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Beautiful Madness

Kip reviews the book, Beautiful Madness, by James Dodson


Where has the wonder gone? Where the enthusiasm? I can remember, 10 years ago and more, when winter provided a sumptuous feast of plant catalogs I couldn't wait to devour in order to discover and finally own everything new and interesting on the vast menu of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and bulbs. Nowadays, my appetite is a bit less hearty: I am content to sip and nibble, more inclined to sample sparingly from a short list of old favorites than to gorge indiscriminately. However, there are still people — true garden nuts and plant nerds (the author's terms) — whose fanatical devotion to all things horticultural appears boundless. James Dodson has joined that tribe.

"Question one: Have you ever used family money to support your gardening habit?"

"Two... Have you ever focused a family event around your garden addiction?"

"Which brings us to three. Have you ever lied to your significant other about money spent on plants?"

Dodson reluctantly answers "yes" to all three questions, and his new acquaintance, who is hooked on gardening herself, tells him, "You're hopeless. Completely addicted, hon."

Beautiful Madness is a memoir of sorts about the author's journey across three continents in search of plants and the colorful folks for whom collecting, growing, arranging, and sharing them is less of a hobby than it is a way of life. The nurseries, gardens, and exhibits these people inhabit are veritable shrines, and Dodson's travels have the character of a religious pilgrimage. He takes us behind the scenes of the Philadelphia Flower Show where we meet up with several exhibitors in the final hours of preparation before the judging begins. He shows us some of England's finest landscaped spaces, and lets us in on what their curators have to say about these gardens and about the idea of gardening itself. He's off to South Africa, one of the world's great centers of biodiversity, with a group of insatiable plant hunters. And on and on and on.

The text is interlarded with digressions involving politics and the history of horticulture, and features a recurrent theme of the author stuffing his car with plants which he purchased or were given to him along the way — all destined, of course, for his own garden on a hillside somewhere in Maine. Though many of his observations (and those of the people he speaks with) are gravely serious, the tone of the book as a whole is wry, and many passages are downright funny.

Sticklers for proper botanical nomenclature may find some of Dodson's remarks unsettling. For instance, he writes, "I had several late-blooming Asiatic lilies... [which are] highly aromatic...," when surely he is referring to Oriental lilies. And then, "...forty different species of Japanese maple... ." Japanese maples, of course, are a single species — he should have written "forty different varieties (or cultivars)."

...Carolus Linnaeus (the father of taxonomy, or, as I fondly prefer to think of him, the lonely masochist who invented garden Latin to torture neophyte estate gardeners like me)... .

Garden Latin lacked the poetry of common garden names, in my humble opinion. But maybe everyone who can't recall a plant's proper Latin name says that.

For this bit of self-deprecation alone, but especially for the engaging narration of his horticultural adventures running the length of Beautiful Madness, Dodson can be forgiven a few taxonomic peccadilloes.

Kip Anderson has been the Victory Garden's head gardener for over 20 years.

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Published August 31, 2007