A cancer survivor’s foray into horticulture and healing.
After losing a sister to cancer and surviving a bout of her own, science and health writer Kassinger (Glass: From Cinderella’s Slipper to Fiber Optics, 2003, etc.) embarked on a personal journey to construct a small conservatory in her home, investigating the history of mankind’s understanding and acquisition of plants. The early addition of an orange tree to her collection leads to an exploration of the plant’s Chinese origins and early spread across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The subtropical plant, writes the author, took root in Europe despite the area’s inhospitable winters, thanks to the development of “orangeries” among 16th-century nobility. From the utilitarian orangeries—basically sooty, windowless rooms heated by roaring fires and seen only by gardeners—came windowed greenhouses, glass lean-tos and splendorous glass-houses that allowed in vast quantities of sunlight and, ultimately, the public. Kassinger’s own conservatory developed in fits and starts as she learned the ropes from the local garden-supply store. Eventually, she expanded her horizons by visiting historic and eclectic green- and glass-houses around the Eastern United States. As she relates the exotic adventures and practical challenges faced by Enlightenment-era “plant hunters” in far-flung lands across the seas, we see the technological advancements that allowed for a deeper understanding and cultivation of plants and the commercialization of gardening. As Kassinger’s conservatory develops, she works through her own tale of loss and survival, examining the mercurial nature of life and nature and the solace to be found in that symmetry.
The author colorfully describes her new herbaceous friends and writes about family and mortality with a colloquial zest.