike sparks of recognition in even the most modest gardener."—Kirkus Reviews "Enchanting."—Booklist
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Author and gardener Kincaid believes that "[m]emory is a gardener's real palette... as it summons up the past... shapes the present... [and] dictates the future." For many, specific plants evoke specific memories; gathering 35 brief essays and poems that have been written throughout this century, Kincaid has compiled a bouquet of these plants and their corresponding memories. In "Lily," Colette remembers placing the eponymous white flowers around a statue of Mary, who "would be brushing, with the tips of her dangling fingers, the long, half-open cayman jaws of a lily at her feet." Czech writer Karol Capek writes in "Buds," published in 1929, that for him, even if he went out into the country, he would "see less of the spring than if I sat in my little garden" in Prague. Poet Maxine Kumin shares her appreciation of non-flowering plants and confesses that "nothing looks prettier to me than a well-tended flourishing vegetable garden." Ian Frazier, in "Memories of a Press-Gang Gardener," divulges how, after years of weeding gardens in his suburban childhood, he came to appreciate the activity, and when visiting "gardening friends... ask[s] what weeding needs to be done." In one of the strongest entries, "Marigold," Hilton Als admits hating that flower. During one childhood summer when his mother was ill, he recalls, he ate dirt from the marigold bed, to which his father devoted all his attention, and developed ringworm. Kincaid hopes that readers will draw some satisfaction from this collection, because a "garden, no matter how good it is, must never completely satisfy." In this she has succeeded, by presenting a book that is often beautiful, though some of its parts are not as radiant as others, and a few have yet to blossom. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
Kincaid (My Brother: A Memoir, 1997, etc.) has assembled an impressively varied collection of essays by writers living and dead concentrating on the plants that hold a special, often almost mystical, attraction for them. These pieces are united not only by the writers' devotion to the challenges and (sometimes very subtle) rewards of some one particular species, but by the overriding emotion here: love. The Czech playwright and novelist Karel Capek celebrates the "mysterious `Now!' of a garden, the moment unseen when buds emerge into bloom. Thomas Cooper, the editor of Horticulture magazine, celebrates the resilient geraniums, "one of the quintessential garden plants." Michael Pox's essay on "My Grandmother and Her Peonies" strikes a note frequently repeated in the collection: many of the plants that a gardener considers favorites have that status in part because they are entwined with the memories of those one has loved. Every garden is, in its way, a garden of memories. Kincaid nicely balances the collection between the more down-to-earth musings of horticultural writers (Graham Thomas on carnations, Ernest Wilson on the Silver tree, Katherine White on irises) and essays by writers far better known for their work in other genres (Marina Warner on roses, D.H. Lawrence on cyclamens, Elaine Scarry on columbines). An ingenious, varied, and pleasurable collection, certain to strike sparks of recognition in even the most modest gardener.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374281939
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 11/28/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 329
  • Sales rank: 1,448,308
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 4.80 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jamaica Kincaid's books include At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, A Small Place, Lucy, The Autobiography of My Mother, and, most recently, My Brother. She lives in Vermont.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

    It happens often to children--and sometimes to gardeners--that they are given gifts the value of which they do not perceive until much later. That is how it was with my first meconopsis. Seventeen years ago, when my garden in Vermont was so young that it was really only a nursery, I visited a very good gardener in New Hampshire. It was spring, and his garden, enviably long-established, was at its peak of vernal beauty. We walked about in that happy conjunction of need and generosity that all gardeners know, I admiring and he digging. My cardboard box was almost full of roots, slips, and young plants when we came to the stream that flows through his garden. He bent over a patch of mousy, furred, upturned gray leaves and said, "This is the very best thing. You have to have it."

    It was Meconopsis betonicifolia, and he must have wondered why I did not immediately fall to my knees. Maybe he wondered, too, whether my ignorance made a waste of his gift. His instructions (repeated twice, as one does with children) were in any case very clear. "Divide it into single crows with a bit of root when you get home. Plant them firmly just at the crown, like strawberries, in rich decayed leaf mold. Bright dappled light. Maybe some morning sun. But pinch out the first flower bud. You must pinch out the first flower bud."

    All those first steps were easy, and each single crown caught and flourished in the cool bed I had made them beside my own little stream. The first summer they made foot-wide rosettes of oval, dullish blue, hairy leaves, nice enough, but hardlyto be treasured like the lusty hosta `Royal Standard,' or the dusty pink, intensely fragrant Viola odorato that had also been in the box. They lived through a cold winter (I was to learn that they love that sort of thing), and the following spring each developing plant clasped a round, fat, furry bud in its center. By then I had discovered something of what I possessed, for I was keyed to the name whenever it appeared in books, as one is when an unfamiliar plant is out in the garden.

    I learned that Meconoposis betonicifolia is the fabled Himalayan blue poppy (a blue poppy: words alone enough to shiver over), that it is to all other garden flowers what a milk-white unicorn might be in a barnyard, and that it is the envy of gardeners the world over. I read in T. H. Everett's Encyclopedia of Gardening that "in most parts of America these plants are difficult or impossible to grow," and in Wyman's Gardening Encyclopedia that it "always makes a great impression on American tourists, for it is practically unknown in most parts of the U.S." In The Education of a Gardener, Russell Page comments that its culture is "as ardently worked for and ... as difficult to succeed with as the philosopher's stone," and in Green Thoughts, Eleanor Perenyi whines wistfully that she "would give anything for a glimpse of it, even in somebody else's garden." And there it was, this nonpareil, in thriving health, in my garden.

