Monday, December 27, 2010

Book review: “Bizarre Botanicals” by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

Santa Claus must know me well because for Christmas he brought me two books that would delight any plant lover. The first one, The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession by Andrea Wulf, is about a small group of 18th century naturalists who turned Britain into the horticultural epicenter of the world. I’ve just started this book and will write a review when I’m done.

The other one is Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-of-Hearts, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants, by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross. I must have seemed awfully anti-social yesterday because I spent a good part of the afternoon devouring this book—pun intended, considering that 35 pages are dedicated to carnivorous plants.

I’ve got to tell you right away: This is one of the most entertaining plant book you’re likely to find anywhere. It portrays 78 plants that for one reason or another are “weird and wonderful.” Subdivided into ten different categories, the book introduces us to insect-eating plants like Venus flytrap, pitcher plants, sundrops and butterworts; plants with fantastical inflorescences like medusa orchid and bird-of-paradise; plants with repulsive odors like voodoo lily and titan arum; plants with odd behavior like the telegraph plant which has little leaflets that move up and down in jerky steps; and plants whose flowers or stems remind us of animals, like panda ginger, cockscomb and bat-faced cuphea. The descriptions are full of interesting tidbits, written in a lively and entertaining style that fuses botanical science with a wicked sense of humor.

Larry Mellichamp, a professor of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and director of the UNCC Botanical Gardens, has grown every plant described in the book. Drawing on his personal experience, he supplements the plant descriptions with hands-on information for everyday gardeners. This elevates Bizarre Botanicals from a curious novelty to a practical guide all of us can use should the fancy to bring home some of these strange beauties strike us.

While many of the plants described in the book come from the tropics and can only be grown in a greenhouse or as houseplants, quite a few are hardy enough to be grown outside in many parts of the country, including scouring rush (what we Westerners call “horsetail” or “snake grass”), Dutchman’s pipe, passionflower, bleeding heart, and jack-in-the-pulpit.

I was thrilled to find plants we have in our own garden, like voodoo lily, black aeonium, and sea holly. Others like baseball plant and old man cactus have been on my wish list for a long time, and reading about them in Bizarre Botanicals has given me the impetus to actually plant them at home. I might even get myself a glass terrarium for a small collection of carnivorous plants.

I should mention that the book is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photographs, most of them taken by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross, assistant director of the UNCC Botanical Gardens.

Bizarre Botanicals is the kind of book you’ll want to share with other plant lovers. If you’re not comfortable loaning out your own copy, get another one as a gift.

To see a preview of the book, click here.

7 comments:

  1. That looks like a fun book, perfect for those winter nights when spring fever starts hitting hard. I must get a flytrap again -- I haven't grown one since I was a kid!

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  2. I absolutely want to get a Venus flytrap and some pitcher plants. I think these are the perfect plants to get kids interested in botany and gardening. My daughters (9 and 12) don't show much interest in bamboo, but maybe they'll be taken by carnivorous plants!

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  3. Bizarre Botanicals sounds like my kind of book, I can't wait! An extensive carnivorous section is especially intriguing -- Venus flytraps are native to the area I live in. I'm glad Santa did such a good job. :)

    I'd love it if you'd consider submitting your recent deer grass post for the next issue of How to Find Great Plants. The deadline is Dec. 31st. If you're interested, here's the link:

    http://www.appalachianfeet.com/2010/11/12/how-to-join-the-new-blog-carnival-called-how-to-find-great-plants/

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  4. Eliza, I think you'd enjoy the book. I'd love to see the native habitat of the Venus flytrap. Hot, humid and bug-infested, I imagine, considering how the flytrap has evolved, but also beautiful.

    Thank you also for the invitation to submit my deer grass post. I just did.

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  5. Some Dutchman's Pipe (Aristolochia) are hardy enough to grow here (like A. durior, A. manshuriensis, etc.). The selection you can grow in your yard will be much bigger :)

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  6. Gerhard,
    many thanks for writing such a wonderful and appealing review of our
    book Bizarre Botanicals - it had me on the edge of my seat, and I want
    to go back a re-read it all again (which I do about every week!!), and
    look at the wonderful photos - still amazing.
    I was in Winters this past July - next trip I'll come visit. I have
    friend in Alamo-Walnut Creek. Get your VFT at California Carnivores in
    Sebastopol. Best Wishes, Larry Mellichamp

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  7. Larry, I'm thrilled you read my blog post. Kudos again to you and Paula for writing such a neat book. And yes, please let me know when you're back in our neck of the woods.

    Funny you should mention California Carnivores. I'm in the midst of reading Peter's book The Savage Garden! I'm already planning a trip in the spring once I know what kinds of plants I want for my terrarium.

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