San Diego Horticultural Society Archive


Review of American Household Botany: A History of Useful Plants 1620-1900 by Judith Sumner

Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


51m9PwgCWwL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_        It’s hard to know whether to call Judith Sumner’s American Household Botany a success or a failure as a book.  She provides us with a broad survey of the use of plants as food, medicine, clothing material, textiles, building products, and landscaping from colonial American times to 1900.  She reminds us that all Americans had to be practical botanists because of the unmediated importance of plants in daily living.  People didn’t go to Vons or Home Depot when they needed something.  They went to the back yard.

Because she is covering such a broad topic and such a long time span, the book is necessarily a surface treatment.  Her general chapter titles include The New World; Grains, Gardens, Seeds and Vegetable Staples; Fruits; The Botanical Pantry; Herbs, Herbalism and the Practice of Domestic Medicine; Wood, Fibers, and Textiles; Domestic Landscapes; and Botanical Lives.  Each one of these chapters could be expanded into an entire book, and many, of course, have been.

This means that the book, as written, is so full that a reader goes into information overload after about five pages.  This isn’t the book that you want to take with you for a nice relaxed read in the garden.  In fact, I found the book difficult to get into, so I used a little trick that often works for me.  I started reading at the end and worked backward.  I don’t know if this is because by the end of the book the author had found her voice, but I found this much more rewarding.

I found the two chapters on the Pantry, including preservation, wine, vinegar, beverages, herbs, spices and sweets to be especially interesting.  You may get a sense of how dense the writing is, however, when I tell you that all that is covered in 65 pages.  Of course, the book is full of “gee-wow” facts, but how could it not be, considering the topic.

I would say that this book is essentially a reference book.  If you need a reference covering these topics as a jumping off point for a deeper study of any one of them, then I can recommend this book to you as a worthwhile addition to your library.  With better editing, this book could have been much more readable, but it is what it is.

American Household Botany is 320 pages with 40 color photos and 113 line drawings.  It includes a bibliography and index. Sumner also wrote The Natural History of Medicinal Plants. Her website is


Review of A World Without Bees by Allison Benjamin and Brian McCallum

Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh


41qa5dVZJJL._SX306_BO1,204,203,200_           Two recent headlines in the San Diego Union-Tribune caught my attention. On April 13, 2013, the headline read, “Widespread Collapse of Bee Colonies Continues.” On May 3, a similar story was headlined, “U.S. Notes Causes for Dramatic Decrease of Honeybees.” As I write this review on May 6, NBC Nightly News is covering Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Most of us are not farming to feed our families, nor seed saving for our gardens, so we may think this is not of much concern, but we are all eaters. Honeybees pollinate almost 100 food crops in the United States—up to one-third of the American diet—including such things as almonds, avocados, broccoli, onions, blueberries, and other fruits, nuts, and seeds. If the rate of pollination decreases, crop yields decrease. Smaller crops mean higher prices for all of us.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) are not native to North America. Pilgrims brought the first hives to pollinate the European crops they also brought. More that 160 native species of bees and over a thousand native pollinators already lived here. The honeybees that multiplied and adapted to their new home displaced many.

I never gave honeybees much thought except to notice when there seemed to be a lot in my yard. I never realized what an industry they have become. They are called livestock, and there’s as much concern with keeping them healthy and active as there is with keeping herds of cattle and flocks of chickens at their profitable best. If anything, the industrialized world of honeybees is even more complex than that of other livestock.

Millions of beehives are trucked all over the United States to service the massive acreages of monocrops that are the center of American agriculture. And in the recent past, these hives have been in trouble. The NBC News reports that the largest beekeeping company in the United States normally expects a 5% loss over a typical winter. During the winter of 2012-13, they lost 42% of their bees to CCD.

            A World Without Bees is a readable and fascinating look at the world of commercial beekeeping. It can get a little technical at times, but even those sections carried me along because they are well written. Benjamin and McCallum are British beekeepers. They don’t try to hide the fact that they have more than an academic interest in what is happening, and they have a certain amount of contempt for the people who are currently deciding where and how much research will be devoted to this problem. Published in 2009, the book is as fresh as today’s headlines.

This review was written in 2013. Now, in 2016, the problem of CCD is even worse. Beekeepers and scientists are still hopeful, but have made little progress in discovering a definitive cause. A World Without Bees is still timely. I recommend it to you.

Benjamin and McCallum have collaborated on two other books: Keeping Bees and Making Honey and Bees in the City: The Urban Beekeeper’s Handbook. McCallum is the lead author on the second one.





Review of The $64 Tomato by William Alexander

The $64 Tomato

How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity,

Spent a Fortune,

And Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden


William Alexander


Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh




41SfygEJLgL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_        “That’s a strange title,” I said, as I walked past The $64 Tomato on the display at the bookstore.  It caught my eye a second time as I walked the other way to ask a clerk about the book I couldn’t find.  The third time that single beautiful tomato on the dust jacket grabbed my eye, I stopped, picked it up, read a few pages, and laughed out loud.  I forgot all about that other book.

William Alexander is here to tell us what we have always suspected.  We’re not saving money by gardening!  And if we’re not saving money, what are we doing?  Well, according to him, we’re learning a lot of life’s lessons.

First, we’re learning about nature: about deer and woodchucks and grubs and sod webworms and rats and mice and a whole array of other interesting beasties.  Alexander gardens in the Hudson Valley in New York so he has a lot of problems we don’t have in San Diego (thank goodness) but still, we can understand and sympathize (and possibly even match him story for story.) Read the rest of this entry »