April 4, 2007

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  The garden reader:
Of orchids, tulips and other dangerous flowers

By William Scheick
University of Texas at Austin

Anna Pavord. The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad. Bloomsbury, 2004.

Eric Hansen. Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy. Vintage, 2000.

Susan Orlean. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. Ballantine Books, 2000.

James Dodson. Beautiful Madness: One Man’s Journey through Other People’s Gardens. Penguin, 2007.

Karl Sabbagh. A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud. DaCapo Press, 2001.

Pretty flowers can drive people crazy.

Never mind that flowers are not biologically designed to make people go bonkers. It happens anyway.

Flowers are intended to entice bees, butterflies and other insects, sometimes at the expense of their little lives. Even so, people can become as obsessed with flowers as if they were enthralled pollinators.

The history of human flower-lunacy is long. For example, during the 17th century, when tulip mania gripped Europe, there were people who ruined their personal lives and families simply to own and financially speculate on the latest beautiful bulb. During the 19th century orchid fever struck England, which also endured a fern craze.

H. G. Wells had some mischievous fun critiquing this floral passion in "The Flowering of the Strange Orchid" (1894). This satiric short story ends with the tendrils of a recently acquired exotic bloom draining the life out of its entranced owner.

That just about says it all. Almost.

Like Wells, I can't help but wonder about the peculiar hold flowers can exert on people. I have particularly thought about this power after certain interviews I conducted for newspaper gardening stories. At what point, I'd like to know, does a floral infatuation cause a person to veer out of normalcy’s flight-path?

So I am drawn to books — and there are many more of them than might be imagined — which delve into this little-understood fixation. The bad news is that their titles are not reassuring. They refer to "madness," "lunacy," "obsession," "fever" and "fraud," while insisting at the same time that what they offer is a "true story."

Scary stuff, it seems, but I have to read them anyway.

Anna Pavord's illustrated The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad provides a perfect example of a floral-obsession story. It's a memorable account of 17th-century Europe's tulip-frenzy. At one point in the story a batch of bulbs, as valuable as gems, sell for the equivalent of 3.5 million dollars today. The Tulip is a cautionary tale of wealth and ruin close-dancing together. After all, as any gardener knows, plants are utterly unpredictable and all too perishable.

So are ideas about what is beautiful. The more variegated a tulip, the more beautiful and valuable it was considered during the European craze. But this ideal of beauty is not based on floral perfection. Instead, it is based on flaws in the flower caused by a parasite. That such parasitic deformities should be elevated to the pinnacle of beauty is, for me at least, a strange twist in an already bizarre episode.

The mystery of flower-mania is encountered close-up in Eric Hansen's Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy and Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession. Both authors revisit orchidelirium, the 19th-century word for the flower-mania of that time. Both authors especially highlight the secret and sometimes criminal lives of today’s collectors, who are willing to do anything to find "the holy grail of orchids." They smuggle and then furtively sell rare orchids to growers eager to make such black-market purchases.

Ms. Orlean particularly examines the life of one plant fanatic who openly admits that his impulse to collect rare orchids easily gets out of control. He calls it "a feeling," but it is hardly that simple. When it comes to an orchid, he confesses, "I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it."

Interviewing him gives Ms. Orlean the heebie-jeebies, and she refuses to personally own any orchids. But then curiosity gets the best of her — orchid-passion sets roots in her — and the chronicle that follows, set in the swamps of Florida, makes for compelling reading.

Daunting tropical treks are also recounted by Mr. Hansen, who doesn't fare much better than Ms. Orlean in resisting orchids. At one point he nervously admits, "Orchids were doing strange things to me."

A life-threatening adventure, headed by the famous plant collector Tony Avent, in a South African rain forest is one of many incidents recounted in James Dodson's Beautiful Madness: One Man's Journey through Other People's Gardens. Dodson also takes us behind the scenes of the renowned Philadelphia Flower Show, where human passions about flowers are as fanatical and strange as those motivating plant adventurers in the wild.

