On the Bookshelf

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 On the Bookshelf archive (past reviews)

¤ Lilacs: A Gardener's Encyclopedia

¤ American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree and Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut Anthology

The Native Trees of CanadaNative Trees of Canada book image

A wonderful piece of leaf art appeared recently on the last page of the New York Times Book Review . Leanne Shapton writes, "Last fall I came across a copy of "Native Trees of Canada, Bulletin No. 61, Fifth Edition," originally published in 1917 by the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources, Forestry Branch. In its flat, monochrome survey photographs I saw a simplified version of the Canadian landscape, like the one I understood as a child. Seeing the pictures reminded me of our capacity to colorize memories, some not even our own. I made a series of paintings from the book, and afterward, whenever I read a story, any mention of a tree stood out like an old friend. It's hard to find stories about Canada that do not include references to its trees. Here, from my bookshelf, are passages from some of my favorite Canadian authors on their leafy heritage."

A sample:


Shapton pairs each image with a quote from a work by a Canadian author that relates to the species illustrated.
Check out the New York Times Sunday Book Review article.

"A bold reinterpretation of a century-old book.
While shopping in the used-book store the Monkey's Paw in Toronto, Leanne Shapton happened upon a 1956 edition of the government reference book The Native Trees of Canada, originally published in 1917 by the Canadian Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources. Most people might simply view the book as a dry cataloging of a banal subject; Shapton, however, saw beauty in the technical details and was inspired to create her own interpretation of The Native Trees of Canada.

Shapton distills each image into its simplest form, using vivid colors in lush ink and house paint. She takes the otherwise complex objects of trees, pinecones, and seeds and strips them down into bold, almost abstract shapes and colors: the water birch is represented as two pulsating red bulbs contrasted against a gray backdrop; the eastern white pine is represented by a close-up of its cone against a radiant summer sky.

The author of Was She Pretty? and Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, Shapton puts forth yet another entirely new facet of her creative artistry." ---description from Amazon.com.

The Native Trees of Canada has gotten a lot of press both here and in Canada; here's a nice review from the Canadian National Post.

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Lilacs: A Gardener's Encyclopedia
By Father John L. Fiala
Revised and Updated by Freek Vrugtman
Portland: Timber Press, Inc. 2008

Large Jacket Image for Lilacs

For many years Father John Fiala's book, Lilacs: The Genus Syringa , was the only easily available in-depth treatment of everybody's favorite shrub. Jennifer Bennett's Lilacs for the Garden (Firefly Books, 2002) serves as a fine introduction to the subject and Susan McKelvey's opus, The Lilac: A Monograph (The Macmillan Company, 1928) is long out of print and, for most, prohibitively expensive.

The original edition of Lilacs was published by Timber Press in 1988 with a facsimile paperback edition brought out in 2002. This new work-greatly revised and expanded by Freek Vrugtman-is an invaluable contribution to the study of lilacs and is a necessary volume for anyone interested in this iconic genus.

Father John Leopold Fiala (1924-1990) was raised on a farm in Ohio and developed a love of plants at a young age. By the time he was in college, Fiala was working with numerous genera including his beloved lilacs and crabapples on acres allotted to him from the family farm. This land, which he later came to call Falconskeep, was the site of Fiala's breeding and selection work with Syringa . While plants absorbed much of his time, Fiala's "day jobs" were that of a parish priest in Cleveland and a professor of clinical psychology and education at the Jesuit school John Carroll University. Fiala introduced over 50 cultivars of lilacs, some well known, others not. He was a founding member of the International Lilac Society (ILS) which awarded him four of their highest honors. Today, if one attends an ILS conference, you can hear the participants refer reverentially to "Father" and his work.

Freek Vrugtman (1927--) is a Dutch-Canadian horticulturalist and botanist who has been the Lilac Registrar for the International Cultivar Registration Authority since 1976. He has acted as curator of collections at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario and the botanical gardens of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Vrugtman has served on the editorial committee of the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants and maintains the ongoing International Lilac Registry. Holding a masters degree in horticulture form Cornell University, Vrugtman is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards in his field.

