26 September 2007

The Order of Things

the naming of namesThe Naming of Names is an amazing book, particularly for Americans. Imagine a journalist analyzing the intellectual milieu of late Classical and Hellenistic Greece -- and then tracing a (relatively) coherent story of a minor science from its birth then to its (supposed) apotheosis in the eighteenth century.

Sadly, it's difficult to imagine an American journalist even reading that last sentence. So I will spare you, dear "general reader" from the details that Pavord lays out with such felicity.

But there are flaws in this miraculously readable prehistory of systematics. Some are minor, like the apparent semantic instability between "Islamic" and "Arab" (a problem one might write off in a book that did not insist on the already anachronistic word "Amerindian").

The serious problem is Pavord's teleology, which presents this history as a series of books written over two millenia in an inevitable, if painful, progression from one single point (Theophrastus) to another (not, perversely, Linnaeus, but the Englishman John Ray). Teleology is fine as a narrative device, but it is too simplistic to have any explanatory power, particularly when the end (telos) is a moving target: at first it's just anyone interested in plants for their own sake, but it shifts to someone capable of positing a system. Eventually even the system is not enough if it seems absurd ex post facto, i.e., if it's not sufficiently Linnean.

Thus Clusius and Lobelius are given short shrift, and (with more justice, but little interest) the middle ages are written off almost entirely. This also explains why a disconcerting first person intrudes into Pavord's heretofore elegant narrative in the middle of the Renaissance: the principle of selection suddenly becomes men who are already "my heroes".

Despite this flaw, the book illuminates an important part of our intellectual heritage that had grown very dim in the last century. Botanists should probably be required to read it (unless there's something better, in which case please tell me immediately). More to the point, it will tell you quite a lot of interesting things about plants, with glorious illustrations. And you should now be able to find it remaindered.

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11 September 2007


I imagine that anyone who knows that they are interested in Calochortus has already ordered the new Calochortus book. Information on this genus has been hard to come by, with the exception of Frank Callahan's excellent review in Bulbs of North America. If you have held back for some reason, don't: this is a superb example of the genre I call the lay monograph, with a detailed description of the morphology, habitat, cultural information (rather limited for many of these rare plants), and publication history of all 73 species. There is a discussion of the first phylogenetic analyses of the genus, and even biographical sketches of the men (and a few women) who discovered and described these plants, which forms a short history of the botany of Western North America.

But will it interest those of you who don't already know you want to grow Calochortus? The book is worth it for Ron Parsons's 175 outstanding photographs, largely in situ. The only reasonable complaint is that these are mostly printed too small. Of course, pretty pictures of plants we can't grow don't normally top the list of the gardener's expenditures.

So why not try them?* The authors admit: "plants of this genus are much more challenging than common bulbs." For the majority of species, this is an understatement, especially in areas with summer rainfall. But the biggest problem is the difficulty of procuring most of these plants, even from seed.

The briefest glance at this book is going to make you throw caution to the wind and give it shot. These are crazy flowers, incredibly intricate and variable and beautiful (usually -- some species are frankly hideous). For obvious reasons, the easier species are easier to come by; anyone who can keep a pot dry in summer should try C. superbus or C. venustus. Get them at Brent and Becky's or Telos -- which has the best selection of species available anywhere.

And while you're waiting for your book, the flickr Calochortus group will give you an idea of what you're in for.

*The title of Kline's Calochortus article in the 1990 NARGS Bulletin. I stole it because it reminded me of America.

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