The year of the flower

It was a good year for plant books. Each week brought a thick new dictionary, a study of botanical exploration, a review of grasses, a key to succulents. But, above all, in 2003 publishers let all the flowers bloom. They produced books on flower arranging, flowers in art, flowers in fabric, flowers in religion, on violets, lilies, tulips, orchids and roses, sweet roses. Someday, cultural historians will no doubt explain the forces behind the publishing world's sudden floral swoon. War weariness, a need for emblems of renewal, or a rush toward beauty. However, in some cases, quality and originality are their own explanations. This is the case with these five books.

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A passion for purple

Violets

The History and Cultivation of

Scented Violets

Roy E. Coombs

Sterling Publishing, $29.95

If you have a Scottish granny, give her this new edition of Coombs' 1981 book. He treats violets the way an oenophile treats wine, with the most committed regard. There are some poetic observations in a short introduction. In Persia, he tells us, the violet was regarded as the "prophet of the rose." But soon it is down to business. There are violets to describe, hundreds of cultivars to list by their blooming habits, scents and names. And what names, each recalling a tender of violets: Mrs. Pinchurst, Mrs. R. Barton, Mrs. Reid's French violet.

There are plenty of handsome photographs, which will come in handy when ordering violets by mail or over the Internet. But the most splendid illustrations are the watercolors by Yvonne Matthews, who captures the impossible sweetness of these simple, five-petal blooms.

The violet is the oldest flower in cultivation. Implicit in Coombs' treatment is a profound regard for his reader, the tried-and-true violet fancier. No other flower adapts so well to the windowsills of an office worker or a retiree who has had to give up her garden. These pots can bring scent, color and wonder to any desktop. But Coombs leaves the romance to us. His is a potting shed of purposefulness. He has violets to classify.

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Brazenly beautiful

Searchings

Secret Landscapes of Flowers

Barbara Bordnick

Welcome Books, $40

The simplest way to describe this book is that it's Playboy for bees -- without the articles. Ultra-magnified photos of flowers give us pistils and stamens more in the proportion that pollinators might experience them than anything observable to the human eye. This voyage into the heart of flowers is at first glance simply stunning. Colors read with startling intensity. Dewdrops appear as the size of pearls.

But the perspective is disorienting. We lose our bearings. The models cease to seem like flowers. The closer Bordnick takes us, the less she shows. The flowers become texture, color and light. The petals of a peony could just as well be a sea anemone or ruffles of a ball gown.

The intensity of her gaze works only because she can, and does, pull back often enough for us to recover. As she does, the flowers seem to recover too. A centerfold dedicated to the slim-necked grace of the freesia is so stately that it begs the question: Why do we crowd something so beautiful when we display it in vases? If only by peeping, we learn that flowers too have dignity.

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Odes to the cherished rose

Roses

A Celebration

Compiled by Wayne Winterrowd and illustrated by Pamela Stagg

North Point Press, $30

The British rose breeder Graham Thomas was born in April 1909 and died in April 2003. How fitting that the greatest scholar of roses came and went with the spring. How fitting that this collection of 32 essays on roses by famous garden writers is dedicated to Thomas, and has an entry from him. In it, Thomas takes us into the mind of a breeder as he offers the genealogy of the pink rose Souvenir de St. Anne's. It began with a rose that grew near what is now St. Anne's Park in Dublin. It was in fact a sport, or genetically distinct offshoot, of a Bourbon rose he knew. This original had double, pale-pink blooms with crimson sepals but a faint, almost indiscernible, scent. In his essay, he explains how he detected traits of a musk rose in the Dublin offspring, because of its more modest bloom and prominent stamens. These bore the promise of high fragrance. Sure enough, unlike its parent, St. Anne's had "a sweet and lovely scent reminiscent of cloves."

The most bittersweet entry comes from garden writer Lauren Springer, who remembers a childhood rose, a Mr. Lincoln, that survived a diet of chronic neglect yet produced deep crimson roses for the Thanksgiving table. She came to see this bush, she says, as "the plant world's version of a scurfy old oyster making its pearls."

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Symbolism unearthed

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Flower Power

The Meaning of Flowers in Art

Edited by Andrew Moore and Christopher Garibaldi

Philip Wilson Publishers, $27.50

It doesn't take actual flowers to quicken our pulses. Even their representation speaks straight to our hearts. Using paintings, ceramics, metalwork and wallcoverings, four essayists in this book illustrate how flower imagery has come to represent the gamut of human emotions.

It starts merrily enough, with an innocent 1909 oil painting by Henri Rousseau, all wild wonder, a jungle in a vase. Move on, and a luscious 16th century watercolor, "Young Daughter of the Picts," is a reverie on girlhood. It depicts a spear-touting maiden in a skin-tight flower suit, twining blooms protecting her modesty.

But before long, the flowers have thorns. In an 1877 oil portrait of the then 24-year-old Lillie Langtry, the yellow rose she clutches to her bosom signals her adultery with the Prince of Wales, while the blameless white one in the other hand, signaling her marriage, is held listlessly to her side. From infidelity to fallen innocence, in a suddenly heartbreaking plate, we see how 17th century British potter John Dwight depicted his 6-year-old daughter, Lydia, in a stoneware figure: A dead child lies clutching a spring posy.*

A chronicle, thorns and all

The Rose

An Illustrated History

Peter Harkness

Firefly, $60

At first glance, this new book is almost identical to the stunning 1999 Taschen edition of "Les Roses," the rose book of rose books by the 18th century flower-painter Pierre-Joseph Redoute and botanist Claude-Antoine Thory. Yet the new British offering manages to stay solidly on the side of homage rather than rip-off. Although, illustration for illustration, it lacks the frilly elegance of the French original, the art of this English successor is drawn from a collection of botanical drawings and paintings assembled over a 200-year period by the British Royal Horticultural Society. It comes from all manner of sources, including art texts and plant catalogs. The result is a visual history of our ever-evolving taste in roses.

What is perhaps most admirable, given the scale of this monumental new book, is Harkness' lightness of touch in tackling the story of the rose. Economy became him. He started in the 16th century BC, by spotting a rose in a Minoan fresco in Crete. By the 4th century BC, this time stopping by a rose-shaped detail carved into the hem of a statue of the goddess Artemis, he's guessing it's a Rosa gallica. He crops the story so vigorously that in a matter of pages, he is reveling in the story of Emily Morgan, who became known as the "Yellow Rose of Texas" for diverting the attention of a general during her state's war of independence.

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