Lilacs: A Gardener's Encyclopedia covers all aspects of the genus. The opening chapters provide updated information on Syringa taxonomy, a discussion of color in lilacs-including cultivar recommendations from the 7 lilac color classes, and detailed species accounts of all European lilacs and those from Asia with fascinating discussions of the early plant explorers and expeditions which "discovered" them and introduced them to the west. Additional chapters speak to landscaping with lilacs, siting, and using the right lilacs for different situations. There is updated information on lilac companion plants and how to plant, grow, prune, and maintain your lilacs and the answer to the perennial question: how to rejuvenate old shrubs. A short chapter discusses the few diseases, insects, and other pests that can affect the genus.  Information is also given on how to propagate lilacs-from seed, tissue culture, layering, cuttings, grafting, and summer budding.  There is wonderful history on the lilac hybridizers who have produced the cultivars that we know and love today. You can read about the work of the Lemoine family of Nancy, France, the originators of the "French Hybrids" that started it all, as well as notable breeders like Dunbar, Klager, Havemeyer, Preston, Skinner, Owens, Max and Darlene Peterson of Ogallala, Nebraska, and Fiala himself. One of the best things about this new edition is the inclusion of the great work that has been going on in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Vrugtman provides information on the important but hither to unknown hybridizers of Poland, Latvia, the Ukraine, and Russia in addition to the earlier work of Soviet breeders. Finally, a new chapter on "The Lilac in Art and Design" has been written for this volume. The book concludes with 3 useful information-packed appendices: "Noted Plant Explorers and Taxonomists," "Lilac Hybridizers and Originators," and "The World's Noteworthy Lilac Collections, Gardens, and Nurseries." (I am pleased to say that UN-L's Flack Lilac Collection in Maxwell Arboretum is listed here.) A glossary and extensive list of literature cited close out the book.

This volume is truly the Lilac Bible. Anything and everything you need or want to know about lilacs is included here, often in amazing and entertaining detail. Lilacs is suitable for both the beginner and the experienced gardener, the fancier and the scientist. This new edition is exceptional in its inclusion of the Eastern European cultivars and its prolific and sumptuous photography. For lilac lovers, photographs of the floret laden clusters are almost pornographic and the over 500 color photographs-most of them new to this edition and taken by Bruce Peart and Margaret Walton, former horticulturist and GIS coordinator at Ontario's Royal Botanic Garden respectively-are one of the high points of the book. Finally, for those who used it, you know that the index in the previous edition was, to put it nicely, irritating. That problem has been fixed.

In short, the appearance of the revised and expanded Lilacs: A Gardener's Encyclopedia , is one of the notable events in horticultural publishing this year. Buy it.

Emily Levine
Special Projects Research Horticulturist

Read about Maxwell Arboretum's Flack Lilac Collection

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All words about the American chestnut are now but an elegy for it. This once mighty tree, one of the grandest features of our sylva, has gone down like a slaughtered army before a foreign fungus disease, the Chestnut blight. In the youth of a man not yet old, native chestnut was still to be seen in glorious array, from the upper slopes of Mount Mitchell, the great forest below waving with creamy white Chestnut blossoms in the crowns of the ancient trees, so that it looked like a sea with white combers plowing across its surface. Gone forever is that day; gone is one of our most valuable timber trees, gone the beauty of its shade, the spectacle of its enormous trunks sometimes ten to twelve feet in diameter. And gone the harvest of the nuts that stuffed our Thanksgiving turkey or warmed our hearts and fingers at the vendor's street corner.

Donald Culross Peattie
A Natural History of Trees of
Eastern and Central
North America
, 1948*

American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree .
Susan Freinkel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007

Mighty Giants: An American Chestnut Anthology .
Chris Bolgiano, ed. Bennington, Vermont: The American Chestnut
Foundation and Images From the Past, 2007.

