Monday, February 27, 2012

American Plants for American Gardens: An Old Book Review

By Edith Roberts and Elsa Rehmann   

I had some free time last month to do a little reading so I grabbed my copy of  American Plants for American Gardens.  I've made great use of the plant lists from this book, but I had not taken the time to read the text that goes along with each list.  This is a rather short book that is packed with information on plant communities commonly found in the Northeastern U.S.  In addition it describes, in compelling prose, what these plant communities look like throughout the year (not just when the plants are in full bloom) and how to use them in a natural way around a home. 

It was originally written as a series of articles on Plant Ecology that appeared in House Beautiful in 1927-28.  The authors are Dr. Edith Roberts, a professor of Botany, and Elsa Rehmann, a landscape architect.  The 1992 edition includes a forward by Darrel Morrison that provides an excellent background for this work, as well as the need for planting in community, in general.  Also in the Appendix of this edition is listing of updated plant names that have changed since the original publication.  

These articles were written between 1927-29, before the market crash in ’29 and the Great Depression.  They were targeted toward planning a country estate; but are also applicable to smaller properties or to open space planning. The authors were strongly influenced by the ‘Prairie School’ of Frank Lloyd Wright & Louis Sullivan.  In general, designers of that time were more interested in natural forms and native plants than they were in the 1950’s when form and function were the main considerations.

I originally bought this book for the rich plant lists based on habitat types which helped me to design groupings of plants that naturally grow together.  These lists are skewed toward the natural communities of southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic Coast.  For me, this is the first place I look to get ideas for the plant palette to use in a design, whether I am augmenting a planting in an established habitat, or if I am starting from scratch to create a planting that evokes a more natural space.

The community descriptions are not as detailed or finely divided as found in some of the more region-specific resources, like Wetlands,Woodlands, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont or Plant Communities of New Jersey.  While Wetlands, Woodlands contains descriptions of 80 natural communities in the state of Vermont, American Plants condenses this to 11 communities types for the entire Northeast.  For residential design, this is sufficient, unless you are doing a habitat restoration or are a botanical purist.  When you consider that most residential settings are highly disturbed compared to the original native environment, the 11 communities described here are sufficient to accommodate most residential sites.

Beyond what is in other books about plant communities, Rehmann, contributes additional information on architecture and site planning, such as routing of driveways and styles of houses that are appropriate to each of the habitat types.

While this is not a reference text for the ecologist, it is an excellent book for the designer trying to introduce (or reintroduce) a more naturalistic landscape to the residential setting using native plant species.  


Forest Keeper said...

Sounds like a nice book. there is a wealth of plant knowledge and wisdom from the generations before this crazy era of urban sprawl and techno-insanity, that we need to rediscover.
In many older gardening book, I find a certain intuitiveness and even poetic relationship with the botanical world that is hard to find nowadays. We need to relearn the art of letting the plants speak to us.

joene said...

Thanks for this info ... just added this book to my wish list.