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. Cathy in Seattle says:

    “Theresa Esztergalyos
    July 27, 2010 at 2:41 pm
    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!”

    This is awesome. I will have to check it out!

  2. Allison says:

    For me, nothing beats the fragrance of lavender. But the whole fragrance things is a wonder after all–how does that continue on–from plant to plant, generation after generation? And to think that people in the middle ages smelled the fragrance of lavender exactly the way I do today! What an interesting link down through time.

  3. mary Jo says:

    I grow hops as a privacy screen on 2 sides of my deck and every spring feel like I am witnessing the same magic as Jack growing his beanstalks.
    The vines grow so fast i swear that you can almost see it growing before your eyes

  4. Barbara Rowland says:

    Coming from Alaska, a cold climate with a very short growing season, the most amazing of miracles is that of the wakening of the trees, shrubs, bulbs and perennials each spring, some showing signs of life before the snow is even gone. Their urgency to get going as soon as possible is evident. The cottonwood trees draw their energy up from their vast roots to develop wonderfully aeromatic medicinal buds; the crocus cheerfully pop through the last couple of inches of melting snow to announce that spring has finally arrived; the willow branches suddenly produce cute, fuzzy little buds (pussy willow) that soon burst into leaf; and the hardy trollius lead the charge in the garden. Within a few short weeks, the entire area goes from being covered with snow to brown to green and fresh! It amazes me and refreshes me everytime.

  5. Tom Campbell says:

    One of my favorite botanical miracles here in Minnesota: when a bumble bee pries its way into the blossom of a Bottle Gentian and then shoots out like a rocket.

  6. Deborah McP says:

    Fragrance! Glamis Castle rose, for instance… redolent of myrhh, cinnamon and honey… knocked my socks off.

  7. Margaret M. Dabe says:

    It never ceases to amaze me where the random stalks of corn pop up in my yard, courtesy of my woodlands -obsessed neighbors who feed gunny sacks full of seed corn on the cob to the tree rats. One year it grew up at the base of the stair-railing for a Halloween decoration.

  8. Barb says:

    From a hike in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I am amazed at the variety and amount of wildflowers that seem to grow out of the rocks.

  9. Jac Kuzniacki says:

    It never fails to amaze me that each spring I am ready to begin this maddening hobby again! Why?!! I will be burned, trampled upon, nibbled at, and plucked! I will be whipped by winds, sheared by ice, pummeled with snow. I will be overlooked, under appreciated, scoffed at. I will be on my knees, covered in sweat, bitten to death. I will curse the sun and the rain and swear there is not enough moon. I will fail to hear the tune. And then it all turns around with a speck of dust; the formless forms. A single seed defies my cries of woe and just is!

  10. Sheri Arnold says:

    Who could doubt the existence of God when you’ve looked at plants through a microscope? The symmetry, the fragrance, the sheer diversity of plant life. I adore my garden.

  11. Jenn says:

    Oh, wait. Now I’ve read the rules. Botanical miracle.

    I find it fascinating that we are now finding out how interconnected some plants are. Colonies of Creosote in the desert that are from a plant that grew out of its seed thousands of years ago. Giant mushroom colonies, essentially a single rootmass, a single organism, spreading over miles. Cottonwood groves that are all from a single source tree, essential the entire grove being one tree.

    Nature is amazing.

  12. Maria says:

    When the shagbark hickory leaf buds unfurl in the spring to release their new leaves. The new leaves reach for the sky while the leaf buds fall back. They remind me of ballerinas in lime green and apricot colored tutus. The trees seem to synchronize the day they do this too. Soooo pretty and so unexpected.

  13. A. Sanderson says:

    I’ve always loved flowers that track, or open and close with the sun. It’s comforting to know that just as I am beginning to close my day, so is my garden.

  14. Jane says:

    Plants will not by deterred. Not by stones laid on top of them, not by drought or flood or blacktop. Pachysandra pushes itself through the thick asphalt of my mother’s driveway.

  15. Betsy says:

    Trees can share root systems. I think it is quite amazing that two trees of the same species growing next to one another can form grafts in their roots thus creating one large root system that both can benefit from. The downside is if one of the trees suffers a vascular failure or disease then both trees can be compromised.

  16. Gloria says:

    The sheer diversity of plant material on this planet is something that inspires awe and humility in my own gardening endeavors. Endles varieties of color, texture,and aroma feed our souls and delight our senses.

    1. Margaret says:

      ENTRIES ARE NOW CLOSED…and before we name the winners, I wanted to offer a proper welcome to all the first-time commenters who offered up miracles. Normally I say hello individually…but with these “contests” it gets hard to keep up — and my “hello” comments would litter the conversation and throw off the random drawing (I’d probably win the books!). So…

      Welcome to Trish, Nancy, Amy, Rosemary, Gina, Teri, Todd, Kay, Rock, Barbara, Leslie, Cathie, Xan, Pat, Angelyn, Sarah, Mary, Mark, Bett, Deb, Landkwindy, Nancy, Ray, Kat, Bonni, Lynn, Jan, Joy, Roc, Jennifer, Ray, Lisa, Jennifer, Janet, Charlie, Jewels, Naomi, Kim, Aranzazu, Linda, Matt, John, Michelle, JDG, Mary-Ellen, Suzanne, Eleanor, Megan, Pam, Luana, Mercedes, Theresa, Dallas, Kathy, Shelley, Barbara, Tom, Tami, Deborah, A. Sanderson, Maria, Jen, Jac, Tom W, Beth F, Gloria, Betsy.

      Don’t make this your last comment; see you soon, I hope.
      (If some of you aren’t actually new, it’s just that I can’t tell that if your username has changed since last time you commented, sorry!)

      AND THE WINNERS ARE: Mary-Ellen of Omaha, and JFinchHowell. I will be in touch — and thank you all for this amazing outpouring of beautiful, inspirational thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.