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Posts Tagged ‘yew’

Wicked Plants by Amy StewartWicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend, Amy Stewart (Timber Press 2010)

One of the most memorable villains in fiction is Ernst Blofeld, who battles James Bond in various books and films. Blofeld’s most memorable scheme is the garden of death he creates in You Only Live Twice (1964) to exploit the Japanese taste for suicide. As Ian Fleming puts it: Blofeld wants to “slay it with flowers”.

He would have found this book an excellent guide for his gardening. But he couldn’t have hoped to collect everything here, because it covers a world of wickedness and weathers, from monkshood in Scotland to mouse trap trees in Madagascar. The former is metabolically offensive: its alkaloid poison aconite “paralyzes the nerves, lowers the blood pressure, and eventually stops the heart” (pg. 2). The latter is mechanically offensive: its seeds are covered in hooked spines and “humans who have been caught in its grip report that attempting to remove the seedpods is like getting caught in a Chinese finger trap” (pg. 218).

The Chinese are famous for their ingenious tortures, but Mother Nature is more ingenious still. After all, she invented the Chinese too. Natural poisons can attack the muscles, the nerves, the skin and the brain. They can cripple you, blind you, kill you and drive you mad. That’s why they’re interesting. Amy Stewart covers every kind of offensive plant, from trees and grasses to cacti and algae, and quotes everyone from Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud to Hippocrates and Ovid. Whether it’s poisonous or simply a pest, you should find it discussed here: deadly nightshade and tobacco are killers, kudzu and water hyacinth are pests.

But there isn’t actually an entry under “Z”: the book starts with “Aconite” and ends with “Yew”. Which is appropriate, because humanity wouldn’t exist without plants. They enhance our lives in countless ways too. This book turns the leaf and discusses plants that destroy or distress us instead. It’s full of botany, chemistry, history and mean green machines.

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The Bonsai Bible by Peter ChanThe Bonsai Bible: The Definitive Guide to Choosing and Growing Bonsai, Peter Chan (Hamlyn 2014)

In “Slug Is A Drug”, I claimed that Innsmouth was an ideal place to live because it was by the sea and had a river running through it. But even as I said that, I knew I was only two-thirds right. One vital ingredient was missing: trees. Living in a forest with a river by the sea would be best. Innsmouth was surrounded by salt marsh, not trees.

But even in Innsmouth there would be a way to enjoy the shapes, colours and scents of a forest: bonsai. When bonsai are grown right, they offer no sense of scale, either in space or in time. What looks like a tall tree, ready to house squirrels and flocks of chattering birds, might sit comfortably on a windowsill. And what looks gnarled and centuries old, tortured by salt winds on a sea-cliff, might have been created in much less than a lifetime. With bonsai, ars est celare artem: “the art is to conceal the art”. The trees should look natural in every way but one: their size. But you can’t simply plant a seed in a pot and let it grow, because it won’t grow right. Bonsai is really a form of sculpture, sometimes of living wood, sometimes of wood that’s dead by design:

Bonsai driftwood carvings, which seek to replicate the hollow trunks and deadwood found on trees in nature, have become very popular in recent years, the world over. The fashion has been stimulated by the great Japanese bonsai artist Masahiko Kimura, whose carved masterpieces are sculptures in their own right.

Jin is the term for deadwood on a branch, while shari refers to a stripped trunk effect. […] To achieve the authentic, white, bleached effect seen on some bonsai, apply lime sulphur or bleach to the dry, dead wood. Once the driftwood effect has been created, the wood should in any case be preserved by applying lime sulphur to the wood once or twice a year when the weather is dry. (“Jins and Sharis”, pg. 33)

This book is like its subject: small but enchanting. It describes the history, techniques and terminology of bonsai, then catalogues the suitable species, outdoor and indoor, flowering and non-flowering, from Acacia to Zanthoxylum, from mimosa to yew. The photographs are beautiful, like the red wave of a “Japanese maple Acer palmatum in its autumn colour grown in the semi-cascade style” (pg. 106), and the advice is concise but detailed. Bonsai can attract pests and need to be fed and watered right. They’ve even had political enemies. What was invented in China hasn’t always flourished there:

The Chinese loved the art of bonsai, but during the 1950s and until the 1980s it was nearly extinguished by the communist regime, which regarded growing bonsai as a revisionist and bourgeois pastime. It is only in the last few decades that the Chinese authorities have started to encourage the practice of bonsai again, and now it is once more a thriving and vibrant art form. (“What is a bonsai?”, pg. 11)

It’s also a thriving business: “almost all the indoor bonsai sold around the world today come from China” (pg. 12). Whether you want to buy one or grow one, this book is a good place to start.

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