San Diego Horticultural Society Archive


A Cactus Odyssey by James D. Mauseth, Roberto Kiesling, and Carlos Ostolaza

51PrUXQ7X2L._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_A Cactus Odyssey:

Journeys in the Wilds of Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina


James D. Mauseth, Roberto Kiesling, and Carlos Ostolaza


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


Hopes springs eternal, et cetera. I’m still looking for a good combination travel and gardening book. If you’re looking for a good travel book, this isn’t it, but if you’re looking for an interesting book about cactus biology, with some travel thrown in, you could go further and do worse. The book has some faults, but they are not fatal.

I’ll start out by telling you that there is one thing in this book that I found really irritating. The book is, in effect, written by a committee, and they have chosen to write in the plural—we did this; we saw that—instead of in the first person singular. I don’t know why, but somehow it seems to slow down the narrative.

The second problem is that the first chapter, the one that’s supposed to hook readers and make them glad to have started the book, is yet another discussion of taxonomy and of the difference between lumpers (who like to lump species together into a few big genera) and splitters (who like to like to create lots of genera.). Clearly, it is useful for anyone interested in plants to understand the principles of taxonomy, but I think this kind of a chapter would be better placed at the end of the book for those who want to read it.

The text in general gets a little bogged down in Latin names, but there’s no way out of that, because most of these plants probably don’t have common names that would be familiar in English.

Although the book has a few negatives, it also has some important positives. First, the authors do communicate their delight with cacti.

In the worst of circumstances, they seem to maintain positive attitudes. They describe trying to help a truck ahead of them hung up in mud:

Jumping up and down on a back bumper amidst a bunch of corn on the

cob and with mud flying everywhere–this is proof that we are enjoying

the sophisticated life that was guaranteed us by all those years of college

education. At least the truck is not carrying pigs and chickens. (page 101)

They are generous in spirit. All through the book they propose “many research possibilities you might find irresistible” if you are a cactus biologist.

The book has seven chapters: the introductory chapter and two on each of the three countries they traveled through. It describes six field trips the three authors took together between 1985 and 2000. A rather minimal map of each country is included.

This is a book for the specialist reader who is particularly interested in the biology and evolutionary history of cacti. Of particular interest and surprise to me was the number of different environments where they found cacti growing and even thriving.

As with many garden books, the 191 color photos are the highlight of the book. They are tied closely into the text and have useful captions. The book is hardbound, 306 pages, and includes a rather minimal bibliography and index.



Bromeliads For the Contemporary Garden by Andrew Steens



For the Contemporary Garden


Andrew Steens

Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


Years ago, I bought two little plants in four-inch pots at a rummage sale. The seller said, “Leave them in the pots. They like to be crowded.” It didn’t occur to me to ask any more questions. Twenty years later, I decided that I needed to move the plants that had now grown to fill a 4- x 6-foot area. To my great surprise, I was able to move the entire mass of plants (and the two 4-inch plastic pots) to a new location like moving a piece of carpet. The plants had not rooted into anything. Thus began my love affair with Bilbergia nutans and bromeliads in general.

Although my collection multiplied many times since then, my knowledge of bromeliads did not. (Luckily, they are very hard to kill.) Now, however, I have found an almost perfect book for the novice or interested expert. Bromeliads for the Contemporary Garden, by Andrew Steens, answers all my questions.

Bromeliads are a varied group including, among others, Tillandsias and Annas (pineapples). Some of the more striking kinds are for sale at most local grocery stores as well as garden centers.

They grow in full sun, full shade or anything in between, depending on the type. Some are terrestrial and some are epiphytes. Many have astonishing coloration. Some have flowers so small they are easily overlooked. Others are glorious spikes that can last for months.

This book covers all types and is beautifully organized. Steens starts with a discussion of the definition and history of bromeliads. He then shows how they can be used in landscaping. The largest section of the book follows–an alphabetical listing of the 28 genera of Bromeliads, including 315 species described individually. Finally, he covers cultivation and propagation.

