Monthly Archives: December 2016

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees

In a jam for a late holiday gift? Step away from that figgy pudding and consider…the fig. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees, by Mike Shanahan (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT, 2016) is a short, fascinating read that delves into the history—natural and cultural—of Ficus and will leave you with a new appreciation of the genus and its place in the world.

Shanahan, a rain-forest ecologist, was motivated to write this book by three things: the importance of fig trees to tropical ecology, the influence of the genus on human culture, and his conclusion that we are destroying the first while forgetting the second. The kind of guy you’d like to sit down to coffee with, Shanahan is at ease with his subject and has clearly done his homework.

While he covers a many angles on his amble through the world of figs (which make for some of the best reading), this is a book with a message. The real reason for this book is to make recent research accessible to the masses, and the fantastic account of the “framework species approach” using Ficus species to jump-start forest regeneration in even the most degraded former forests, will have you running into the rabbit-hole of sources Shanahan provides and digging deeper. The implications, as well as the current research and methodology, are astounding—and reason enough to pick up this volume.

Along the way, Shanahan makes a couple of questionable assertions. He does admit to it being arguable that “no other group of plants holds as much ecological importance, evolutionary interest and cultural value,” but missed the boat when he says that figs became “the most varied group of plants on the planet.” A cursory check reveals at least 30 genera of flowering plants with more species than Ficus.

And…looking for flowers in a fig tree is a fruitless quest (pun intended). While Shanahan acknowledges this and expounds on the cultural references that stem from the fact, he misses the opportunity to enlighten readers that a fig is not a true fruit but a syconium…an inflorescence formed by an enlarged, fleshy stem with many flowers and their ovaries inside. Only when it’s been fertilized and contains seed will it conform to our standard definition of fruit.

Ironically, though he states that “every one of the 750 plus species of Ficus species is pollinated by one or more tiny wasps,” the great majority of figs we eat come from Ficus carica and its dozens of cultivars grown around the world—a species that has done away with the necessity of having its own pollinating wasp and is able to make fruit on its own. This miracle of parthenogenesis (“virgin creation”) is what made it possible for the production of figs to move from forest to farm, tropics to temperate climates, and toyour backyard.

And therein lies my biggest beef with Shanahan’s book. While I’m certain its because of his emphasis on the seeded Ficus as forest regeneration catalysts, there’s a missing chapter in this book and it’s the story of Ficus carica, one of the most important figs to humans. Far beyond the figs we use to adorn our gardens and homes, this one makes food. A good, healthy food. I would have loved for this tale to be told. The discovery of a fig that doesn’t need fertilization by a specific wasp to fruit, its cultivation early in human history, its subsequent movement around the world, and its widespread cultivation today, is a bio-cultural marvel. Perhaps it’s another book….

Stylistically Shanahan keeps the book chatty, informal and readable. This has obvious pluses, but means that certain pieces of information get glossed over and lose depth—and that a few breathless exclamations creep in. This may be the source of some of my quibbles. This is a man, however, clearly besotted by his subject and he deserves to be heard. What I got was great…but I wanted more.

If you, like the good citizens of Athens in the time of Theophrastus, are philosykos (lovers of figs) this book is a great introduction to an amazing genus of plants, known to many—yet largely, until now, unknown.

Merry Christmas from Mt.Cuba Center!

My. Cuba Center got its presents out in perfect timing for the holidays! If you’re on their list and you’ve been nice (powdery mildew to you naughty ones), you will soon be receivingtheir brand new research report on Monarda! A must read for the genus, especially in the targeted mid-Atlantic region, the study involved 40+ selections over three years. Overall performance and powdery mildew resistance were the key factors.

The report, another yeoman’s effort from research horticulturist George Coombs, has a terrific introduction to this popular genus, sections on garden culture, powdery mildew and pollinators in addition to…the results!

I’m not going to steal Mt.Cuba’s thunder by leaking their results and recommendations. You simply have to get your hands on their attractively put together report. While you’re at it, don’t forget they’ve given similar attention to Baptisia and other genera. Fantastic–and useful–work from one of America’s garden treasures.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens: Beautiful, resilient groundcovers for terraces, paved areas, gravel and other alternatives to the lawn

For some gardeners “turf is wasted space” is an approach to gardening, Others struggle to create and maintain a perfect sward of green against all odds. A final group balances the two but tries to grow in many different ways. For every group, Olivier Filippi has offered up a wondrous selection of alternatives for lawns–though his ideas are valuable for far more than just lawn replacement. Planting Design for Dry Gardens: Beautiful, resilient groundcovers for terraces, paved areas, gravel and other alternatives to the lawn, (Filbert Press, 2016), is his latest book and should disabuse lawn lovers of their notions, cheer conflicted growers of grass mono-cultures, and deeply satisfy lovers of diversity in plants and planting schemes. Add to that its extraordinarily timeliness given the ever more serious concerns about water and you’ve got a book for every gardener to savor and enjoy.