Mr. Dodson, who personally succumbs to plant-theft and black-market bulb purchases, seems especially fascinated by the unusual effects of flower-obsession on various plant-lovers' take on the world. A garden designer in England, for example, appears to have no self-awareness of how she comes across when she righteously chides the author: "Keeping your garden properly fertilized is essential, young man. How would you like it if someone only fed you periodically? I daresay you wouldn't fancy that one bit, would you? Quite obviously, you've much to learn about gardening."

Of course, we all always have a lot more to learn about gardening, and often we look for that help from scientific experts. But, as Karl Sabbagh discloses in A Rum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud, scientists are as human as the rest of us. They too are susceptible to plant-mania.

Sabbagh relates the story of a highly respected professor who became famous during the 1940s for his extraordinary plant discoveries on Rum, a Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland. His discoveries, he claimed, proved that plants on the island dated back to before the last Ice Age.

Skeptics in the scientific community covertly engaged a Classics scholar, who was also an impassioned and expert amateur botanist, to check the validity of the professor's claims. His painstaking and clever pursuit of the truth, driven by his own inexplicable obsession with plants, provides the pulse of Sabbagh's book.

Did the professor fake his finds? If so, how and why? What exactly were the motives of the people who initiated the investigation into his discoveries? What, in an unexpected turn of events, accounted for the suppression of the botanist sleuth's final report? And what impact did all of this have on future plant guides for the Hebridean region?

Sabbagh's account is an essay expanded into book-length, but it is nonetheless as fascinating as the other accounts mentioned here. None of these books unveil the wellspring of peoples' propensity to become thoroughly fixated on plants. They do, however, provide fascinating, unforgettable records of this mysterious obsession.

  Spring and butterflies

By Michael Bettler
Lucia's Garden

I am always keenly aware that the weather is not always the same all over the State of Texas when I write, that we are in three to five (or more) horticultural zones, geographically, and more with the advent of possible "global warming." So to say that "Spring Is Here" may be presumptuous to some readers and irrelevant to others. But looking out my window at my garden this morning, I can't help but say "Spring Is Here!" If nothing else, my herbs — and my weeds — tell me so.

One sign that spring is here just floated past my window: a butterfly. I followed it across my garden and into a neighbor's yard and promised it that soon sweet nectar would be available: asters, daisies, verbenas, Marigolds, lantana, Mexican milkweed, azalea, bridal wreath, porter weed, and so many more are popping open in the garden, just as they are popping up in the local nurseries. Soon the butterflies will be laying eggs in the garden and by the end of April, beginning of May we will have caterpillars, cocoons and butterflies, all at the same time, celebrating the garden.

If this past Autumn you did not plant cilantro, chervil, carrots, dill, fennel (bronze and sweet), parsley (both curly leaf and flat leaf), Queen Ann's Lace, yarrow or other members of the flowering families above, do it now. Butterflies will come to them for nectar and to lay their eggs, knowing they offer shelter and excellent food for young, hungry caterpillars. Plant them in thick clusters, not only for the accents they give your garden, but also for the protection they afford the caterpillars, cocoons and newly hatched butterflies.

Along with the butterflies will come mockingbirds, sparrows, predator wasps, assassin bugs, scale, aphids, lace wings, lady bugs, walking sticks, lizards and gardeners — the whole breadth of "bad bug / good bug" that Mother Nature has to offer. It's all about balance, just as Spring is the balance between Winter and Summer.

Look out your window. Spring is here.

  Gardening tips

"Every fall after we have harvested the last of our vegetables," writes Misty Panzino, "we turn our goats loose in the garden for much of the winter. They eat down the dead or dying vegetable foliage and fertilize it organically at the same time."

Have a favorite gardening tip you'd like to share? Texas Gardener's Seeds is seeking brief gardening tips from Texas gardeners to use in future issues. If we publish your tip in Seeds, we will seed you a free Texas Gardener T-shirt. Here's a chance to get published and be a garden stylist as well! Please send your tips of 50 words or less to the editor at: Gardening Tips.

  Did you know...

Texas has more than one state flower.

When the bluebonnet was first approved as the state flower in 1901, legislators were apparently unaware that there were several species of bluebonnet within Texas and that Lupinus subcarnosus, the species they named, wasn't even the most common species within the state.

So, in 1971, H.C.R. 44 extended the designation of state flower to  L texensis and "any other variety of Bluebonnet not heretofore recorded."