He saves the bad news for the end with a six-page section on pests and diseases (only six pages because these are pretty tough plants.) In this section, he answers an important question, in light of the current concern with West Nile virus. Tank-type bromeliads have few or no roots that function to absorb water. They absorb water in “tanks” formed by the leaves. Some people refuse to grow these bromeliads because they think that mosquitoes will breed in them. Steens explains why he thinks this is not a problem.    

Steens gardens and writes in New Zealand. All measurements are metric, but he thoughtfully includes conversion charts for inches, feet, and Fahrenheit. Several other nice touches are a chart listing bromeliads by cold hardiness, one that defines light requirements by leaf type, and a listing of Bromeliad Society websites.

The only negative criticism I have is that the index covers plant names only, which limits its usefulness. This is a small problem with an otherwise excellent book.

Bromeliads for the Contemporary Garden is hardbound, 198 pages with 290 color photos and four tables.



The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

41e4bL9dezL._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_The Botany of Desire:

A Plant’s-eye View of the World


Michael Pollan


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


We probably all have that list of books that we ought to have read, and planned to read, and just never quite got around to. The Botany of Desire is one of those books for me. It was published in 2001. It was a national best seller and a New York Times Notable Book, so I knew I should read it sometime. Well, that time is now. I may be one of the last three people in the Horticultural Society to read it, but for you other two, here’s my review.

It’s hard to know what to say about a book that has had so many rave reviews. The edition I read had three pages of excerpts from reviews, and I have to agree with all of them. This is a wonderful book. Pollan has a marvelous mind and an ability to synthesize information from many different fields to give us a new way of looking at something we thought we knew all about.

You may say that this book is erudite, as several of the reviewers do. It includes an index and a list of sources for further reading and even a few footnotes. But, I think, as easily as it would be possible to imagine Pollan standing in front of a classroom giving these chapters as lectures, it would also be possible to imagine sitting with him in the evening in your garden, sipping a glass of wine, and carrying on a conversation on this same topic. In so many places, I felt like saying, “Oh, yes, you’re right. I’ve seen that. I just never understood its significance.”

Besides his interesting ideas, Pollen’s writing style carried me along, making me want more. I especially enjoyed his telling of the story of Johnny Appleseed. I grew up with the cartoonish version of Johnny as a loveable crazy. Well, I certainly had a few things to learn, and Pollen taught me. It’s a fascinating story.

Pollan’s main idea in this book is that we think of ourselves as domesticating plants. We see ourselves as the actors and the plants as acted upon. He thinks that, in fact, domesticated plants act on us as much as we act on them. The plants have the ability to conform to our desires in order to use us to further their ends: the dispersal of their seeds and the increase in their numbers.

For example, he writes of the tulip:

. . . human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower

did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this

animal. . . . We in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason,

moving their seeds around the planet . . . For the flower it was the same old story,

another grand co-evolutionary bargain [like that with the bees] with a willing,

slightly credulous animal.

The other examples he uses, besides the tulip, include the apple, marijuana, and the potato. He sees these plants as satisfying our desires for beauty, sweetness, intoxication, and control, respectively. In satisfying our desires, those plants have found a way to satisfy their own needs.

I highly recommend this book. I know that it’s one of the books I will keep to read again and again.


Botany for Gardeners By Brian Capon


Botany for Gardeners:

An Introduction and Guide


Brian Capon


reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


If you have ever wondered why the plants in your garden do what they do, Botany for Gardeners is a book I can recommend highly. It isn’t the kind of book you would curl up with to read for entertainment. It isn’t the kind of book you are going to love or hate. It’s a tool for gardeners. It’s the kind of book you will find more useful or less useful.

Capon is a retired college professor. The book reads just like what it is—a textbook—but a very good one. Capon jumps right into teaching mode with the first word of the introduction. Every sentence is packed with information. For example, he writes,

“Geographic isolation, favoring speciation, is also believed to take place when

cataclysmic geologic events split plant groups into small populations; and when, by

chance, a few seeds or spores cross mountains or large bodies of water, borne by

migrating animals, high altitude winds or ocean currents.” (page 77)

His style is straightforward, but dense.

