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Gardens of Awe and Folly

Gardens of Awe and Folly

During winter, I struggle with the instincts to hunker down by a fireplace or to migrate to a warmer, more colorful climate. The fireside usually wins. To compensate, I vicariously travel through books describing places I may never actually visit. For somewhat philosophical gardeners, Gardens of Awe and Folly (Bloomsbury, 2016) by Vivian Swift may be the book to help you to endure this winter season.

Swift’s book, Gardens of Awe and Folly, guides a reader to nine gardens spread across Europe, Africa, and North and South America. The gardens are small beauties with fascinating histories of the individuals or societies who created them. The plants and landscape designs are portrayed in colorful, rather impressionistic watercolor illustrations instead of in photographs. The attention is not on the identification of the multitude of plants present, but on the vegetation that best expresses the character of the specific garden.

The author’s description of the gardens as she guides one though them is similar to a conversation with a chatty old friend. Swift’s witty writing style is repeated in her website, vivianswiftblog.com, in which she offers a variety of information, such as lessons on water coloring, details of her journeys to sites visited in her books, and stories about the herd of cats who share her home.

Spreading from the tropics of Key West, Rio de Janeiro, Marrakech, and New Orleans to Paris, Edinburgh, London, and Long Island, the gardens all reflect their different locations and background stories. Their interesting owners range from diplomats, poets, and famous clothing designers to an ordinary woman who created beauty after Hurricane Katrina’s destruction.

Although all the gardens are interesting, one that I am most likely to visit is The Square du Vert-Galant in Paris. This small two-thirds of an acre park is located on an island in the Seine River. One must walk the Pont Neuf Bridge and descend a stairway behind the statue of King Henry IV to enter the park. Vert-Galant is a French term often applied to King Henry IV, indicating that he was considered an extremely romantic gentleman. Many of the trees planted in the 1800‘s surrounding the island edges make the park appear as a “floating forest.” From its benches beside the river, one can view the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and other sites on every tourist’s “to see” list.

Swift’s entire book is as lovely as the gardens it introduces. The watercolors of trees, flowers, buildings and landscapes make the images of the described locations a pleasure to leaf through again and again. The author’s often funny and surprising opinions of the gardens brighten the text. This a perfect book to contemplate travel or to make winter more tolerable.

Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the JC Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.