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Musings » On Writing Books
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The trouble with writing a book is that you absolutely have to go on and write another one. It is like eating one potato chip. It is not possible.

I started out to fill a really tiny niche. There was no book about the olive tree in California. It led me to write “The Olive in California : history of an immigrant tree” (2000). By the way, the only book worth writing is one on a topic of which one knows nothing at all. It is just too boring to write about stuff which has been in your head for ages.

While looking into the archives at UC Davis for information about olive trees I discovered a tantalizing manuscript. It was ready to go to a publisher but the author, Harry Butterfield, a professor of horticulture at UC many years ago, had died in 1970 before he could send it.

He had painstakingly recorded dozens of bygone gardens in California for posterity. His daughter had given the manuscript to the library just in case someone like me wanted to make use of it. Thus was born ”Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 to 1950”. I augmented it extensively and published it under both our names. (2003)

Butterfield had prepared a list of plant introductions into the state with their dates. That led me to my next book, “The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got your garden” (2009).

Then of course I began to wonder what happened to all those amazing new plants from China and Chile once they got here. I imagined the “what if” brigade at work. This one is pretty in pink but it would be much nicer in purple. That one is rather too tall. How about shortening it and while you are at it, getting it to bloom for a longer period?

This was the impetus to write “Vision of Loveliness: great flower breeders of the past” (2014) and its sequel “An Abundance of flowers: more great flower breeders of the past” (in press). Now, not surprisingly, these books have led me onto the next big project.

Some of the famous flower breeders lived and worked behind the Iron Curtain. No one has written in English about their experiences with Communism and its dead hand on their lives. One very prominent geranium breeder was permanently locked out of his nursery for 40 years. When he complained they said: “You choose. You can come back in but we will turn off the heat to the green houses”.

I am getting ready to do the research for “A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: the effects of Communism on horticulture in Eastern Europe”. This is a vast topic and I may not live to finish it but at least I shall have made a beginning.