Capon organizes the book in five sections, each having a prologue and two chapters.

Chapters include Cells and Seeds; Roots and Shoots; Inside Stems; Inside Roots and Leaves; Adaptations for Protection; Adaptation to Fulfill Basic Needs; Control of Growth and Development; The Uptake and Use of Water, Minerals and Light; From Flowers to Fruit; and Strategies of Inheritance. The chapter titles make it sound like fairly dry reading.  It is, and somewhat technical. However, I think anyone who remembers a little bit of high school biology and chemistry will feel comfortable with even the more technical parts.

The 220-page book includes 121 color photos and 53 black and white illustrations. Many of the illustrations come in pairs: first, a photo example of what is being written about and, next to the photo, a line drawing of the photo with all the relevant parts or functions labeled. These are well done, evidently by the multi-talented author, since no other credits are given.

One of the most useful parts of the book is a 16-page glossary-index. Key words are defined with all text locations listed. I haven’t seen this combination in a book before. It is extremely useful in a technical book of this nature.




The Book of Pressed Flowers by Penny Black

51Y00kVvTvL._SX371_BO1,204,203,200_The Book of Pressed Flowers:

A Complete Guide to Pressing, Drying and Arranging

by Penny Black


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh



For some reason, although I’ve never been interested in any other crafts, I’ve always wanted to quilt. Several years ago, I took a class, and it turned out to be as much fun as I thought it would. Since that time, I’ve become aware of other crafts. I’ve written five previous reviews on books about garden crafts: drawing and painting, making leaf prints, and making stacked stone statues. Pressing flowers looks like another endeavor that would be a whole lot of fun.

If you want to try it, I don’t think you could find a better book to guide you than The Book of Pressed Flowers by Penny Black. It’s out of print but available at reasonable prices on the Internet. (It was originally published at $19.95. For some reason, it’s now sold on the Internet anywhere from one cent to twenty-five dollars. No, I don’t understand the system either.)

I think the reason I find this book so appealing is that many of the collages Black has made with her pressed flowers look much like quilts to me, both traditional quilts and art quilts.

Black lives or lived in England where she learned to garden at an early age. She started making and selling flower sachets and then widened her ambitions. She ultimately published a series of five books: this one in 1988, The Book of Potpourri in 1989, The Scented House in 1991, Passion for Flowers in 1992, and The Book of Cards and Collages in 1993. After that, she evidently moved on to other projects.

I pressed flowers when I was a child. We used to flatten them between sections of newspaper and weigh them down with the dictionary, the biggest, heaviest book we had. But that was only one flower at a time, and I don’t remember that we ever did anything with them.

Black takes us the next step and shows us some of the possibilities. She doesn’t limit us to flowers. We can also use leaves, ferns, seaweed, mosses, lichens, fungi, seedheads, bark, and even fruits and vegetables. The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

She leads us through the techniques, gives us a quick sketch of the artistic decisions we will have to make regarding color, texture, and composition, and provides us with examples of what we can create.

As a bonus, she gives us short paragraphs on making potpourri, dying fabric with plant dyes, and renovating picture frames for all those collages you’re going to make.

The book has one or more photographs, by Geoff Dann, on almost every page. They’re so colorful and interesting; I’d recommend this book to you on that basis alone. The Book of Pressed Flowers is hardbound, 120 pages long, and includes a useful index.



Begonias: Cultivation, Identification, and Natural History by Mark C. Tebbitt

51A0FGm3eaL._SX394_BO1,204,203,200_Begonias: Cultivation, Identification, and Natural History

by Mark C. Tebbitt


51tNmh8OUqL._SX390_BO1,204,203,200_The Jade Garden: New & notable plants from Asia

by Peter Wharton, Brent Hine, and Douglas Justice




Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


Regular readers of this column may notice that we review a lot of books from Timber Press.  It’s no secret that they send us free copies for review. Lately, I’ve received two books from them. They’re similar in design, content, and purpose, so I’ll put them together in one review.

What these books have in common is that they are useful books for people with special interests, but they will probably be of less interest to the general reader.

