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Garden Plants of China

Garden Plants of China
Peter Valder
Portland, Ore.: Timber Press
Publication Date: 

cloth, 400 p., $49.95

While classical Greece may have inspired models for Western philosophy, government and drama, China is the motherlode for ornamental plants. Imagine the absence in our gardens of crabapples, peonies and wisteria. If you are greedy for cultural and horticultural history, this artful book will alter your coffee table into a shrine.

A skip down China's garden path reminds us that its botanical history contrasts sharply with that of the West. In China, pines have been used for ornamental, religious and ceremonial purposes for more than four millennia. The earliest treatise on botany appeared in Chinese in 300 A.D. Most Europeans experienced the Middle Ages as a span of darkness. In China, meanwhile, this period was known as the golden age of horticultural monographs. Marco Polo returned from his visit with tales of grapes and mulberries. However, it remained until a century ago for the first Western study to be published on Chinese botany and horticulture.

Contemporary botanist Peter Valder seeks to remedy this gap with his Garden Plants of China. Since he does not read Chinese, he has chosen to research plants through native art, philosophy and 19th-century botanical observations of foreigners. Art is the provenance of symbolism. Symbolism is rife in a culture where, says the author, "The involvement of plants in art, literature, religion, folklore, and everyday life has been more intimate and complex than any other civilization."

Organized by bloom order and ornamental use, Mr. Valder formats his text to honor Chinese sensibilities concerning the progression of the seasons. Elegant photographs accompany thoughtful discussions of 400 plants. This author's contribution is not one of description and plant culture. Rather, in the process of turning his pages, you may be treated to a glimpse of the Chinese word for pine, as song. Or you may learn why this conifer endures as a Chinese symbol for long life.

— Julie Siegel, Contributing Writer, Landscape Designer and Master Gardener at the Chicago Botanic Garden.