My first botanical book was a thieved thing; stolen, by child-me, from the dusty shelves of my mother’s cabinet. A Country Cup has been with me ever since. At the time, I loved the fantastical recipes, the acorn coffee and the juniper wine, that reminded me of Redwall novels. Later, I appreciated the beautiful illustrated plates between pages. Later still, I fell in love with the stylised trees on the endpapers.
It is my favourite reference for old-timey English countryside plants, and has inspired many illustrations. As for writing, well. The day that a character needs to make spruce beer, I’ll be ready.
My bookshelf is diminished by many moves and rented houses. Most books stay packed away in boxes, waiting for the elusive house that we will one day settle down in. But still, when spaces are left unfilled on the shelf, books will appear to fill them. It is a law of nature.
I have a weakness for collecting wildflower identification guides. Marjorie Blamey’s Wildflowers by Colour is the ultimate flower reference for an illustrator – perfect colour associations just waiting at your fingertips! The Concise British Flora in Colour has pages and pages of beautiful illustrations. Hidden Natural Histories: Trees is full of fascinating folklore and cultural uses of tree species around the world, and the Book of Leaves holds vital information such as . . . the actual size of leaves. It is the book I most often use as an actual identification guide, but it is a useful resource in other ways. The information on habitat, climate and the diagrams of tree height and profile are all useful for both writing and illustration.
Devoid of any illustrations, the Book of Poisons is a reference designed for writers. I picked it up years ago on a whim, and it was worth it just for the reaction it gets from visitors. Probably most useful for those in the murder mystery business, I’ve nevertheless flicked through it for one purpose or the other.
On the other end of the scale, 木の葉の画集 (konohanogyasu) is a book of entirely illustrations of leaves of Japanese native trees. It’s my treasure. A thick, parchment slip, a hard cover and rough-touch paper. As the spine creaks open, beautiful leaves scatter the pages in vivid colour and careful detail, as perfect as if they had been pressed fresh between the pages.
Though the use of botanical books to an artist is easily clear, their use to a writer is just as fun. Plants are both medicine and poison, they are temptation and warning, they speak of wealth or of poverty. Their symbolism runs deep in many cultures and many mythologies. And, more mundanely, they keep characters fed and trade roaring, and tell us much about the climate, the country and the culture of the setting.
As a child obsessed with zoology, it sometimes feels strange to have grown into an adult so captivated by botany. There is a tangible magic to plants, a wonder of possibility and of history to every leaf you run through your fingers.
List of Books
A Country Cup – Wilma Paterson (images 1,2)
Wildflowers by Colour – Marjorie Blamey (not pictured)
The Concise British Flora in Colour – William Keble Martin (image 3)
The Book of Leaves – Allen J. Coombes (not pictured)
Book of Poisons – Anne Bannon and Serita Stevens (not pictured)
木の葉の画集 – 安池 和也 (image 4)
Hidden Natural Histories: Trees – Noel Kingsbury (image 5)