The first book is Begonias: Cultivation, Identification, and Natural History by Mark C. Tebbitt. I read, with interest, that Dr. Tebbitt holds a PhD in begonia taxonomy. Talk about specialization. He may be the only person in the world who could have written this book.

His writing style is easy to read and interesting, but unless you have a strong interest in begonias, it may not be your cup of tea (and yes, they do make begonia tea). The author has the particular goal of filling a gap he sees in begonia literature.  He has a short introductory section on the history and cultivation needs of begonias, but his main interest is in identification. One hundred ninety pages of the book are in a chapter titled “Descriptions of 100 cultivated begonias.” Each description also has a section on the history of that particular species and its garden or hothouse requirements.

Begonias has five useful appendices including: “Begonias recommended for beginners” and “Begonias recommended for terrariums.” It also has a first-rate, six-page illustrated glossary of the technical terms used in the text. It is 360 pages, with 212 color photos and 106 line drawings.

* * *

        The Jade Garden: New & notable plants from Asia by Peter Wharton, Brent Hine, and Douglas Justice is a similar book. Information from the publisher states that it includes descriptions of 150 little-known ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials. This book is 228 pages with 218 color photos.

It has a different focus from the begonia book in the preliminary text. These three authors write individual essays about the geography of the areas where the plants were found (primarily China) and about the history of plant collecting in Asia. They include a series of short biographies of the most noted collectors of Asian plants.

* * *

Along with free books, I get a lot of free advertisements from Timber Press—surprise, surprise. They’ve sent me several ads lately for books that sound interesting, including: Fragrant Orchids: A Guide to Selecting, Growing, and Enjoying by Steve A. Frowine; Growing Hardy Orchids, by John Tullock, and Poisonous Plants, Second Edition: A Handbook for Doctors, Pharmacists, Toxicologists, Biologists and Veterinarians by Dietrich Frohne and Hans Jürgen Pfänder. This last book promises “special attention to North America.” I haven’t seen these three books, but you might want to check them out.

Caroline McCullagh’s Book Reviews come from recent issues of Let’s Talk Plants from the San Diego Horticultural Society at and Page Turners from the American Mensa Bulletin available at  Reviews appear every 4 days on


Review of Bizarre Botanicals by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

61vAA-B8KXL._SX407_BO1,204,203,200_Bizarre Botanicals:

How to Grow String-of Hearts, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants

Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh



I just happened to drop by a bookstore, and I just happened to be walking down the aisle by the garden books, when a book called my name. Really. Truly. That’s the way it happened. I wouldn’t have bought this book otherwise. Would I lie to you?

This book is just plain fun. Part of the fun is that some of the plants the authors mention, we already have in our gardens—mother ferns, staghorns, Dutchman’s pipe, passion flowers, and others—so we get to feel a little superior that someone would think what we have in our gardens is worth writing about.

But then there are the other plants, plants I would never have imagined. Have you ever heard of the blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum)? Neither had I. Its strappy (not ferny) leaves are a rich iridescent cobalt blue. Looking at the photo, all I can say is “Wow!”

What about clubmoss (Lycopodium)? Do you remember seeing photos of old-time photographers who held up a tray of flash powder to illuminate the scene they were photographing? That flash powder was made up of the explosive spores of Lycopodium.

How about the black bat plant (Tacca chantrieri)? It puts out clusters of shiny black fruit that looks very much like sleeping bats.

Many of the plants are bizarre in their looks; some are in their behavior. For example, spear sansevieria (Sansevieria cylindrica). Its erect cylindrical leaves look more like stems, but the stems actually grow underground as rhizomes.

Have I tempted you yet? There’s a lot more where that came from. This book will not disappoint you.

The authors have a breezy, accessible style that adds to the pleasure of the book, and we can even forgive their occasional puns. And this is a practical book. Besides the 114 knock-your-socks-off color photos, they give you growing characteristics and tips on light required, hardiness, moisture required, and growing medium. They also rate each plant on a scale of one-to-three on how difficult it is to grow. They’re gardening in North Carolina, however, so some plants that are difficult for them grow easily for us.