Because there are at least six known species of bluebonnets within Texas, we have at least six state flowers.

Top that, California!


  Upcoming garden events

Rockport: The Rockport Herb & Rose Study Group will present the Third Annual Rockport Herb Festival Saturday, at the Rockport-Fulton High School Commons, 1801 Omohundro, Rockport, April 7, from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. The festival will include a variety of herb programs, herb cooking demonstrations, herb booths with lots of information and products for sale, and a plant sale that will include herbs, roses, heirlooms, orchids, bromeliads, tropicals, palms, garden art and pottery. There is no admission fee. For additional information, contact Linda T. Collins at ltcollins_1@charter.net or visit www.rockportherbs.com.

Bryan-College Station: The A&M Garden Club Horticultural Celebration will host "70 Years of Gardening in Brazos Valley," a celebration of the club's 70th anniversary, Wednesday, April 11, from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the Brazos Center, 3232 Briarcrest Drive, Bryan. This community-wide activity will include horticulture and design entries and educational displays by local garden clubs, local horticulture businesses, and a photo contest for individuals. The Horticulture Tables will have three classes: Foliage Plants, Cactus and Succulents, and Flowering Plants, with correct nomenclature, groomed pots, and specimens placed on top of the tables. Admission is free. For additional information, contact Idalia Aguilar at IdaliaAguilarV@hotmail.com.

Nacogdoches: The annual Spring Garden Gala plant sale at Stephen F. Austin State University’s Mast Arboretum will be from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at the intramural field on Wilson Drive, Nacogdoches. "We will offer a great selection of rare, unusual, and Texas-tough trees, shrubs, succulents, and herbaceous perennials, as well as many heat loving tropicals," said Dawn Stover, Mast Arboretum research associate. "All of the plants are produced at SFA by the staff, students and volunteers." Greg Grant, Pineywoods Native Plant Center research associate, will have a number of his introductions available as well, including the pink flowered 'Pam Puryear' and large flowered 'Big Momma' Turk's cap. "Many of the rare Aromi hybrid deciduous azaleas will be offered, as will a good number of the rarely available native East Texas red buckeye," Stover said. Proceeds from the plant sale help support the SFA Mast Arboretum, the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden, the Pineywoods Native Plant Center and educational programs. For more information, call (936) 468-4404 or visit http://arboretum.sfasu.edu/.

Cedar Hill: Petal Pusher's, 813 Straus Road, will host "English Gardening Texas Style" by Master Gardener and British Native Andrea Rucker on Saturday, April 14 at 10:30 a.m. This event is free. For more information, call (972) 291-7650.

Cedar Hill: Petal Pusher's, 813 Straus Road, will host "Petal Pusher's Picks" by nationally known landscape architect Rosa Finsley on Saturday, April 14 at 1 p.m. This event is free. For more information, call (972) 291-7650.

Austin: It's About Thyme, 11726 Manchaca, Austin, will host "New Native and Adaptive Xeriscape Plants for the Austin Landscape," a free lecture by Pat McNeil, Sunday, April 15, at 2 p.m. Learn about the the mazari palm, the mountain pea, and other exciting, new drought tolerant plants. For more information, call (512) 280-1192 or visit www.itsaboutthyme.com.

Waco: "Easy-Care Roses for Busy People," an EarthKind Rose Symposium hosted by McLennan County Master Gardeners and Texas Cooperative Extension, will take place in Waco, Saturday, April 21, 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., at Texas State Technical College, 3801 Campus Drive. Among the speakers will be Dr. Steve George, Professor and Landscape Horticulture Specialist, Texas Cooperative Extension, Dallas; Mark Chamblee, owner Chamblee Rose Nursery, Tyler; Gaye Hammond, President, Houston Rose Society; Steve Huddleston, Senior Horticulturalist, Fort Worth Botanic Garden; and Rachelle Kemp, Landscape Design Instructor, Texas State Technical College, Waco. Registration is $56 per person and pre-registration is required. Registration includes snacks, beverages, all course materials, and a two-gallon rose. For more information, call (254) 757-5180 or visit www.mclennanmastergardeners.org.

