Ruth Kassinger is the author most recently of A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered That Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants. Her other books include Paradise Under Glass, Reinvent the Wheel, and Build a Better Mousetrap. She lives in suburban Maryland.
Q: You write that A Garden of Marvels was initially inspired by your experience with your kumquat tree. How did that come about?
A: I don’t think I’m alone in forming a sentimental feeling toward a plant. I really loved this little plant—she was just perfect, except her leaves dropped off. I did a poor job of pruning!
It occurred to me—I had had the thought before—that I don’t know much about how these [plants] work. You can follow the instructions in a book or on the hangtag, but sometimes it helps to know what’s going on in a plant. I got a book, Botany for Gardeners, but it was really boring. All my writerly instincts kicked in—“I can do a better job than this!”—and that’s what I did.
Q: Was there anything that especially surprised you in the course of your research?
A: The story of Sebastien Vaillant. On June 10, 1717, he gave an incredible, sexy lecture that crystallized it for me—there was so little known about plants! In 1717, this was an amazing moment. He was a very appealing character, but he was so stopped in his career by who he was, a son of a tradesman—there was no chance of his becoming a professor. That was one of the most engaging moments.
Also Marcello Malpighi. There was very little written about him, but there was a wonderful five-volume collection of his letters, so I had this sense of doing primary research. I found the particular day when he had written about being at a particular anatomy lesson. It was one of the last times he did something with human anatomy; he was about to leave for the country to work on plant anatomy.
Q: One particularly interesting plant in your book is the fruit cocktail tree that you named Dorothy. What more can you say about that?
A: It started with [my previous book,] Paradise Under Glass, going to a greenhouse complex, Logee’s, in Connecticut. In one of the greenhouses, there was a giant cocktail tree, with so many different kinds of fruit hanging off it. The tree was growing in the dirt, not in a pot, which tells you how big it can become. I just really wanted one! I loved the idea of one tree that could bear different kinds of fruit. It set me off on a quest that took me to Florida.
Q: What about the giant pumpkins you write about, and the pumpkin boats?
A: As I did research on pumpkins, I spent a lot of time talking to people who grow giant pumpkins, and someone said, Go to the Giant Pumpkin Regatta [in Damariscotta, Maine]. It’s a beautiful place. I could hardly hold my camera, I was laughing so hard. It was a fun vacation!
Q: How did you decide on A Garden of Marvels for the book’s title?
A: It just came to me. I really struggled with the subtitle—it captures part of the book, but not the other part, talking to people about their extraordinary plants. The cover was painted by a friend who lives across the street, Eva-Maria Ruhl.
Q: Your book includes information on early botanists as well as current scientists and your own life. How did you blend those elements as you worked on the book?
A: I was very conscious of keeping people’s interest and slipping in the science as easily and gently as I could. I had the story of botany in mind, but I knew I needed to chop it in small pieces, and only focus on the botanists who were the most interesting.
I was going to alternate as much as I could: the story about me, the story about someone in the here and now, and the story about someone in the past. It was hardest for me to write about myself. [Looking at an early draft], my editor said, “It needs more Ruth-ness!” She said people are really interested in who is telling them the story.
Q: What has the reaction been to A Garden of Marvels?
A: The reaction to the book has been gratifying. One reader wrote to me that A Garden of Marvels was the first science book she'd read. The book is really a combination of history, science, and contemporary stories, but I'll take it! A Garden of Marvels recently made the New York Times bestseller list for science.
Q: You’ve also written for young adults. Do you have a preference when it comes to writing for younger readers or adults?
A: Adults. What I find fascinating is the science. What inspired the kids’ books, and the adult books, is to bring what I find so entrancing about science [to the readers].
There’s only so much complexity you can go into with the young adult books. A lot of the humor and irony would be lost.
Q: Do you have any writers who have especially inspired you?
A: Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire. I love books by Nick Lane, a really great popular science writer. Stephen Jay Gould. George Johnson, who wrote The Ghost Map--in England, in the early 1800s, figuring out cholera and how it was transmitted. These are people who are really good at communicating science in a narrative form.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: Yes, I'm well into a new book. The subject is algae. No doubt, you'll think "Ew!" and wonder if I'm crazy for choosing such a subject.
But consider that half the oxygen you are breathing right now is made by algae. It's also a fantastically nutritious food, and is 10 percent of the diet of East Asians. It is certainly a factor in the long lives of Japanese and Koreans.
Algae could well be an important part of our transportation future. Some exciting new companies are genetically engineering algae so they excrete ethanol and even gasoline.
Grown in plastic bioreactors, these algae take up carbon dioxide, use no fresh water, and require no arable land. And the product is below the cost of fossil fuels.
Of course, algae are also causing major environmental problems in the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water. They grow out of control when too much nitrogen enters the water from farm run-off. The "dead zone" in the Gulf is the size of the state of Connecticut, and that's all down to algae.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I really feel so strongly that understanding science should be fun, and it’s not that hard to make it fun and plot-driven in some way, so you don’t feel like it’s a job [to read it], you feel like, “What comes next?”