Summary and book reviews of A Garden of Marvels by Ruth Kassinger

A Garden of Marvels

How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants

By Ruth Kassinger

A Garden of Marvels
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2014,
    416 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Heather A Phillips

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Book Summary

In Paradise Under Glass, Ruth Kassinger recounted with grace and humor her journey from brown thumb to green, sharing lessons she learned from building a home conservatory in the wake of a devastating personal crisis.

In A Garden of Marvels, she extends the story. Frustrated by plants that fail to thrive, she sets out to understand the basics of botany in order to become a better gardener. She retraces the progress of the first botanists who banished myths and misunderstandings and discovered that flowers have sex, leaves eat air, roots choose their food, and hormones make morning glories climb fence posts. She also visits modern gardens, farms, and labs to discover the science behind extraordinary plants like one-ton pumpkins, a truly black petunia, a biofuel grass that grows twelve feet tall, and the world's only photosynthesizing animal. Transferring her insights to her own garden, she nurtures a "cocktail" tree that bears five kinds of fruit, cures a Buddha's Hand plant with beneficial fungi, and gets a tree to text her when it's thirsty.

Intertwining personal anecdote, accessible science, and untold history, the ever-engaging author takes us on an eye-opening journey into her garden - and yours.

twenty
Amazing Grass

Some midwinter day when you're in the grocery store, pick up a few boxes of cherry tomatoes and read the labels to see where they were grown. Most come from Mexico. That makes sense: warm climate, long hours of sunlight. Others are from Canada, grown in greenhouses. The strange thing is that both boxes are about the same price. How can a Canadian grower who must pay for heat compete with the Mexican grower who gets all his therms for free? In the summer of 2011, I set out to find the answer at Pyramid Farms in Leamington, Ontario, where owner Dean Tiessen has thirty-seven acres of vegetables under glass roofs. As soon as I pull into the farm's office, having driven about an hour southeast from Detroit, Dean bounds out to greet me. He is a fit and handsome man in his mid-forties with a straight-up shock of dark hair.

If anyone has farming in his blood, Dean does. His forebears were Dutch Mennonite farmers invited by Catherine the Great in the 1760s to ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The author was inspired to understand the basic biology of plants because her favorite kumquat tree died. Many people have emotional connections to their plants. What plants have meant something special to you?

  2. The author traveled across the country, meeting people who are enthusiasts of or experts on particular species, from pumpkins to petunias. Which individuals come most alive for you? What is it about the author's descriptions that make them vivid?

  3. Although the book is not primarily a memoir, readers get a sense of who Ruth Kassinger is as a person. How does she do that? How would you characterize the author? Does knowing the author's personal history affect how you read her non-fiction book?

  4. The author wanted to learn the ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Kassinger has a knack for explaining and illustrating each idea clearly and thoroughly, but without pomposity or condescension. Her fascination for her subject is infectious, whether she is elucidating the distinction between xylem and phloem, or enthusing over the lettuce-like ruffles of a photosynthesizing sea slug. Welding disparate worldviews from history into a coherent narrative is no easy task, but Kassinger manages this with aplomb, contextualizing even the most outlandish theories (such as the above-mentioned borametz) in its time and intellectual perspective.   (Reviewed by Heather A Phillips).

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Media Reviews
Entertainment Weekly

A sumptuously written history of greenhouse horticulture.

The Boston Globe

[M]y favorite gardening book of the year...But be warned... you might feel a need to start acquiring houseplants, or even a greenhouse.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Kassinger weaves a huge amount of information into what still feels like a personal memoir, and by the end of this effortless afternoon stroll with her, readers will be startled to realize how much they have learned.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Kassinger's witty approach to a complex subject will win readers, but her really neat idea is to fit a personal quest for greater botanical knowledge within the larger historical development of the science. Students unsure about their fitness for scientific careers will be reassured by this book; gardeners will be intrigued.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. A delightful book, fun to read and share—green thumb not required.

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The Royal Society

Gresham CollegeMany of the scientists discussed in A Garden of Marvels were members of The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Known today as simply The Royal Society, the group was founded in November 1660, and began as the Gresham College group – a loose collection of natural philosophers and physicians who started meeting at London's Gresham College in the mid-1640s.

John EvelynLocated in the heart of London, Gresham College has been hosting lectures for the edification of the general public since 1597. On November 28, 1660, after a lecture by Christopher Wren, members of the Gresham College Group, including Wren, met to propose a new "Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning". This proposed group ...

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