Edna: The Jackson County Master Gardeners will have a plant sale on Saturday, April 21, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Jackson County Services Building Auditorium, 411 North Wells, Edna. Shrubs, bedding plants, flowering shrubs, and plants propagated by the Master Gardeners are being sold. Yard accessories being sold include decorative indoor and outdoor birdhouses. The public is invited.

Longview: The Northwest Texas Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas is having its annual plant sale at Wal-Mart, 2440 Gilmer Road, Longview, on April 28 beginning at 8 a.m. and usually sells out by noon. Attendees who join the NPSOT will receive a plethora of butterfly plant seeds. For additional information, contact emmanell@peoplepc.com.

Austin: It's About Thyme, 11726 Manchaca, Austin, will host "How to Select, Plant and Grow Palm Trees in the Austin Area," a free lecture and demonstration by Hays County Free Press gardening columnist Chris Winslow, Sunday, April 29, at 2 p.m. For more information, call (512) 280-1192 or visit www.itsaboutthyme.com.

El Paso, Fort Worth, Dallas: Visit America's very best, rarely seen, Private Gardens. The Garden Conservancy's Open Days Program has been opening the gates to America's best private gardens since 1995. The 2007 season features more than 350 gardens across 21 states. Learn about gardens participating in your area through the Open Days Directory, an annual publication listing open gardens with garden descriptions, open dates and hours, and directions. To purchase a Directory or for more information, call (888)842-2442 or visit www.opendaysprogram.org. The $5 admission fee supports the expansion of the Open Days Program around the country and helps build awareness of the Garden Conservancy's work of preserving exceptional American gardens such Peckerwood Garden in Hempstead. 2007 Texas Open Days: El Paso: May 5 & 6; Fort Worth: October 14; Dallas: October 20.

Tyler: The Smith County Master Gardeners will host the 6th annual Spring Home Garden Tour May 5, Tyler. Area gardens will be showcased and will offer visitors ideas an inspiration for their own garden, large or small. Master Gardeners will be on hand to answer questions or discuss planting ideas. For more information, call (903) 894-7950.

Austin: It's About Thyme, 11726 Manchaca, Austin, will host "It's About Thyme Herb Festival," an afternoon of cooking and gardening demonstrations with vendors and music, Saturday, May 5, noon until 6 p.m. For more information, call (512) 280-1192 or visit www.itsaboutthyme.com.

Denton: The Denton County Master Gardeners will hold their 6th annual Walk in the Garden Tour and Plant Sale on Saturday, May 12, from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Five gardens will be featured, ranging from expansive country acreage to smaller scale city gardens. There is a focus on vegetable gardening. Information on tickets and garden locations may be obtained at www.dcmga.com or the Denton County Extension Office, (940) 349-2883.

Salado: The 4th annual Salado Yard and Garden Tour, a tour of yards and gardens in the historic village of Salado, will highlight characteristic and varied private and public gardens for the Central Texas landscape. From large to small, rambling to organized, annuals to perennials, water wise planting to courtyard container gardens, there is something for everyone to enjoy. The tour will be Saturday, May 12 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Sunday, May 13 from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. Gardens will be self-guided with volunteers helping to answer questions when needed. Tickets will be $15 to view all gardens and are good for the two days. Maps will be available leading to each location with a description of each garden. Tours will be conducted rain or shine. The tour is sponsored by the Salado Garden Club and the Public Arts League of Salado. For further information, visit the Village of Salado website at www.salado.com or call (254) 947-8300.

Victoria: The Victoria County Master Gardeners Spring Plant Sale will be held May 19 at the Victoria County 4H Activity Center (at the airport) 259 Bachelor Drive, Victoria, from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. or until sold out. The plants for sale have been raised by the Master Gardeners themselves. You know the plants will grow in our area because they come from our area! Come also to see the Victoria Educational Garden along with its newest expansion. The expansion Grand Opening is to be held May 20th.

Ft. Worth: The Greater Fort Worth Herb Society presents its 21st Annual Herb Festival May 19, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens in Fort Worth. The Festival will feature the sale of herb plants and herb-related products. There will also be a silent auction, crafts, music, demos, food and much more. Special event speakers will be Randy Weston of Weston Gardens and Mary Doebelling of Our Thyme Garden. Admission is $5 for adults. The Botanic Gardens are located at 3220 Botanic Garden Blvd Dr., Fort Worth. For more information, please visit www.greaterfortworthherbsociety.org or call (817) 966-7126.

