After the success of their animal series of monographs, Reaktion Books have had the clever idea of doing something similar for plants. Writers are commissioned to investigate the botanical, historical, social and cultural aspects of individual plants, with volumes on oak and geranium already published, and yew, bamboo, willow, palm and orchid forthcoming. The structure and content of the books appears to be left up to the writers, but all the volumes combine scholarship with lively anecdote and are beautifully and generously illustrated.
While lilies seem an obviously attractive choice for such a series, who would have thought conifers could be so interesting? Laura Mason’s Pine starts with a solid and enlightening description of the botanical structure, evolution and habitat of the Pinus genus. It then goes on to show how the pine and its derivatives — from timber to Stockholm Tar — have been used throughout history, how the tree has been depicted in art, its place in mythology, and its culinary uses (not limited to pinenuts).
Part of the appeal of these books is the unexpected facts and stories they throw up. We may all know about Daphne turning into a laurel, but the story of the nymph Pitys being hurled against a rock by the god Boreas and then transformed into a pine, her tears becoming the resin that trickles from wounded trees, is less familiar. Similarly, Mason’s account of the contribution of pitch and tar to seafaring — preserving not only ships’ timbers but also the sails and rigging (hence ‘tarpaulin’) — is marvellously detailed, as in its mention of a piece of rope from the Mary Rose that ‘lay anaerobically sealed under sediment on the seabed, preserving, remarkably, both the pitch and a smell of pine tar’ when the wreck was salvaged more than four centuries after the ship sank.
Unsurprisingly pines were a Chinese symbol of longevity, hence their frequent appearance in paintings. The ink artists most favoured, of ‘a deep lustrous black’, was made from the ‘exceptionally clean and delicate soot’ collected in bamboo chambers when pine logs were burned for this purpose. Down the centuries pinewood has been used not only to make furniture and floorboards, but paper, cardboard, matchsticks and even rayon. It has provided not only telegraph poles but the piles on which both Venice and Amsterdam were built and water-pipes for 18th-century London. Pitch has been used to caulk boats, to staunch wounds and, in a purified form, to preserve fruit and wine.
Rosin, familiar as the small blocks used by string-players on their bows, has also been used to size paper and make vinyl records. Turpentine, usually associated with painters’ studios, was once used to treat gonorrhoea and ulcers on the bladder, and had the attractive side-effect of giving urine ‘a Violet Smell’. Even pine needles, rich in Vitamins A and E, have been used to make a tea, which ‘with a squeeze of lemon and a little sugar is almost enjoyable’.
Whereas Mason sticks to her chosen genus, Marcia Reiss’s Lily is botanically much more flexible, excluding many of the huge Liliaceae family (such as tulips and alliums) but taking in water-lilies (which are Nymphaeceae) and arums and callas (Araceae). Regal in form and — hideous modern Asiatic hybrids aside — highly scented, the ‘true’ lily (i.e. plants belonging to the Lilium genus) has always been popular in gardens. Indeed, it is the earliest known cultivated flower, dating back to c. 1550 BC. Highly valued from the outset for its decorative qualities, it appears on a wall-painting at Knossos, in the decorations of Ancient Egyptian tombs, and on Assyrian bas-reliefs. It would come to be associated with all manner of people, from the Virgin Mary to Oscar Wilde — which gives some idea of the flexibility of its symbolic meanings.
Reiss’s book is less well-ordered and more discursive than Mason’s — the lily almost disappears in a section outlining the history and evolution of gardening —but there are fascinating accounts of the plant in Native American myth, culture and cookery and of the annual Giglio festival, imported from Italy to New York, in which enormously tall towers decorated with lilies are paraded through the streets. Reiss is also good on the various uses of the word ‘lily’, most notoriously in the racist Lily-White Movement, which held sway in the Republican Party from the end of the American Civil War until 1933.
In addition, the illustrations in this volume are particularly fine: an Easter card depicting a fluffy chick harnessed to a tiny wagon bearing a spray of lilies of the valley; an early-17th-century drawing of a Turkish porter guarding a seraglio, flanked by towering red Turk’s cap lilies; Bette Davies in a spectacular dress decorated with huge calla lilies; and a positively indecent sculpture of Saint-Pierre’s Paul and Virginie afloat in a pool of water lilies.
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