    And it was about to bloom there, for the first time. "But pinch out the first flower bud. You must ..." my friend had commented, and there was no ambiguity in his twice-repeated command. As a gardener of fifty years' experience (albeit meconopsisless for all but the last third) I am used to ruthlessness with plants. I can nip out the first hopeful blooms of annuals, and mess up their roots as well, knowing that it will be better for us both later on. I have plunged a butcher's knife into the hearts of magnificent clivias and agapanthus, prying their growth apart with a crunch at their crowns and trimming off their white, fleshy roots as one would cut up servings of baked noodles. I have beheaded ancient lilacs, hoary with lichens, so their youth could return to them. I am inured to these acts of violence, but to pinch out those first buds of Meconopsis betonicifolia, when even Eleanor Perenyi "would give anything for a glimpse ...".?

    Fortunately, in the nick (so to speak) of time, I met H. Lincoln Foster at a meeting of the Berkshire Chapter of the American Rock Garden Society. Then old and very ill, he was still tending Millstream, his garden in southern Connecticut, and his authority as one of America's greatest gardeners hung about him like a fine, comfortable robe. He explained that meconopsis capable of becoming perennials will expend everything, when they are young seedlings or divisions, on their first flower. They then become "monocarpic" (as many of their tribe always are), fading away after bloom like any common biennial foxglove. But if that first flower is pinched out, some (not all) will settle down to form crowns and persist from year to year as true perennials. "So," he said, "if it is really betonicifolia that you have" (as opposed to a dozen other names he reeled off, and I was later to learn, of true biennials, which will be that whatever you do) "you had better pinch."

    There it was for a second time, delivered with authority beyond question. And though I confess that in life generally, when faced with a choice between immediate, spendthrift pleasure and careful prudence, I have always tended to take the grasshopper's way, still, to have in my garden such a plant, and to know that one gesture of delayed gratification, one tiny painful pinch, would mean years of perenniality, years of returning pleasure . . . years of unweening pride and smug superiority and the most heartfelt sadness at the bad fortunes of other gardeners ... well, I pinched. I even smothered down the waffling thought that as I had five plants, perhaps then I could pinch only four, and from one at least see this glory straightaway, though I cost it its life.

    It is lucky that I began with Meconopsis betonicifolia, because within its genus of about forty-five species, it is the easiest to grow and, when forced to it, the most reliably perennial. And though within its family three or four first cousins vie with it for the title, it is arguably the most beautiful. In its second spring after pinching, it will produce several knots of growth from a central crown, most of which form buds and eventually flowers on stems 4 feet high. Each stem is crowned with one magnificent nodding bloom about 3 inches across, and two to four smaller ones lower down the stem. Petals are usually four, though quite curiously, cultivated plants may bear flowers with six or more petals, a phenomenon never reported in the wild. True doubling, however, seems never to occur, and that is a good thing, as there is a grace about the carriage of the flowers, an almost Tanagra figurine poise, that would only be ruined by too much heavy petal.

    Those who can grow the plant at all are quite snobbish about the color, which at its very best is a clear sky blue almost impossible to imagine when not standing before it. Either because of the provenance of collected seed, however, or--as some speculate--because of the alkalinity or dryness of the soil in which they are grown, plants can produce flowers in a range of color from weaker, more watered blue to mauve and even light brownish-purple. A perfectly blue flower is, one supposes, to be preferred over any other; but in facet, there are no ugly Meconopsis betonicifolia, and those that veer furthest from the purest tint do so by washes of one color over another, creating, in their own way, a curious effect of translucence. I even grew--from seed collected by Dan Hinkley on an expedition to Nepal three years ago--a single plant with flowers of deep grape purple. Alas, that one I didn't pinch, and I still wonder whether it might have been the only one of its color ever brought to the Western world or, indeed, the only one that ever existed at all.