Austin: It's About Thyme, 11726 Manchaca, Austin, will host "Choosing the Perfect Crepe Myrtle for Your Garden," a free clinic for gardeners to learn about disease resistance, choices of size, and length of bloom time, presented by Hays County Free Press columnist and crepe myrtle expert Chris Winslow, Sunday, May 27, at 2 p.m. For more information, call (512) 280-1192 or visit www.itsaboutthyme.com.

San Antonio: The San Antonio Botanical Garden is sponsoring a trip to Italy September 4 through 15, featuring Italy's villas and gardens. Escorted by Bob Brackman, the Director of the Garden, an exceptional itinerary has been designed for lovers of leisurely travel and beautiful homes and gardens. Famous for their gardens, Italians still build on their ancestors' legacy with the creation of exquisite country villas surrounded by terraced, fountain-filled gardens that have become symbolic of Italian style. Experience the rich cultural heritage of Italy. Visit special gardens, famous museums, the important cities of Florence and Rome, plus the Lake District, and the small villages which make Italy so charming, such as Cinque Terre, Santa Margherita and Tuscan villages. Feast on fabulous Italian cuisine and enjoy la dolce vita. Land cost per person sharing is $3550 plus air, which includes a $100 tax deductible donation, most meals and gratuities. For more information, contact Marianne Martz of Fuller Travel at (210) 828-6311 or marianne@fullertvl.com.

Garland: The Garland Organic Club meets the first Sunday of each month in the little red school house at 1651 Wall St., Garland. All interested gardeners are invited to attend. For more information, call (972) 864-1934 or (800) 864-4445.

Austin: Austin Organic Gardeners meet at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin. For more information, visit www.main.org/aog.

Rockport: An herb study group founded in March 2003 meets the second Wednesday of every month at the ACISD Maintenance Department (Formerly Rockport Elementary), 619 N. Live Oak Street, Room 14, Rockport at 10 a.m. to discuss all aspects of using and growing herbs, including the historical uses of the herbs and tips for successful propagation and cultivation.

San Antonio: The San Antonio Herb Society meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at the San Antonio Garden Center, 3310 N. New Braunfels (corner of Funston & N. New Braunfels). For more information on programs, visit www.sanantonioherbs.org.

Dallas: The Rainbow Garden Club of North Texas meets the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Meetings are held at member's homes and garden centers around the area. For more information, visit www.RainbowGardenClub.com.

Dallas: The Dallas Organic Garden Club meets at 6:45 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at the Fretz Park Recreation Center, located at the corner of Hillcrest and Beltline Road in Dallas. For more information, call (214) 824-2448 or visit www.dogc.org.

Arlington: The Arlington Organic Garden Club meets from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month (except November and December) at the Bob Duncan Center, 2800 S. Center Street, Arlington. For more information, contact David at (817) 483-7746.

If you would like your organization's events included in "Upcoming Garden Events," please contact us at Garden Events.

  The New Book Of Salvias features 15 new species

Fifteen new species have been added to the revised edition of Betsy Clebsch's time-honored guide that covers more than 100 species of salvias in one colorful book. Blooming cycles, cultural practices and companion plants are listed. This is a great gift for those wishing to add low-maintenance plants to the landscape.

$31.97 plus shipping*

Order by calling 1-800-727-9020 or order on-line.

 *Mention Texas Gardener's Seeds when ordering by phone during the month of April and we'll waive shipping charges. (Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted.)

  Fiber row cover valuable year-round

Grow-Web encourages plant growth and development, and also provides protection from insects, birds, diseases and frosts. It is also air and water permeable and allows for ventilation. Grow-Web provides excellent protection to seedlings when applied directly to the seedbed.

 $30.64 per 12.3' x 32.8' roll (includes shipping!)

Order by calling 1-800-727-9020. Not available through on-line bookstore.

(Discover, MasterCard and Visa accepted.)


Texas Gardener's Seeds
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