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A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger

A charmingly accessible history of botany, full of the strange and wondrous, for readers intimidated by science.

garden of marvels

Ruth Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass) was frustrated by the kinds of mishaps with which many amateur gardeners are familiar: failures to thrive, unexplained deaths, mysterious midseason droopings. So she did what any reasonable science writer would do: research. How do plants really work? In hunting for a simple, layperson’s guide to botany, however, she came up short. Particularly in seeking “the story of the first discoverers of the basic facts of plant life”–that is, a history of botany–she could find only scholarly texts for which “Botany 101 is definitely a prerequisite.” From these frustrations was born the masterful, engaging A Garden of Marvels.

Kassinger’s greatest strength is unquestionably her quirky, conversational tone. She begins with a murder mystery (spoiler: the victim is a kumquat tree) and from these delightful opening lines, even the most science-averse reader will be hooked. While A Garden of Marvels does contain the odd gardening tip, it is more concerned with Kassinger’s travels: she visits farms, conservatories and laboratories around the nation, encountering diverse and eccentric characters she describes with humor and skill.

Her research into human history is likewise revealing: she points out that religious and societal philosophies caused our ignorance of and lack of interest in botany until very recently, and highlights those few pioneering minds whose experiments, observations and strange machineries caught us up. Darwin gets a chapter, and is accompanied by myriad little-known early scientists, all brought to life by Kassinger’s enthusiasm. A handful of relevant illustrations by Eva Ruhl assist along the way.

Kassinger is properly amazed at the science she discovers in nature, as well as the men (“and they were all men”) in history who broke ground with their scientific studies. For some readers, though, she may be a trifle overenthusiastic about the possibilities of genetic modifications of plant life and dismissive of concerns regarding these technologies–although the genetic possibilities in the simple garden petunia are positively mind-boggling.

Topics like plant sex, the history of scientific exploration and the fundamentals of genomics are all equally accessible in Kassinger’s capable hands. That she makes botany so approachable is a feat; that she makes it downright enthralling is almost as miraculous as an adorable photosynthesizing sea slug.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the February 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 different fruits on one tree.

4 Responses

  1. […] a black thumb, exactly, but the whole program baffles me. I appreciated the introduction I got from A Garden of Marvels, although that one, too, seemed to consider “basic” or “easy” some concepts […]

  2. […] A Garden of Marvels, Ruth Kassinger (nonfiction) […]

  3. […] and The Remedy, among others. (I may also have a burgeoning interest in amateur botany, based upon A Garden of Marvels, The Drunken Botanist, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.) Additionally, the author is an accomplished […]

  4. […] (with a notable exception for chemistry); but with such magnetic titles as The Drunken Botanist and A Garden of Marvels, and biographies of Rachel Carson and Hali Felt, not to mention Annie Dillard‘s breathtaking […]

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