News room: Foliage - The Importance of Gardens in Literature

Foliage - The Importance of Gardens in Literature by Jessica Barrah

It’s summertime, and all around flowers are joyfully bursting into bloom. At a time when foliage seems to be taking over, (including those all too bountiful weeds) we take a look at a different kind of ‘folio’ or leaf – those to be found in books.

1. Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

In this children’s classic, Alice comes across a garden where the flowers have an unusual ability – the power of speech.
“O, Tiger-Lily, I wish you could talk!” says Alice in the Garden of Live Flowers. “We can talk,” it replies, “when there’s anybody worth talking to.”

2. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

Another children’s classic, and probably the first title that springs to mind when you mention ‘books about gardens’. Mary Lennox comes from sunny India to her uncle’s gloomy mansion, but the unhappy girl discovers a secret garden and enters a new world which helps her invalid cousin recover his strength as well as bringing her happiness.

3. Elizabeth and Her German Garden, Elizabeth Von Arnim

“Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs, – useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them”

First published in 1898, Elizabeth’s semi-autobiographical novel details the joy and sense of freedom her garden gives her, escaping from her husband, her children and her stifling household.

4. Tom’s Midnight Garden, Phillipa Pearce

A magical children’s book where Tom, staying with his uncle and aunt while his brother recovers from measles, discovers a garden with a difference. The garden is only there outside each night when the grandfather clock strikes thirteen. He comes to realise that the people that he meets there can’t see him – all except one young girl called Hattie…

5. The Constant Gardener, John le Carré

Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Nairobi, Kenya, and the gardener of the title, “loves nothing better than toiling in the flowerbeds on a Saturday afternoon”. But he turns detective after he is told that his activist wife, Tessa, was killed while travelling with a doctor friend in a desolate region of Africa. Quayle discovers that her murder, reportedly committed by her friend, may have had more sinister roots, related to a pharmaceutical corporation medical research scandal.

6. Earthly Joys, Philippa Gregory

The book focuses on the great early 17th-century gardener John Tradescant, who had access to court via his patrons Cecil and Buckingham. In the sequel, Virgin Earth, his son becomes gardener to Charles I and emigrates to Virginia during the civil wars.

7. The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

The Eat Pray Love author’s novel is the story of Alma, a 19th-century botanist and bookworm whose search for love, plants and experience takes her from her native Philadelphia to Kew, Amsterdam, Tahiti and Peru.

8. The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng

Chinese-Malayan Judge Teoh Yun Ling, has been diagnosed with aphasia, which will shortly strip her of her mind and memory. So she returns to Yugiri, in the mountains, to record her memories of the place where 34 years earlier she tried to persuade ex-Imperial Japanese gardener Aritomo to make a garden in memory of her sister. Both sisters had spent four years in a horrific Japanese slave labor camp, sustained by memories of the gardens of Kyoto. The book was long listed for the Booker prize in 2013

Have you read any of these titles? Did you enjoy them? Do let us know if you have any recommendations for more books with a botanical focus.

Further reading:

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Written by
Jessica Barrah
Published on
Writing, Authors, Books, Self-publishing, Gardens, and Gardening