As hinted above, it is important not to get hung up on references to lawn and its alternatives. This is an important book for the way it processes ideas about gardening. Reading between the lines you get a feel for Filippi’s method. He is a thoughtful gardener. Decades of growing plants in and for Mediterranean climates has infused him with knowledge about the plants, what they can do, and how they can be used. Extensive exploration and experimentation have brought him to the forefront of the Mediterranean garden world.

Planting Design for Dry Gardens is a gift from one gardener to another. Reading it is like spending a month of Sundays in the Filippi garden with he, his wife Clara, and more than a few bottles of Bordeaux. The best gardening books do more than ‘report’ information, they share personal experience and hard-won knowledge. On this score Filippi succeeds in spades.

This is a beautiful, large format, English language (with an outstanding translation by Caroline Harbouri) version of a 2011 French publication. It’s Filippi’s second major book, following his equally wonderful, The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate, published in 2008. Ever since reading that book, I’ve wanted to visit the author’s garden and Planting Design is as close as you can get without a ticket to France.

filippi_review_coverThe book has a Mediterranean focus but will be useful to anyone seeking to avoid the high maintenance that comes with an impeccable lawn. An impressive range of plants is discussed (more later) and everyone will recognize old favorites no matter where you garden. The more adventurous among us will close the book only after constructing a lust-list of plant material to try in our (often not very Mediterranean at all) gardens..

It begins with a fascinating discussion of how we got where we are vis-a-vis lawns, including where the word came from, how the practice arose, where it’s taken us, and what alternatives to grass exist. Most surprising here is the relatively recent and extraordinary influence the English lawn has had on the Mediterranean region (which already had a centuries-long history of magnificent gardens), despite the absurdity of the work it takes to establish and maintain turf in a place it does not want to grow. Filippi’s charge is to relearn how to garden sustainably in a hot, dry summer/cool, wet winter climate—and turn away from the professional-gardener-as-plumber situation in which many find themselves. Given the struggles faced by those growing lawn in the Mediterranean climate, it’s surprising that Filippi’s alternatives haven’t been de rigueur for some time.

The entire scenario is reminiscent of the lawn craze in the American Southwest and the subsequent evolution of thinking that resulted in the ongoing return of arid-land gardens in their place. There are no two better examples of working with what you have, rather than stretching for something only attainable at great effort and expense. It appears we simply have to go through it before we can come out the other end.

Readers will recognize many rock garden practices and plants in Filippi’s advice. The book moves beyond, Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden, an English and seasonal approach, and books on xerophytic plants and their use, to explore the environmental implications of the garden–a habitat approach based on projected human use of space that makes great sense.

Far from an anti-lawn manifesto, Filippi urges a move toward gardens that respect place, climate and resources. To get there he examines the ecological properties, strategies and adaptations of a variety of plant communities. Drawing his inspiration from travels throughout the Mediterranean region, he discusses several alternative plant communities moving ever further from turf with graduated levels of use. Wild lawn, steppe, gravel gardens, stone surfaces like terraces, paths, steps, perennial/shrub combinations, wild fringes with pioneer plants, and flowering meadows with their attendant advantages, disadvantages, and plants are all discussed and illustrated with the author’s beautiful images of his own garden, other gardens, and plants in the wild.

Filippi discusses the pros and cons of each plant community and how each might contribute to a harmonious whole. Rather than provide a prescription for specific concerns, he shares his thoughts and concludes that it’s “…up to you to find the option best for your particular situation.” So much information is shared that this never feels like the cop-out it might from another source.

Care for a dry garden is a bit different from what you might be used to. Planting and maintaining each of his styles is covered, with special attention paid to water management, which is, after all, the elephant between the covers. While all of Filippi’s alternatives have significantly lower water needs than most gardens, it was interesting to note his comments on the distinction between providing the water necessary for the community of plants to conduct its natural cycle (which may include dormancy and a ‘yellow/brown’ season) versus what it takes to live up to the gardener’s expectations—which might include watering in summer to overcome the natural tendency to drop leaves.

Every gardener wants to talk plants and Filippi does not disappoint. He includes a collection of plant descriptions packed with personal observation and including information not always found in such compilations. Sprinkled among the many plants you will not have heard of are garden standbys—here discussed as they are in their home haunts. A man after my own heart, Filippi makes a quiet plea for diversity…more species, more contrasts, more advantages, and an insurance policy against the failure of a less diverse planting.

Neither does he avoid controversy. The book contains an impressively reasoned look at ‘invasives’ and the definitional, theoretical, biogeographical and temporal confusion that swirls around the issue. Tucked into the plant list are species like Glechoma, Hederacea, Plantago, Prunella, and Taraxacum that many consider dastardly weeds—if not invasives to be avoided at all costs. In addition there are new finds, like Phyla canascens which, despite its ground covering prowess, would be welcome in my garden. Give his views a chance—and read the sources he provides—then, as above, decide what’s right for you. Some weeds are gardeners best allies.

A perfect lawn, notes Filippi, is always on the verge of reverting to a mixed grassland. Here are well researched, thoughtful alternative plantings to eliminate that pain. All that really needs to change is the gardener’s mind and approach.