American Chestnut Mighty Giants


I somehow managed to work in Maxwell Arboretum for a number of years before I realized that we had an American chestnut on the grounds-and it was a while longer before I realized the significance of that.

I'm a prairie girl. One thing that means is that for as much as I love them, I know that Trees Are The Enemies of the Prairie. So I have an ongoing battle in my head and heart about my passion for trees. It seems at times like a betrayal of my personal grassland ethos. My prairie identity has kept me ignorant of many things. Case in point: After copying out the above quote by Donald Culross Peattie, I had to look up Mount Mitchell. Turns out, it's the highest point in the Appalachians, in all of eastern North America. (By way of further digression, let me add that Mount Mitchell was named for one Elisha Mitchell, a professor at the University of North Carolina who, in 1835, was the first person to determine the height of said peak. Twenty-two years later, Mitchell returned to verify his measurements and fell to his death. There's some sort of lesson there I know.) Second case in point: I also had to look up the word "comber;" I didn't have a clue what Peattie was talking about. I now know that this refers to a wave that has reached its peak and has broken into foam. Knowing these non-prairie things-heights and oceans-Peattie's image is all the more stunning.

But back to chestnuts. Once I "discovered" the specimen in the arboretum, I became bewitched. I had to know about this tree whose name we all know-it's ubiquitous after all-but whose visage few of us have had the fortune to behold. I read what I could find (including the Peattie essay), and visited the old grandfather trees at Arbor Lodge. I even obtained a seedling for my own use. And I started to visit the young chestnut in Maxwell Arboretum more often. I mused upon it every week as I rode my mower in a circle 'round its mulch ring. I removed a low limb off of the massive ash in whose shadow it grows so that it might not feel too crowded. After all, these are the Lords of the Forest. There's a great review on Amazon.com of one of the books I write about here (be patient, dear reader, and we'll actually get to them). In it, the reviewer writes, "Somehow over the last 100 years the American public has come to believe that the oak tree is THE all American tree, THE symbol of strength and longevity. Well, this book reminds us of what the American public has forgotten, that the oak tree once had a big brother, a tree that grew faster, grew taller, lived longer, produced a wood as rot resistant as redwood, and every fall gave us very tasty and nutritious nuts. It was indeed as close to a perfect tree as you can imagine." I gave a walking tour of Fruit and Nut Trees of Maxwell Arboretum and began at the chestnut. I read them the Peattie quote, talked real, and the people were rapt. Chestnut love is contagious. I found The American Chestnut Foundation and burrowed into its wonderful website (www.acf.org/). I brought home samples of the tree in my sister's backyard and asked UNL Agronomy and Horticulture Professor Bill Gustafson to have a look at it. Yup, it's an American chestnut.

Castanea dentata bur

Castanea dentata bur

The American chestnut, Castanea dentata , was once a dominant species of our eastern forests. Its nuts were a major source of income among the poor of Appalachia. Trainloads were shipped out from the deepest railheads in the hills. Its wood was the best to be found, hard and weather resistant. The harvesting of chestnut timber was an industry that employed thousands. Chestnuts sustained a complex web of life in their canopies and through their nuts. In 1904, a blight (formerly Diaportha parasitica , later Endothia parasitica , now Cryphonectria parasitica ) was imported from Asia. The devastating effects were first noted by H.W. Merkel of the New York Zoological Park. Within a few decades the eastern forests of North America were devoid of chestnuts. White dead ghost trees stood as cruel reminders of this most prized tree. Three to four BILLION chestnut trees succumbed to the blight. Billion. As a final insult, sometimes the blight wouldn't completely kill the tree; the roots remained alive. New trees would sprout and people would rejoice only to see their hopes dashed, as at a certain age all of these saplings would themselves succumb. From the beginning, scientists and chestnut lovers have worked to save, resuscitate, or relaunch the chestnut tree. Through the practices of hypovirulence (basically attacking the infection) and breeding for resistance, some progress has been made.

