Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower

by Brent Elliott

Published by Firefly Books

360 pages, 2001

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Flowery Praise

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


Perhaps it's a disease only dangerous to bibliophiles, but every once in a while you encounter a book of such beauty it almost stops the heart. A book whose perfection leaves one practically speechless and whose complete comprehension defies belief. It seldom happens in a single book. Usually one element of a book will please entirely, but it will fall short in other areas. Especially when one is talking about that oversized subgenre known as the coffee table book.

Some coffee table books are loaded with glorious full color photographs or illustrations. Some are filled with illuminating text. Some of them are brilliantly produced and reproduced. Some of them are on a topic that will have relevance for years to come. Seldom, however, do you encounter a book that covers all of these areas more than adequately. Flora: An Illustrated History of the Garden Flower does all of these things, and more. Well enough, in fact, that it's tempting to predict that this will be a book given pride of place on many coffee tables for years and years to come: it has all of the necessary earmarks.

In the first place -- and at first glance -- Flora is a handsome and impressive-looking book, with the sort of authoritarian weight and elegant but commanding presence that the very best of coffee table books must have. In other words, it looks good on a coffee table. And, were that all that was good about this book, it would have served its purpose far more adequately than many others published annually in this category. However Flora has the substance and pedigree to stand up with the best of them. Even if it were a homely little book printed on a rag stock with black and white illustrations it would likely be a necessary addition to the serious horticulturist's library.

However, Flora is as beautiful as it is brainy. Published by Firefly Books under the logo of The Royal Horticultural Society, Flora is by Brent Elliott, the archivist of that esteemed organization and with a preface by Sir Simon Hornby, president of the society. Flora combines a fabulous tasting of the best of the world's botanical art -- the world's best collection of same is acknowledged to be held at The Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library in London so, of course, Elliott has the best possible entrée -- with the author's expert annotations. The book is broken into five geographical sections: Europe, Turkish Empire, Africa, The Americas and Asia & Australasia. Each part begins with a history and overview of the garden flowers of that region and so we learn, for instance, that:

The first great wave of plant introductions to reach western Europe arrived in the sixteenth century from the Turkish empire, which at the time encompassed much of eastern Europe. ...

Crocuses, colchicums, leucojums, erythroniums, ornithogalums, cyclamens, alliums, hyacinths, lilies, fritillaries, ranunculus, and above all tulips flowed into Europe from the 1560s onward.

After the garden plant history of the region has been discussed in general, Elliott moves us on to the individual plants themselves, each entry magnificently illustrated by one of the Society's classic botanical illustrations. There is seldom less than one well-reproduced color illustration per page. And so, on a two-page spread illustrated by glorious and brightly colored poppies, Elliott writes:

Although Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is found throughout southern Europe, the stimulus to its ornamental use in gardens came after doubleflowered forms were introduced from Constantinople in the sixteenth century.

Later in the book, after all of the regions and varietals have been covered, a chapter called "On Plant Names," also beautifully illustrated, discusses, in depth, the history of plant nomenclature, answering questions that many amateur botanists may have had.

The very completeness of Flora makes it difficult to categorize. On one hand, it celebrates the often under recognized art of botanical drawing. On the other, Elliott's text provides, as Hornby states in his introduction, a book of "considerable horticultural significance." Tough to categorize or not, Flora is a stunning book, one that will be a beautiful and lasting addition to almost any library. And it looks just dandy sitting on a coffee table. | October 2001


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.