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the little book that could: ‘botany for gardeners’

COULD IT BE? TWENTY YEARS? WITH MY VINTAGE REVIEW still the lead blurb on the opening page? And 200,000+ copies in print? Yup, yup, and yup: Brian Capon’s masterpiece, “Botany for Gardeners,” was reissued recently, and my glowing praise (written when I was garden editor at “Newsday” newspaper) still applies: “Here is a magical little book for anyone wanting to know the why of gardening’s many miracles.” I believe that this is an essential reference for every gardener—and every young person who otherwise won’t learn the botanical sciences and miss out on a whole lot of life–so I’m offering you a chance to win one of two copies I’m giving away:

The English-born Capon, a doctor of botany from the University of Chicago who went on to be a professor at California State University, Los Angeles for 30 years, has since retired, leaving time for the revamping of “Botany for Gardeners,” the bestselling title for its publisher, Timber Press, in the U.S. and England.

Not only did Capon write it; he illustrated it, too, and even took the plant photographs that further bring the text to life. Capon is also a lifelong gardener, though images of his own place never appear in the pages.

“Botany for Gardeners” was born as a textbook out of lecture notes for a botany class Capon taught for many years to non-science students, so it’s thorough—but not the kind of dense, full-fledged botany text that will scare you away.

In fact (even 20 years later), it just keeps drawing me back in, especially for tidbits like these. Did you know:

  • That litmus, the dye used to indicate acidity and alkalinity, is extracted from a lichen? (And another lichen fact: A lichen is a symbiotic reaction between fungus and algae. Who knew?)
  • That the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), North America’s tallest cactus species, can live 150 years?
  • That the branch of a tree is buried deep in the tree’s trunk—not some appendage stuck on merely from the bark outward. Knots in lumber are actually slices through the bases of a branch.
  • That there are about 400,000 species of plants—and of those about 150,000 don’t flower.
  • That camouflage isn’t just for animals, or the military: Even seeds use it. The color, size and thickness of the covering of many seeds serves to protect them from predation (read: eating by a bird or mouse, for instance). I just never thought of a seed needing to remain safe from predation but yes, of course.
  • What the word is for the oozing that happens from the stump when a herbaceous stem is severed, or that you sometimes see exuding from leaf margins? It’s called guttation, and is caused by root pressure. (I just love this word, now that I know it.)
  • That the tallest tree, at 379.1 feet, is a California coast redwood, Sequoia sempervirens?

Of course, “Botany for Gardeners” is far more than mere fun tidbits like those. Capon thoroughly covers the bigger picture of how plants work, starting from the cellular level and moving all the way through subjects as complex as reproduction and genetics—each in an understandable manner.

For this gardener, the “why’s” that I’ve been gleaning from Capon all these years certainly have made looking out the window or working in the yard even more miraculous that the mere sight and scents alone ever could have. I highly recommend jumping into botany for gardeners, Capon-style.

The Giveaway Details:

To win one of two copies of “Botany for Gardeners” that I bought to share with you:

Simply comment below by telling us something you think of as a botanical miracle, whether you know the “why” behind it or not. I’ll pick two random winners on Friday, July 30, at noon, when entries will close.

Categoriesfor beginners
  1. Jayne says:

    I am amazed when a gigantic and outrageously shaped mushroom/fungi appears suddenly in my yard. What is it and why did it appear?

  2. TomW says:

    I find it a miracle that plants have devised so many ways to disperse their seeds. Some seeds fly, some stick, some need to be eaten, some need to be burned, and more in order to propagate their species. Now how the heck did that come about?

  3. Cathy in Seattle says:

    I am overwhelmed by the perfection, beauty, and drama of the garden poppy.
    Act One: Tall, slender grey-green beauties sprint to flower, enticing pollinators to a dance with their mauves, pinks, salmon colored blossom crowns.

    Act Two: While swollen seedpods develop and dry out, small opera-window-like seed distribution openings slowly unfurl allowing seed to disperse when fully dry.

    Act Three: The poppy seeds, rattling in their dried pod home, are thrown out of the windows by the wind’s agitation – a full 360 degrees – ensuring far-flung (about a 2-3 foot diameter) distribution of the many seeds contained within. Nature’s design is perfect.

  4. Suzanne says:

    After eight years of being buried by creeping lawn grasses, volunteers from other plants in the bed and the neglect of renters who weren’t gardeners, a trollius bloomed next to my front door. It was my “welcome home” present.

  5. Allison says:

    I am a new gardener and am amazed by the very basics – that you can take seeds the size of a pinhead and a few months later have something alive and thriving at 3 feet tall or more. Simple yet extraordinary.

  6. Annabelle says:

    I am amazed by the level of success achievable from a 20-year dormant garden plot after only 3 years at it. Even if the prevailing attitude during two of those years is “just plant it, and see what happens” due to overwhelmed schedules or family additions. (This year so far: zucchini, cucumbers, spinach, snap peas, kale, chard, herbs, and the beginnings of the resurrected raspberry patch. Come on, tomatoes!)

  7. Ann says:

    I am amazed by the sprouting of a pea seed, first just like bean sprouts, then the two seed leaves, then a little plant that grows and grows. Even though I never get many sugar peas from my planting in the vats in the driveway that are the only place that gets enough sun to grow them, only a tantalizing crop that burns out in July, it is still a delightful miracle I enjoy repeating each year.

  8. Sheri says:

    I continually puzzle over the fact that gardening books describe the TLC that must be taken when planting vegetable seeds–the soil must be just so, the planting time not too early and not too late, the soil must be kept evenly moist–yet seeds that I did not plant nor pay any attention to sprout up in my garden every year, and THRIVE.

