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Review: Bizarre Botanicals by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross

(A bit of context. This blog features regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Bizarre Botanicals: How to Grow String-Of-Hearts, Jack-In-The-Pulpit, Panda Ginger, and Other Weird and Wonderful Plants by Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross,. Timber Press, 2010. 283 pp., $24.95 US. ISBN-13: 9781604690767

Lists of odd plants are such subjective things. The local weeds in Capetown are horrendously exotic in New York, and the perspectives of casual browsers in the local grocery store floral section are a bit lacking compared to those of professional botanists and horticulturalists. It also depends upon personal tastes. I could make the argument that tumbleweeds (Salsola spp.) are just as odd as the corpse flower Amorphophallus, but the question is whether I could back it up. Equally importantly, if I were asked to come up with a similar list, would I merely be copying someone else’s, or working from my own personal experience?

As far as Bizarre Botanicals is concerned, it’s a good start on a decent odd plant listing. Problem is, anything other than “a good start” would come in about eighteen volumes and arrive at the door via forklift. The most impressive aspect of this book isn’t that authors Larry Mellichamp and Paula Gross managed to find at least 77 suitably odd plants to include in their listing. It’s that they managed to stop at only this many, and I can only imagine how many they left out.

As the introduction states, the original focus was on carnivores, and the first tip that you’re looking at a Timber Press book is the beautiful photography. For serious carnivore junkies, it’s interesting but not loaded with surprises. And that, Officer, is when the book shifted into ferns. That’s when our authors dropped the blue oil fern (Microsorum thailandicum) into my lap. It veered over into the passionflowers (Passiflora), the Czarina’s favorites, and then skipping to her new love, the bat plant (Tacca chantrieri.

Again, personal tastes intrude. While the chapter on “Hearts-a-Burstin'” and heart-shaped flowers was intriguing, I personally would have gone in the direction of edible oddballs, such as the miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum) or the fruit of Monstera deliciosa. (Of the latter, I love the fruit-salad flavor of the flower spike, but the immature spike itself always brought to mind sex toys for Silurians.) Even so, the whole hearts chapter is a great subject for goth gardening, and my only regret is that many aren’t suitable for Texas heat.

And then we’re back in the running with a thumbnail guide to odd orchids. Again, the surprise was that the authors were able to stop before turning in a 5000-page manuscript. Of particular note is that they recognized the singular wonder of the trigger orchid Catasetum saccatum: in an odd way, if not for my knowing about C. saccatum and misunderstanding an Australian friend’s comment, I never would have been introduced to the whole triggerplant (Stylidium) family. Personal tastes intruding again: I would have dedicated at least one section to the triggerplants, but I can understand why they were left out. They’re still remarkably poorly known in the US and Europe, and they’d make a great subject for a sequel.

If there’s anything approximating a disappointment in the listings, it’s with the succulents section. Quite seriously, how the hell could anybody do justice to your personal list? Arguing about the merits of true cactus versus the euphorbias is reason to pull out chainsaws and rubbing alcohol at twenty paces, and somehow our authors managed to include a few very good examples and mention the stapeliads as well. You can almost hear the authors whimpering about the three or four they wanted to squeeze in before the editor said “Anything more, and we sell you for body parts.”

I’ll also mention on caveat, which also impinges upon the length of the book. The title reads “How to Grow String-of-Hearts, et al“, but the growing instructions are generally limited to growing zones in the US and some basics on soil quality and light requirements. Still, it’s a lot better than the truncated guides on most plant tags, and if there was an argument for a book augmented with 2-D barcodes and a very large online library, this is it.

I’m regularly asked by friends about books that might make gardening appealing to teenagers. I’d put this one right at the top of the list. Sure, they may get overly enthusiastic about growing difficult species. And?

Uh oh, we’re in trouble

A call from Logee’s Greenhouses about my current stock of Euphorbia flanaganii. A quick peek on the site, jogging my memory as to where I’ve heard the name “Logee’s” before. A dinner conversation last night with two friends about Synsepalum dulcificum, the famed “miracle fruit” that shortcircuits the tongue’s ability to taste sourness. Yes, I think we have another test subject at the Triffid Ranch. (Cue maniacal laughter.)