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Plants in Garden History, by Penelope Hobhouse, is one of the most interesting gardening books ever published...

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Plants in Garden History, by Penelope Hobhouse
Published by Pavilion Books, 2004

Plants in Garden History
, by Penelope Hobhouse, is one of the most interesting gardening books ever published.  That’s a pretty big statement, but readers who take the time to enjoy Hobhouse’s masterpiece will wholeheartedly agree.  Oprah just selected it as one of her top picks for gardeners, citing that world history, when viewed through garden design, shows that you really can achieve peace, harmony and understanding in a garden.  We like the book because it shows the long view of gardening, which, much like the current 24 hour news cycle, tends to flit from one fad to another, causing upheavals in garden centers, garden publishing and plant production.  That causes upheaval for the home gardener.  If you’ve ever been conflicted about buying a canna versus a native coneflower for your garden, this book helps put things in perspective.  

A Gardening Book for History Buffs

A lot of plant lovers enjoy knowing about every aspect of their plants.  Not just how to grow them, but where they came from, who they inspired and how they were used throughout the ages.  Plants in Garden History is the ultimate book for plant loving historians or history loving gardeners.  It starts with the beginning of gardening in recorded history of Western Civilization.  (In the introduction, Hobhouse rightly explains that the history of plants in Eastern Garden History is entirely separate, and entirely different.  It would make a great book, in and of itself!)  This book details gardening styles from ancient Egypt, through historic gardens of Persia, including the Alhambra, Europe in the Renaissance, French Formal Gardens, and Colonial America.  You learn, along with the principles of garden design, the history that influenced historic design.  For garden lovers, reading this book is like a baseball lover learning Western Civ. by reading an architectural retrospective of great baseball stadiums.  You get the important highlights of overall history, framed by a topic that actually interests you.

Plants + Design

These days, you find a lot of gardening books that are organized around design principles, rather than plant combinations.  Hobhouse's book traces the interconnected relationship between bringing new plants to cultivation and garden design during a "new" plant's introduction.  (We say “new” because a lot of the plants discussed in this book aren’t really “new,” they have just been discovered for the first time by the professional horticultural and botanical industry.)

For each period and plant discussed, Hobhouse traces the evolution of a plant from curiosity to sought-after prize, to a widely available ornamental, concurrent with popular garden designs of the time period.  The history of ornamental bulbs in the garden is one interesting example.  When originally brought from gardens in the Middle East, bulbs were treated as specimen plants, grown a few at a time, literally on pedestals.  As they became slightly more available, they were inter-planted in the formal parterres and knot gardens popular at the time.  By the time bulbs were standard in gardens, the more naturalistic style of gardening was popular, at which point the "naturalizing" of bulbs became common practice.  The book showcases the evolution of plant sourcing from finding an interesting new plant in a faraway land, bringing it into mass cultivation, and then selecting for different attributes and cultivars.  Before a new plant like the “Tiger Eyes” Rudbeckia hits the market, years of work to breed and refine it have already taken place.

A "Cultivated Wild"

Gardens started as a place to grow food.  They evolved into pleasure grounds.  Today, they are a hybrid of both.  As building and development have eaten up more and more natural spaces, and there is little "wild" land left in areas where the mostdense populations live, gardening attitudes have shifted.  Wild plants, once fenced out, are cultivated and brought in.  The pendulum of interest in exotics swings wildly from left to right: one year, horticulture is all about tropical plants and the next few are all about natives.  A great quote from Plants in Garden History sums up the emotional and design tug-of-war that happens for all serious gardeners:
"The conflict between a delight in logical rhythms of planting and in more natural free effects-between considering the art of gardening as 'nature perfected' and using gardening to re-interpret the roles of plants in order to imitate the wild-remains as topical today, when whole landscapes are threatened, as it has through the ages. . . There is no right or wrong way to use plants. . . In the hands of an individual who appreciates plants and sees the garden as an entity, the form of the layout and the character of the plants become inseparable. . . "

Beyond Beautiful Botanical Illustrations

In addition to serving as a gardener’s history of the world, a reference for those who would like to create a historically inspired knot garden, or re-create one of the famous gardens of the Alhambra, this is also a great eye-candy, coffee table book of highest quality.  There are hundreds of pictures in the book, including reproductions of garden plans, original botanical illustrations, and contents of (very) previously published “best selling” gardening books dating back to the 1600s! 

Gardeners are visual people.  Reference books that tell are great.  Reference books that show are even better.  Looking at world history through the lens of a visual medium like gardens helps put into perspective other things happening at the same time-including musical styles, fashion, art, politics and more.  You can describe to someone what a neoclassical symphony looks like, or how a French Formal Garden is similar, but if you can hear the music and see the garden, everything snaps into place more quickly.

Perspective for the Modern Gardener

Just as reading history books helps world leaders frame their attempts to govern in today's world, so does the information in Plants in Garden History help gardeners.  It is easy to get caught up in the latest fad, or feel guilty if one is completely uninterested in what is being heralded as "the next big thing."  Going from tulip mania to tropical mania to native plant mania has happened not once, not twice, but many times in the history of gardening.  If you despair that your Victory Garden isn't as lush as your neighbor's, or you feel sub-par because you don't even want to plant a vegetable garden this year, even though "everyone is doing it," take a stroll through Plants in Garden History.  You will find some kindred gardening spirits among the pages.  You might also find the next "new" horticultural development!

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Click here to view the book at Amazon.com.