"The image that the study of plants was something to occupy polite ladies in nineteenth-century drawing rooms is an image of botany that is gone forever,'' says the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney in a foreword to this second essay collection by St. Louis University botanist Bernhardt.
That message was clear to readers of the author's estimable Wily Violets and Underground Orchids (1989), who will be delighted to have further confirmation here. Bernhardt again details plant lore based on his experiences down under and in Central and North America. The underlying theme is people in relation to plants. So we have accounts of greenhouses and orangeries and of artists as disparate as Rousseau and Mapplethorpe capturing flora in paintings and prints. We learn that daffodils were once despised by the English as "bastard affadils'' but later rose to respectability to the point of boring plenitude on roadsides and lawns. Meanwhile, Bernhardt has his own likes and dislikes. He likes the poorer old Australian cemeteries where true wildflowers can be found, including myriad species of orchids. He makes a case for columbines instead of roses as our national flower (they grow in almost every state and come in red, white, and blue). He waxes eloquent on wattles, the woody acacia shrubs that come in abundant colors and scents. Elsewhere, we learn of the cannabis trade, the consequences of human transport of species across continents, and the origins of your garden-variety salad.
Through it all, Bernhardt's interest in reproduction enlightens the reader in the weird and wonderful ways of plants and pollinators, sometimes to mutual benefit, but sometimes to murder, cannibalism, and other malign events that do indeed cast botany in a fascinating, unladylike light.