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Introduction

Introduction: I am amazed at such a thing: that I would have asked writers who have a garden, writers whom I admire who do not have a garden but have a passion or a memory of some kind of flowers, writers who are gardeners and write about it with all its ups and downs, its disappointments, its rewards, and who are attached to the garden with a blindness, plus a jumble of feelings that mere language (as far as I can see) seems inadequate to express, or to define an attachment that is so ordinary: to a plant, loved especially for something endemic to it (it cannot help its situation: it loves the wet, it loves the dry, it reminds the person seeing it of a wave or a waterfall or some event that contains so personal an experience such as: when my mother would not allow me to do something I particularly wanted to do, and in my misery I noticed that the frangipani tree was in bloom). I know gardeners well (or at least I think I do, for I am a gardener, too, but I experience it as an act of utter futility, I shall never have the garden I have in mind, but that for me is the joy of it; certain things can never be realized and so all the more reason to attempt them). I know their fickleness, I know their weakness for wanting in their own gardens the thing they have never seen before, or never possessed before, or saw in a garden (their friends') something which they do not have and would like to have (though what they really like and envy -- especially that, envy -- is the entire garden they are seeing, but as a disguise they focus on just one thing: the Mexican poppies, the giant butterbur, the extremely plump blooms of white, purple, black, pink, green hellebores, emerging from the cold, damp, and brown earth). I was not surprised that everyone I asked had something definite that they liked. Gardeners (or just plain simple writers who write about the garden) always have something they like intensely and in particular, right at the moment you engage them in the reality of the boarders they cultivate, the space in the garden they occupy; at any moment, they like in particular this, or they like in particular that. Nothing in front of them (that is, in the borders they cultivate, the space in the garden they occupy) is repulsive and fills them with hatred, or this thing would not be in front of them. They only love, and they only love in the moment: when the moment has passed they love the memory of the moment, they love the memory of that particular plant of that particular bloom, but the plant of the bloom itself, they have moved on from; they have left it behind for something else, something new, especially something from far away, and from so far away, a place they will never live (occupy, cultivate, the Himalayas, just for an example). Of all the benefits that come from having endured childhood (for it is something to which we must submit, no matter how beautiful we find ti, no matter how enjoyable it has been) certainly among them will be the garden and the desire to be involved with gardening. A gardener's grandmother will have grown such and such a rose, and the smell of that rose at dusk (for flowers always seem to be most smelling at the end of the day, as if that, smelling, was the last thing to do before going to sleep), when the gardener was a child and walking in that grandmother's footsteps as she went about her business in her garden -- the memory of that smell of the rose combined with the memory of that smell of the grandmother's skirt will forever inform and influence the life of the gardener, inside or outside the garden itself. And so in a conversation with such a person (a gardener), a sentence, a thought, that goes something like this -- "You know when I was such and such an age, I went to the market for a reason that is no longer of any particular interest to me, but it was there I saw for the first time something that I have never and can never forget" -- floats out into the clear air, and the person from whom these words or this thought emanates is standing in front of you all bare and trembly, full of feeling, full of memory. Memory is a gardener's real palette; memory as it summons up the past, memory as it shapes the present, memory as it dictates the future. This book, this anthology, this collection of essays that you (a reader) hold in your hands is meant to be like a garden, a garden that I make, for everything in it, every flower, every tree, every whatever enclosed here, everything mentioned has made a claim on my memory and passion at some moment in my life as a gardener. I have never been able to grow Meconopsis betonicifolia with success (it sits there, a green rosette of leaves, looking at me with no bloom. I look back at it myself, without a pleasing countenance), but the picture of it that I have in my mind, a picture made of memory (I saw it some time ago), a picture made up of "to come" (the future, which is the opposite of remembering), is so intense that whatever happens between me and this plant will never satisfy the picture I have of it (the past remembered, the past to come). I first saw it Meconopsis betonicifolia in Wayne Winterrowd's garden (a garden he shares with that other garden eminence Joe Eck), and I shall never see this plant (in flower or not, in the wild or cultivated) again without thinking of him (of them, really -- he and Joe Eck) and saying to myself, It shall never look quite like this (the way I saw it in their garden), for in their garden it was itself and beyond comparison (whatever that should amount to right now, whatever that might ultimately turn out to be), and I will always want it to look that way, growing comfortably in the mountains of Vermont, so far away from the place in which it was natural, unnoticed, and so going about its own peculiar ways of perpetuating itself (perennial, biannual, monocarpic or not). What I mean to say in the end is that this book, this collection of essays, looks to me like a landscape, an enclosure, a garden I would create if I could. The ideal garden that I would make begins with Wayne (Winterrowd) and ends with Elaine (Scarr). I first came to the garden with practicality in mind, a real beginning which would lead to a real end: where to get this, how to grow that. Where to get this was always nearby, a nursery never too far away; how to grow that led me to acquire volume upon volume, books all with the same advice likes shade, does not tolerate lime, needs staking), but in the end I came to know how to grow the things I like to grow through looking -- at other people's gardens. I imagine they acquired knowledge of such things in much the same way -- looking and looking at somebody else's garden. But about this book again: I have tried to arrange these essays and poems (and excerpts from gardeners, be they in the wild like Frank Kingdom Ward in the foothills of the Himalayas, or at home like Katharine S. White on a farm in Maine) in such a way as to give the illusion of a garden, a garden I would like (sometimes, only sometimes, feelings about a garden will change, too), a garden of words and images made of words, and flowers turned into words, and the words in turn making the flower, the plant, the bean (Maxine Kumin) visible. I loved reading all the pieces in here. I was amazed by and grateful for the generosity of the contributors, but then gardeners will give wholeheartedly and bigheartedly; that is why they are allowed to covet. At the end of it (this book), I hope the reader will have some satisfaction -- not complete satisfaction, only some satisfaction. A garden, no matter how good it is, must never completely satisfy. The world as we know it, after all, began in a very good garden, a completley satisfying garden -- Paradise -- but after a while the owner and the occupants wanted more. Jamaica Kincaid Vermont, March 1998
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