  9. Mercedes Brian says:

    I adore lying on my back to gaze upwards into the horse chestnut in our yard. Each leaf is a little miracle factory, each placed and shaped to capture photons and turn it into food. And it’s a beautiful chapel of a tree. Then I turn to look at any other plant and wonder anew.

  10. Luana says:

    I am fascinated with my plantings using the Hawaiian lunar planting calendar; I plant 3 to 4 days before a full moon, on the full moon day, and 3 to 4 days after the full moon. I can’t explain it, but these plants do better and bear lots of fruit and vegetables. I am totally amazed at the results because I don’t use any chemical fertilizers except for the organic wastes from my kitchen and my soil is hard and clay-like.
    If there are others who use this method and get amazing results — I would love to swap stories.

  11. Pam Smith says:

    Still, after all these years of planting, tending and harvesting both indoors and out, I am astounded by the transformative magic of forcing/growing bulbs in winter. In darkness and then gradually increasing warmth and light a brown, dry bulb erupts into a display of vibrant growth. The humble narcissus, the gaudy amaryllis, the overwhelmingly fragrant hyacinth….they and so many others all start as dry, dark and shriveled handfulls of hidden life. For a gardener, at the darkest, coldest, and most unforgiving time of year these quiet wonders give us the promise of light and life to come!

  12. Megan says:

    As a native Californian I am amazed by the miracle of dormancy and rebirth of deciduous plants in New England’s seasons. The shedding of leaves, the quiescence of winter, the monotone landscape, followed by the incredible vigorous unfolding of summer!

  13. elizabeth says:

    I remember, as a kid, I thought yellow wood trees were really just giant pea plants.
    well, i still do–since I learned as an adult that they are cousins. That is an amazing thought to me, the range of plants that are all related somehow and ended ended up in every part of the world, in strange and glorious variations.

  14. terryl says:

    I am amazed at all the different leaf markings of each of the different cyclamen species. Combine that with their ability to start sending up leaves or flowers after sitting virtually unwatered for most of the summer is still a mystery.

  15. Eleanor Sterling says:

    That sequoia trees make their own weather, reaching up high into the thin layer of overhead coastal fog and causing microscopic water droplets to coalesce on their tiny rigid leaflets until they run down along the branches and then the great trunk, eventually reaching the ground and watering the tree — no direct rain needed in drought country! The fog lingers for hours among the sequoia treetops, caught like veils of tulle, long after it has blown away or dried up everywhere else. A nice arrangement for an ancient tree’s long-term survival!

  16. Andrea says:

    One of my favorite sightings in spring is watching the ferns unfurl. As common as they may sometimes seem once open, this spectacle strikes me as somehow curious and alien.

  17. Theresa Esztergalyos says:

    Have you ever pulled apart a dried catkin from a birch tree? If you do, you’ll find that it separates into tiny, perfectly shaped, fleur de lis!

    I’ve often wondered if this miniature “work of art” by Mother Nature was the inspiration centuries ago for all the fleur de lis symbols. They are still used in art…. from paintings to architectural details….from coats of arms to flags and fabrics. The list is endless.

    I have never seen this possibility mentioned before, but it is a definite miracle for me.

  18. Shelley says:

    My daughter is getting married next month and asked several members of her family to grow the annual flower Nigella (both blue and white) for her wedding. They are to be used in clear glass vases for the tables at the reception which will be outside near the ocean. I decided to humor her and scattered the seeds in late May thinking I would not have much success. To my amazement the feathery foliage popped up in three different places and I have just seen the first flowers of this beautiful “love in a mist” emerge. How could I have doubted her very wonderful choice of this unusual and very lovely flower. It will grace the tables and remind the guests that we grew them for this very special occasion.

  19. jess says:

    I think that phototrophism is a botanical miracle. I understand the science behind it, more or less, but it never fails to amaze me that an organism without eyes can figure out where the light is coming from and respond accordingly. I remember being a kid and noticing how sunflowers move their faces through the day to find the sun. That sense of wonder has never left me.

  20. Kathy Nies says:

    I live in the northeast, and each April I am amazed that so much has been hiding underneath many feet of snow just waiting to spring to life again. It all comes back to life after months of being buried under ice and snow. Phenomenal.

  21. Budding and grafting. These practices perplex me and frankly kind of disturb me. What exactly is growing and how is it doing that? You stick the bud in where? And why doesn’t this process apply to humans? I wouldn’t mind creating new varieties of myself-I’ll keep my long legs but how about a full “double” chest, a face with a upright, oval habit and a stunning display of showy, profuse blooms atop an erect, slender neck.

  22. DallasGalvin says:

    Three yearling Siberian Elms, planted for Bloomberg’s million trees, and dying of thirst along Morningside Drive. Two shed their leaves entirely; one kept a brave face on the matter, its large leaves drooping and brittle, but still vaguely green.
    Two violent rains: The bleakest and most fragile tree is now alight with Spring-green buds and twisty young leaves, unfolding as I watch. Its equally bald companion has struggled forth to bear four good buds and three leaves. The one who would not cry “Uncle”, who would not bow to heat and drought, now seems to ache all alone. No buds come forward to push it back into the arms of life. Can this be botany’s truth?

  23. Alvaro Abrego says:

    For me the miracle is the Texas Mountain Laurel and its intoxicating fragance which reminds me of grape soda. It always takes me back to being a kid.

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