Never judge a book by its cover. The title combined with a sugary-pink magnolia on the front make this look, at first sight, like a New Age self-improvement tract. But no, this is one of the most important studies in garden plant history in English for a long time.
There is a whole shelfload of books on the great plant hunters, but remarkably little about what happened to plants after they arrived. Nursery owners and plant breeders have generally been a reticent lot, while the flamboyant showmanship of the exception, Luther Burbank (1849-1926) in California,USA, may have persuaded others since to keep their heads down.
Burbank is simply one of many characters here, men (and the occasional woman) who patiently selected plants or crossed them to produce the vast array of garden plant cultivars we have today. The book starts off with an outline of plant breeding history, followed by the biographies of some notable European and North American breeders; a further part runs through outline histories of 16 genera. This format occasionally results in duplication and does not lend itself to a good readable narrative, but it does make it easy to focus on one character or genus.
Karl Foerster of Germany is here, a name now known by many, but also Louis van Houtte of Belgium, and Victor Lemoine of France, whose contributions to our modern garden and windowsill flora are immense, but whose stories few people know. There is, however, little on the major impact of Japanese plant selection and breeding.
I fear that this interesting book will not get the coverage it deserves - the publisher (an imprint of Ohio University Press) is relatively obscure and the book's design has a distinctly economical feel. However, for anyone interested in the history of garden plants and plantsmanship it is essential reading.
Noel Kingsbury is a garden writer and author