Florapedia – A Brief Compendium of Floral Lore

Nov 6, 2021

A book review by Marion Shawcross

Many of us know that John Tradescant, the younger, introduced Virginia Spiderwort (tradescantia virginia) to British gardens in the mid 17 th century. The genus was named by Linnaeus, in honour of John and his father, John). Few of us know that since the 1970s a Tradescantia Clone has been used as a tool to monitor radiation levels. The cells of the staminal hairs mutate and change colour when exposed to radiation. This is just one of the many items to surprise and captivate the reader.

This neat pocket-sized book is full of fascinating information. It would make an ideal Christmas present for those friends who enjoy gardening, visiting historic gardens or studying ancient botany, in fact everyone on your Christmas list.

Carol Gracie calls Florapedia ’A Brief Compendium of Floral Lore’. The simple dictionary definition of ‘lore’ is ‘knowledge and stories’ so this title captures the essence of the book. The stories are delightfully varied from the sublime to the everyday, focusing on flowers, trees, insects, artists, explorers, gardeners, emperors (Napoleon) and much more. In fact, Florapedia is a very difficult book to categorise, given the diversity of its range and the scholarship of its entries, but apart from being arranged alphabetically, its organisation is totally random.

Carol Gracie worked for over 30 years at the New York Botanic Gardens, publishing a number of field guides. Her experience, therefore, is based in the Americas, north and south, but most of the information is universal and there is plenty for the European reader.

Some entries link the two continents, for example, one on father and son horticulturalists, John and William Bartram. John became George III’s botanist for the American colonies, and his own garden in Philadelphia became a ‘mecca for visiting botanists from both the colonies and Europe.’ 

This garden was taken over by the state of Philadelphia in 1891, making it the oldest botanical garden in the US. John discovered a tree species, which his son later named Franklinia Alatamaha (Theaceae) after his father’s good friend, Benjamin Franklin. Extinct in the wild since the early C19, all later trees have grown from seeds collected by William.

Gracie contends that plants, because they don’t move have had to evolve more imaginative means of reproduction. Take the blood root poppy (Sanguinaria Canadensis, Papaveraceae). To preserve their pollen the flowers only open when it is sunny, i.e. when its pollinators are around. A single leaf wraps itself protectively round the flower stalk but after pollination the leaves spread becoming attractive ground cover, whilst ants disperse the ripened seeds. Another example she includes is the corpse flower (amorphophallus titanium, Araceae) which many of us, holding our noses, went to see when it flowered in the Royal Edinburgh Botanic Garden in 2015, 2017 and 2019.

The entry for ‘Dutchman’s breeches (dicentra cucullaria Papaveraceae) is illustrated by a delightful drawing of a bee hanging from a curved stem which is weighed down by four flowers, looking like four pairs of voluminous breeches drying in the wind,  The book contains around 50 black and white line drawings by Amy Jean Porter. They are clear and lively, with a lightness of touch.

I wonder how Ms Gracie picked the 100 or so vignettes.  I imagine she could write another and another compendium without any duplication.  Where is Humboldt, where Olmsted?  Where are the humming birds, the kniphofias, the gingko bilobas, the honey possum?  But ‘Florapedia’ is not a leaky dictionary, it is a wonderful idiosyncratic, botanical pot pourri.  It is an ‘amuse bouche’ that leaves you wanting more, amazed at the marvel of plants.


 Florapedia – A Brief Compendium of Floral Lore by Carol Gracie, 2021

Illustrated by Amy Jean Porter, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Available from Amazon and all good retailers!