by guest blogger Maya Rodale, author of smart and sassy romance novels
I don’t usually read gardening books, but this one promised sex. I was intrigued by a peek at the great orgy happening in the great outdoors. All those birds, all those bees…! The book in question, A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants, by Ruth Kassinger, delivers more than just tawdry tidbits on the sex life of plants. There is also a fascinating history of botany, with character studies of key scientists and their discoveries of what plants actually are and how they work plus peeks into the author’s own (occasionally lethal) gardening practice.
The book begins with cocktails, specifically a visit to the Florida greenhouse where citrus cocktail trees—a variety that bears many different kinds of citrus fruit—are made by grafting buds of different trees onto a single tree. From there, the book weaves seamlessly from contemporary garden phenomena like “extreme gardening” and how black petunias are bred to a fascinating crash course in the history of botany, combined with an explanation of the basic science of plants, from their roots to their leaves. She answers questions like how did we discover that plants breathe? How do plants feed?
When do we get to the sex? I couldn’t help but underline the exact moment once we finally got to it: “Then, on June 10, 1717, at six o’clock in the morning a sub-demonstrator of plants at the famed Jardin, the forty-eight-year-old Sébastien Vaillant, stood up and delivered ‘the talk.'” It was titled “Discours Sur La Sexualité Des Plantes” and to the surprise of no one, it was a popular lecture. My single favorite description of plant sex comes from a source Kassinger quotes; it reads like the romance novels I both read and write:
The tension or swelling of the male organs occurs so suddenly that the lobes of the bud are forced open with surprising rapidity. These male organs, seeking only to satisfy their violent transports, upon finding themselves freed, produce an abrupt general discharge, a swirl of dust, spreading fecundity everywhere. [Then] they find themselves exhausted.
Yes, there is more!
Of course, I also kept my eyes open for mentions of organic and chemical farming. The Haber process of chemically creating nitrogen literally gets a footnote. There are few mentions of fertilizer applications, but none of compost. Kassinger writes extensively about mycorrhizal fungi and how many plants can’t survive without them. (Yes, we have moved from sex to fungi. Welcome to the garden.) Having grown up and worked at Rodale Institute, which has studied mycorrhizal fungi extensively, I was happily surprised to learn new things about them, but was surprised there was no information about how they fare in chemically treated soils (poorly) versus organic soils (very well). This book is about how plants work and how we learned it. I wanted to read about how they work—or don’t—when doused in chemicals or given optimal organic conditions. Perhaps Ruth might visit the Rodale Institute to learn more for a sequel!
Still, I understand that that wasn’t the focus of her book. And I’m adding this one to my collection of books that glorify botanists (The Brother Gardeners, The Signature of All Things) and ones that make me wish I remembered more (or paid attention in the first place) to high school science. And as I venture out into the garden this spring, I will look at all the plants with a new appreciation and understanding, and an awareness of the orgy happening all around us.
Maya Rodale is the author of multiple historical romance novels, as well as the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. She has a master’s degree from New York University and lives in Manhattan with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Her latest book is The Wicked Wallflower. Visit her online at mayarodale.com, or say hello to @mayarodale on Twitter.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of A Garden of Marvels from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.