Bizarre Botanicals is published by Timber Press. I haven’t looked at their catalog in a while, but I will, to see what other treasures I can find for you. The book is hardbound and 283 pages. It covers 78 plants, and includes a hardiness zone chart, bibliography, and index. I went on line to see what others are saying about it. One reader gave it a low rating. He bought it to learn how to grow tillandsias, and this book had nary a one. He warned you against buying it, proof positive that there are as many weird people in the world as there are plants. I recommend it to you. You’ll enjoy it.


Caroline McCullagh’s Book Reviews come from recent issues of Let’s Talk Plants from the San Diego Horticultural Society at and Page Turners from the American Mensa Bulletin available at  Reviews appear every 4 days on


Review of The Art of Creative Pruning by Jake Hobson

The Art of Creative Pruning: Inventive Ideas for Training and Shaping Trees and Shrubs

by Jake Hobson


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh

61ZwnRM9CeL._SX423_BO1,204,203,200_My first comment about this book was that some people have w-a-a-ay too much time on their hands. My second comment was “Wow!”

Hobson has created such an interesting book that he made me want to find out about something that had, until then, seemed a little silly. I came away with a new respect for this field. I may even try some creative pruning myself.

This is not your grandmother’s book of topiary. The focus is on gardens created in the latter part of the twentieth century. They are represented in photos taken in France, Belgium, England, Japan, South Korea, and even California and South Carolina. It’s difficult to explain the impact these photos have. Some of them amaze you, and others make you laugh out loud. Many of these artists with pruning shears have wonderful senses of humor.

The variety shown goes from simple trees that have been trimmed to develop multiple trunks to hedges shaped like Russian nesting dolls or boxes rolling down a hill.   There’s even a large sofa, easy chairs, and a coffee table—green and inviting. It’s hard to understand that they are cleverly shaped bushes.

Balls, mushrooms, onions, cubes, and spirals seem to dance through the pages.

The abstract shapes are just as breathtaking.

There’s an old joke about how to do sculpture. You just chip away (or prune away) everything that doesn’t look like what you’re trying to make. But how do these artists see these shapes in the trees and shrubs? I don’t have that kind of eye, but I’m glad that some people do.

Hobson includes clear instructions and simple diagrams for trying some of these shapes in your own yard. The one caveat is that most of the plants he shows are on estates that probably have twenty gardeners. You may have to curb your enthusiasm and try to prune creatively on a smaller scale.

If you’re determined to prune, you might also read his book Niwaki: Pruning, Training and Shaping Trees the Japanese Way.

You can check out his interesting website at

The Art of Creative Pruning has photos on nearly every page. It includes references for those who want further reading about the gardens shown. It’s published by Timber Press. You can see their impressive catalog at

Coincidentally, the same day I received this book, I happened to catch an episode of California Gold on our local PBS station. California Gold was one of the late Huell Houser’s many iterations of his ongoing love affair with the state. This particular show was done at the Gilroy Family Theme Park (formerly known as Bonfante Gardens), the current home of the Circus Trees. What? You never heard of them? Me either, but I’m glad I know about them now.

In the 1920s and for the next 40 years, Axel Erlandson creatively pruned sycamore, box elder, ash, and Spanish cork trees into fantastic shapes unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Nineteen of the original 74 trees were moved from the Santa Cruz Mountains property, where they were created, to Gilroy. You can check them out at, and you can see many of Houser’s shows on


Review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life

by Barbara Kingsolver
with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


515mKR3tUbL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_            This book falls into the category of “So many good books; so little time.” Animal Vegetable, Miracle was on the New York Times Bestseller list five years ago. It was on my list of “must reads” then, but see above.

Barbara Kingsolver can be counted among the really good American writers and possibly even among the great. She writes fiction, nonfiction, essays, and poetry. You may have read The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, High Tide in Tucson, or one of her other books. If not, you’re in for a treat.

