At times it seems there are as many gardening books as there are gardeners. I suppose it makes sense: I know that I am easily besotted by a pretty cover during the dark of winter, when there is little real gardening to be done in my yard. Unfortunately, the content of the gardening books I read often fails to make a lasting impression, on either me or my garden.
The first gardening book that had a revolutionary impact on me was Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy, and I know that I am not the only one. That book persuaded me that the choices we make in our gardeners matter. I became convinced that taking a little bit of time to educate myself about the plants I chose to allow into my yard could possibly play a small but critical role in the health of my environment.
Maybe you are already convinced of that too: you are visiting a website called “Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens”, after all.
Although Doug’s book was not the first, by a long shot, to advance the cause of native plants it was well-written, backed by solid science, and broadly accessible. As such, Bringing Nature Home makes the case for using natives in residential landscapes better than any other single book I’ve seen. And while the virtual shelves of Amazon.com and other bookstores are full of great books that can help gardeners make great choices for WHICH natives they might want to invite into their landscape , I have recently come to value another source of information: Google Books.
Google has scanned literally tens of thousands of books that are either about native plants or provide some information about native plants. Many of these are available for download in their entirety, for free, as either a PDF or an eBook. The downloads can be printed, read on a computer, or transferred to many popular e-book readers.
Now, as you might predict many of these books are old and some are quite esoteric. For example, the Checklist of Plants: Compiled for the Vicinity of Baltimoreis not likely to appeal to a very broad audience. This book, written in 1888 by Basil Sollers, is a simple list of plants found within a 625 square-mile area around Baltimore, Maryland.
This isn’t the kind of book that would sell very well today, but having a 72 page list of plants found in MY neck of the woods over 120 years ago is the kind of thing that appeals to me. The intellectually curious gardener is bound to find something of interest by searching the Google Books archive for “native plant” or some other term of personal interest.
A bit of research can reveal some real gems and some interesting anecdotes. For example, here’s passage about Baptisia australis, or wild blue indigo:
Among the members of the pea family one of the most striking and noteworthy is the wild blue indigo of the Southern States, Baptisia australis. The flowers are a deep blue and borne in great profusion in large racemes. It is a vigorous grower with us, attaining a height of three or four feet, and its peculiar deep blue flowers are quite unique. It is certainly worthy of much wider cultivation than it at present enjoys.
This description could be recent (Baptisia australis was the Perennial Plant Association‘s 2010 Perennial Plant of the Year [PDF], after all) but it isn’t. Instead, the quote comes from the Journal of The New York Botanical Garden. . . . from August, 1900. The mention of the Baptisia comes in an article by George V. Nash which begins:
The decorative possibilities among our native plants are unfortunately but too little appreciated. Our native flora, even confining one’s self to the hardy perennial herbaceous species, is an extensive one, embracing a flowering period extending from the earliest days of spring to late in the fall, and including a wonderful variety in the combinations of color and form.
I take some comfort in the fact that the native plant “movement” isn’t new. And I gain some humility in being reminded that we are not inventing a new idea but merely carrying a great idea forward, one generation at a time.