Algonquin Loving from the AHS Book Awards Committee

Scott Calhoun, who sits on the American Horticultural Society’s Book Award Committee, recently announced his top three picks for the 2010 prize — and two of them are published by yours truly! Says Calhoun, “This year, the quality of the writing and depth of the research is shining through.”

Read below for his Algonquin picks and praise, and check out the full article on his site here. -christina

Calhoun's PicksLucinda Fleeson’s Waking Up in Eden: In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Island is vastly different from The Brother Gardeners, but no less compelling. As the print newspaper business enters an uncertain and depressing twilight, Fleeson leaves her successful career as a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter for a job at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on Kauai. Her firsthand personal accounts of garden politics, seemingly doomed native plant conservation efforts,  horseback riding, and outrigger canoeing are all top-notch, but perhaps what Fleeson does best is articulate her own emotional terrain.  The way she chronicles her transformation from cultured urbanite to a woman who realizes that there is “no enjoyment difference between attending the opera in London or a potluck with friends on Kauai” is fun to witness. For anyone hoping to go fearlessly into  middle-age, or boldly navigate a path out it, Fleeson’s memoir could easily serve as a template.

And lastly, we come to the prolific Amy Stewart’s latest work, her smarting little tome of pain and suffering by horticulture: Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities. The book is organized reference style, and each plant’s deadly, toxic, or inflammatory qualities are relayed like a well-told campfire ghost story. Consider the way Stewart begins her description of Mala Mujer (bad woman): “A group of teenagers went hiking in the Mexican desert and came back with a mysterious rash. The next day, one girl went to the doctor complaining of red itchy spots on her hand…” Each time I looked up a plant that I knew well in Wicked Plants, Stewart’s research was spot-on and presented in a lively (or should I say deadly?) manner. Such was the case with sacred datura, or jimson weed, a plant whose white flowers Georgia O’Keefe choose as the subject for some of her most sensuous paintings. Because it is so pretty, I sometimes specify this plant for use in clients’ gardens, but every once in a while a story appears in the local paper about some teenagers who were hospitalized after eating its seeds. In the garden outside my office, I have bushel loads of sacred datura growing, but after reading Stewart’s description of the effects of ingesting tropane alkaloids, I lost my desire to experiment. The American colonists fed jimson weed to the British soldiers who were there to put down colonial unrest; Stewart coyly remarks, “The British soldiers did not die, but they did go crazy for eleven days, temporarily giving the Americans the upper hand.” Although the fact-filled writing is the main focus of Wicked Plants, the wonderful etchings and morbid drawings make the package complete.

From Scott Calhoun’s Desert

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