In this book, she tells us the story of the year that her family—she, her husband, and two daughters—decide to become locavores, people who eat food produced in their local area only. Kingsolver gardens, shops at farmer’s markets, and even forages.

I’ve reviewed other books with this theme, in particular Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabham and Farm City by Novella Carpenter.

I find the idea of being a locavore appealing for many different reasons. First, it reduces your carbon footprint. Ask yourself how much oil was used to transport your morning banana to your table and compare that to the cost of eating something local and in season. Hopp, Kingsolver’s husband and coauthor, writes that “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week [emphasis his]. Secondly, by supporting your local farmers, you keep money circulating in your local economy instead of sending it off to some corporation in New York. And locally produced food is tastier and fresher than food that has been shipped or trucked for fifteen hundred miles, as Hopp tells us the average item on our plate is.

Being a locavore is not without personal cost. If you live in Virginia, as the authors do, it means no bananas—among other things. We’re luckier. Almost any vegetable or fruit can be grown within a hundred miles of San Diego—but not year round. I was surprised when I realized that something as basic as celery is seasonal in San Diego. There are many months when you can’t find it at a farmer’s market. On the other hand, you get to eat many things you’d never have a chance to experience if you limit your shopping to a local supermarket and its monoculture produce.

To be a locavore is to eat as your ancestors did for most of the generations before you. It wasn’t possible to transport fresh food until refrigerated trains, trucks, and ships were invented. Even after long-distance transportation of food became possible, its cost limited its distribution to the wealthy. But the economy of scale has changed that so we now have seemingly endless choices.

I recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to you both for the writing and for the ideas. It will give you plenty to chew on. Kingsolver’s website is


Review of The Angel Tree: The Enchanting Quest for the World’s Oldest Olive Tree by Alex Dingwall-Main


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh

51OVY3LXgvL._SX310_BO1,204,203,200_            Reading this book is a little like reading Alice in Wonderland. It takes you to a place that is different. At times, you think the author is making it up, but he isn’t.

Alex Dingwall-Main is a Scottish garden designer who lives in Provence, France. One day, while driving home from the mundane errand of buying printer ink, he has a mild fender-bender. The man he has run into, Regis Lautour, becomes a client—a client with lots of money—and between them they create a dream of finding the oldest living olive tree and relocating it into Monsieur Lautour’s garden.

No big deal you think. So you find a hundred-year-old tree at the local nursery, hoist it up into the back of your pick-up, and off you go. Well think again. Dingwall-Main embarks on an odyssey that takes him through France, Spain, Italy, and Greece looking at older and older trees, not a hundred years, not a thousand, but maybe three thousand years old. For instance, there is a tree in Greece under which Plato held classes twenty-five hundred years ago.

The problem with old olive trees is that many of them are considered national or local treasures, so they, like Plato’s tree, are not available. But, at the same time, there are canny farmers who own some that are available, and know they’re sitting on gold mines. I wondered why anyone would sell an old olive tree, but, as they say, anything is for sale for the right price, and an old olive tree doesn’t produce as much fruit as a younger one.

During his search, Dingwall-Main meets a number of tree dealers who specialize in old olives. I was surprised that there’d be enough interest in buying one particular kind of tree that a number of people could spend their careers facilitating the sales. I once knew a woman whose husband sold jetliners. He didn’t have to make many sales in a year to be very happy. The same thing is true of people who sell old olives. The trees are expensive, and as with almost anything where there’s a lot of money to be made, interesting characters abound.

I have to admit the book was a little slow to get into. I read a lot of British authors. Their vocabulary is a little different from what I’m used to, but Dingwall-Main has a unique voice and a style that’s charming, if a little difficult to read. That all changed, though. The book came alive for me as the quest came alive for him when he saw his first really old tree.

I think you’ll enjoy following his search to its surprising and satisfying end.

The Angel Tree is hardbound, 316 pages, and includes a bibliography, a section on olive facts, and some nice line drawings by the author.

Dingwall-Main has also written The Luberon Garden: A Provencal Story of Apricot Blossoms, Truffles and Thyme and The Vine Garden: A Search for Home in the Gardens and Vineyards of France.