Outside of the scientific literature, very little has been written about the American chestnut. Surprisingly, when I began my chestnut odyssey, there was no full-length treatment of the species, this former mainstay of our eastern forests and the American consciousness. Then, a year ago, two-yes, two-books appeared. You can imagine my anticipation, my fingers veritably trembling as I keyed the necessary ordering information into my computer. And when the books arrived, I was not disappointed. One is a straightforward text--one map, and one illustration, copiously footnoted. The other is a lavishly designed compilation of words and images, a compendium of all things chestnut.

Young leaf of Castanea dentata
Young leaf of Castanea dentata

Susan Freinkel is a freelance science writer who had never heard of the chestnut blight until she was researching another tree disease. She writes, "How astonishing to think that a 'perfect tree' could dominate so much of the continent, suffer utter collapse in the space of a human lifetime, and then slip from historical memory as if it had never existed."  The reason she posits for this amnesia as opposed to the memory surrounding the American elm and Dutch Elm Disease is that the elm was a town tree, present in the lives and consciousness of those who write history, science, the American story. The chestnut, on the other hand, is a tree of the rural poor-especially of Appalachians, whose history is oral and bound to disappear unless passed down or recorded. And this, the recording of the mountain people's stories, is one of the things that Freinkel does best. Yes, she gives a detailed account of the tree and the discovery and rise of its scourge, the science related clearly for the average reader, but the thing that's really great about this book is how she weds what one reviewer calls "science and sentiment." She conveys the deep emotional loss and financial hardship suffered by those living in the hills and hollers of Appalachia due to the decimation of their beloved chestnuts. She gives this overwhelming loss a scale we can comprehend by focusing on the inhabitants of Patrick County, Virginia where, she writes, "It's not hard to catch whiffs of that sorrow." These people were bereft at the loss of their forests and mourned the passing of particular trees like the death of a family member. Said one, "Man, I had the awfulest feeling about that as a child to look back yonder and see those trees dying. I thought the whole world was going to die." Freinkel found these people eager to talk, seemingly grateful that someone, after all these years, wanted to know how they felt about losing their chestnuts.

A good part of the book chronicles the attempts over the last century to save and, later, to bring back Castanea dentata . This work has obsessed a lot of people; there are pockets of them around the country and a few decades ago some of them created The American Chestnut Foundation. For these folks, resurrecting the chestnut is the Holy Grail and they have embarked on an ambitious long-term breeding program, which, through backcrossing, infuses our American chestnut with the bight resistant genes of the Chinese chestnut. Now, for some purists, even a tree that looks in every way like an American just isn't the same because of the knowledge that it is "tainted" by the DNA of Castanea mollissima . Yes, it's only one-sixteenth, but still too much.

The same year that Freinkel's book appeared, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) published its own, very different sort of book. Mighty Giants is exactly what its subtitle proclaims: An American Chestnut Anthology . Large format, glossy, lavishly illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs and drawings, this book brings together the science, the folklore, the industry, and the passion that surrounds American chestnut. There are poems, paintings, reminiscences, works of fiction, maps, and etchings. It is beautifully designed: there are plenty of sidebars and set off quotes. Published in conjunction with the  Foundation's 25th anniversary, this book covers all aspects of the tree, its demise, and the hope for its resurrection. It's a beautiful love song to Castanea dentata .

Some highlights of its chapters will demonstrate its scope:
In  "Chestnuts in My Life," Jimmy Carter reminisces on his childhood in Plains, Georgia. Our former president writes: "Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries." There is a short excerpt from François André Michaux's North American Sylva , a paean to chestnuts by the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe ("Long live the chestnut trees"), two pieces by Henry David Thoreau, and stories from 19th century newspapers relating unfortunate incidents where chestnut harvesters fell from trees. There are oral histories. Many pieces are written about the wood of the chestnut tree, including forester P.L. Buttrick's 1915 "Commercial Uses of Chestnut" ("At last when the tree can serve us no longer in any other way it forms the basic wood onto which oak and other woods are veneered to make our coffins.")  A chapter is devoted to "The Relatives," Castanea species from around the world, with a clear map showing their ranges. Here you'll learn about the nutritional properties of the nuts of the various species and about chestnut honey; you can read historical as well as contemporary chestnut recipes. And there are great photographs and information on furniture making with chestnut wood and the building of homes and barns. You'll discover that Longfellow's famous "Spreading Chestnut Tree" is actually a different genus; it's the horse chestnut, Aesculus hippocastanum .

