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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #15 (April 11, 2006), page 13.
The Garden Plants of China
By Peter Valder
Timber Press, 1999
Hardcover, 400 pages, $49.95
By Josephine Bridges
From the front cover close-up of a tree peony in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City to the bookís back-cover photo of magnificent potted chrysanthemums at the entrance to a Beijing hotel, The Garden Plants of China is a jaw-dropper.
The first photograph inside the book is a magnificent grouping of rhododendrons, that bush so familiar to Oregonians, but in an unfamiliar locale: the Yi Yuan, Suzhou. Turn the page and a nearly actual-size lotus, just about to bloom, fairly glows among its remarkable round leaves with their central stems. Author and botanist Peter Valder is also a gifted photographer, and The Garden Plants of China both shows and tells.
Four hundred pages divided into twenty chapters burgeon with the beauty and lore of Chinaís botanical treasures, some surprising natives, others frequently associated with this country but in fact imported there. At the beginning of his first chapter, "Chinese Horticulture," Peter Valder points out that "the Chinese have been cultivating plants for several thousand years."
"The Introduction of Chinese Garden Plants to Other Countries" is a brief but fascinating chapter in which we learn that the marvelous and misleadingly named Camellia japonica and the cascading violet blossoms of Wisteria sinensis were both introduced to Europe from China in the early 19th century, and that a gorgeous yellow rose, Rosa xanthina, was sent from that country to the United States in 1906.
How to organize a book of this scope was no small matter, but the author writes, "Eventually I settled for a series of chapters based on a Ďplants of the seasonsí approach, beginning with the conifers and their allies and following on with the best-known plants more or less in the order of their blooming or use for ornament. This I felt would take into account Chinese sensibilities concerning the progression of the year."
Thus we begin with gingko, cycads, and conifers, and continue with bamboos, the stone fruits, orchids, magnolias, camellias, the pome fruits, lilacs, peonies, wisteria, azaleas, roses, lotus, chrysanthemums, and citrus. Just reading this volumeís table of contents makes my mouth water. "Further Trees and Shrubs" and "Other Herbaceous Plants" bring the book proper to its conclusion, but a glossary, references, and a table of Chinese dynasties tantalize those who arenít quite ready for The Garden Plants of China to be finished.
Have you ever heard of the Chinese gooseberry? The Chinese hadnít, at least until after World War II, when "a successful marketing campaign, involving the introduction of the name Kiwi Fruit" made this a familiar commodity in markets all over the world, including China, where it is now grown on plantations in Shaanxi and Sichuan.
Another surprise waiting here for the botanically curious is the unknown origin of ginger, Zingiber officinale, the last plant in the book. "I have included it here because, like the lychee, it has so long been associated with China by Westerners," the author explains, and goes on to mention that the young shoots of ginger are considered a delicacy, "sometimes marinated in vinegar, sugar, and sesame oil." The Garden Plants of China isnít just a botanical treatise, itís a cookbook!
Author Peter Valderís interest in gardening has taken him not only to China, but also to Indonesia, Malaya, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Japan, and Korea. May he go on travelling far and wide and keep on sharing the fruits ó and flowers and leaves ó of his journeys with his avid readers.