WHEN I SAW KEN DRUSE at a lecture I gave recently, I reminded him that it was verging on 20 years since we’d met. The occasion then had been the release of his first book, “The Natural Garden,” and I had cold-called Ken for an interview for my column in Newsday newspaper. Now there’s a new book, named after what Ken calls “a long, invented word” that he coined for the purpose, but one that really suits what’s inside its gorgeous cover. It’s called “Planthropology.” I was immediately curious…you?
“Planthropology” turns out to be what it sounds like: “A kind of anthropology for plants,” says Ken. “Stories about plants we love, who they are, where they are, how they got there.” As with all Ken’s books, it’s rich with his own photos (450 of them this time).
I know a lot of those stories myself, or so I thought, but reading “Planthropology” I came across more that I didn’t know than familiar ones. Like the reason you won’t see the flower on a fig tree but will still get fruit (because the flowers are hidden inside, forming what we think of as the edible part). Or like the fact that bees are attracted to the color blue, and that birds see color much as we humans do. Who knew? (Well, apparently Ken did.)
Perhaps my favorite chapter: the one called “Amazing Grace” on the magical patterns in the way plants are constructed. It taught me various new things, too, including the word phyllotaxis, the study of leaf arrangement. Ken, with his photographer’s eye, depth of plant knowledge, and inexhaustible curiosity about the natural world, decodes the mathematical system of how things are built botanically, and it is fascinating, helped in no small measure by lots of close-up photos that bring the point home that this is not chaos but an intricate system of architecture.
With Ken, there is also always humor, the kind of wonderfully terrible horti-puns that only he can pull off: a section called “Not Tonight, Deer,” for instance, about (you got it) deer-proofing the garden, with some great alternative fencing tactics.
“Planthropology” is a book loaded with great plants, and their back story. And the book itself has a back story:
“It started out as a book I wanted to write on fragrance,” Ken says. “My publisher wanted me to write ‘Ken Druse: My Favorite Plants.’ In a way, ‘Planthropology’ is my take on that idea, and especially that it is not possible (or necessary) to pick favorites.”
It’s a book, like all of Ken’s previous ones, that I’ll go back to again and again, both for reference and pure visual inspiration. You can learn more about “Planthropology” from Ken directly, and even listen to him each week on radio. His show is aptly named “Real Dirt,” which is what I’ve come to count on from Ken Druse at every encounter these last two decades.