About halfway through the book, the blight makes its appearance. In "Ghost Trees," there are excerpts from the first reports of the blight by the

Early spring growth of Castanea mollissima
Early spring growth of Castanea mollissima

assistant curator of the New York Botanical Garden where it was first discovered and a series of articles from the New York Times that trace its rise and spread from 1908 to 1911. A few pieces highlight the early but futile work of the Pennsylvania Chestnut Tree Blight Commission; these are juxtaposed with oral histories from elders recalling the demise of the forests in the thirties. The following chapter discusses the science of Cryphonectria parasitica , the tiny organism responsible for the destruction of billions of trees. The use of hypovirulence to combat the disease is explained clearly enough that the lay reader will have no trouble understanding it. Wonderful biographies tell the stories of the men and women whose obsessions have fueled the drive to find a cure for the scourge. Finally, the history and work of The American Chestnut Foundation and others leaves us with hope for the trees' eventually return. Yet the persistent problem of the backcross breeding solution is outlined in an article by Sandra L. Anagnostakis, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station pathologist whose work with hypovirulence really showed that a biological control of the disease might be possible: "Will they be American chestnut trees? ...The resulting hybrids will not be Castanea dentata , but we have hope that they will have most of the characteristics that made C. dentata such an important part of the American forest."

Mighty Giants closes with "The Visionaries," men like Dolly Parton's uncle, Billy Earl Owens who writes about how he came to establish a chestnut plantation at Dollywood, having planted over 70,000 trees. A long excerpt from Barbara Kingsolver's novel Prodigal Summer will make you want to go out and buy the book if you haven't read it already. A reprint of Phillip A. Rutter's 1989 essay "We Can Restore the American Chestnut" is the closing article.  It is followed by an updated response by Rutter for this volume. When, not if, chestnut restoration happens, he writes, it will be the result of the "hopeand the heartof the people who wouldn't quit. Two hearts, actually, ours and the chestnut's."

Castanea dentata
Castanea dentata
American Chestnut
Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum, 2006

If you don't have a thing for chestnuts now, you will after reading one of these books. And I can guarantee that once you finish one, you'll go out and buy the other. Then come visit the specimen in the Earl G. Maxwell Arboretum. It's on the Holdrege Frontagethe narrow area between Holdrege Street and the East Campus Loop Road, just a few feet east of Dairy Store Drive. Look for the big ash on the corner and you'll see this precious thing growing-living! -under its branches.

Emily Levine
December 2008

* A word about Donald Culross Peattie: Not too many people still know about Peattie, although in his day he was a major writer of the natural world. I love Peattie because he's so real. A trained botanist, he brought scientific expertise to his poetic sensibilies. His auotbiographical work, Flowering Earth , 1939, is a great introduction to the man. His most famous works are two volumes of a planned three volume series. These are the books I return to time and time again. A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950, reprint 1966) and A Natural History of Western Trees (1953) are my favorite tree books. In 2007, Houghton Mifflin published an outrageously abridged one volume edition of these works. Less than half of the original material has been reprinted; the same for the beautiful Landacre woodcuts. Why couldn't they have just reprinted both volumes in full? I don't know, but send them a message and honor Peattie and find some old used copies of the original editions. I think it's also still pretty easy to obtain the 1991 trade paperbacks that I have.

The scientific literature: See Forest, Herman S., Cook, Richard J., and Bebee, Charles N. The American Chestnut: A Bibliography . Beltsville, Maryland: National Agricultural LIbrary, 1990. Although almost 20 years old, this volume has over 1,800 citations of scholarly works on the American Chestnut and Cryphonectria parasitica . Imagine what's been published since then.

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