Guest Rant: Ken Druse on People, Plants, and Publishers


I was lucky that the employees agreed with me, and that my
editor was big enough to admit it.

When it came to deciding on a title for my latest book, I
was faced with another problem. This is a very hard book to describe. It is
about the secret backstories of plants we grow in our gardens, from the
botanical marvels displayed by virtually every plant to the exploits of the explorers
who once – and still do – race across the globe like Indiana Jones in search of
rare and exotic specimens, fragrance, poison, art, and finally the need to
conserve the threatened diversity of the natural world.

The publisher’s suggestions for titles included, “My
Favorite Plant,” a title that has been used for several other books, already;
and “The Secret Life of Plants,” another recycled name. (You might be surprised
to learn that the title of a book cannot be copyrighted, so repeating an old one
is legal.)

I coined a new word –Planthropology – kind of anthropology for
plants. Can you imagine the reaction to that made up word? The marketing
department said no one would be able to remember it. The sales department could
not pronounce it. Since no one could come up with a more descriptive title,
Planthropology: The Myths, Mysteries, and Miracles of My Garden Favorites made

Besides risking a big long word on a cover, there’s the
choice of the image. Authors, and even author/photographers do not always get
to choose. Do I have a favorite photo among the 450 shots in the book? (That’s
like asking which of your children is your favorite — don’t ask, don’t tell.)
The photo of the poppy on the cover of Planthropology was not my selection, but
I love it. It’s a bread seed poppy (opium poppy to the less faint of heart)
called ‘Drama Queen’.

The publisher did punch up the color in printing, but if
that is what it takes to get attention, so be it. It will be nice if the jacket
gets displayed facing out on the bookstore shelf, but in many cases, publishers
have to pay for that privilege. But the bottom line for me is not the bottom
line – it’s helping people discover the miracles of plants all around us – we
would not exist without them.

Just remember, it is much easier to buy a book than to
publish one. And you can get it at a 30% discount through my website,, or at, where you can see a “book-trailer”
video preview.

And now, our contest.  Readers, tell us about a social situation in which you desperately wished you had a wealth of scintillating botanical conversational tidbits with which to impress those around you.  Bonus points for social situations involving potential romantic partners and/or former rivals. Convince us and Ken’s fascinating new book will be on its way to you, perhaps giving you a second chance to make a first impression.


  1. I am thrilled that Ken has a new book out. I have the last five of Ken’s books — all first editions. I mention that only to show that I grabbed them off the shelf the first minute I saw them. And I am happy that Clarkson Potter (or Ken) has kept them the same size etc. so they standout on the shelf and I can find them instantly.

    I don’t really have a situation of the type you are asking for so I will mention another. When I met my husband and he finally saw my “garden” — a rather sad affair behind my apartment — he was not exactly impressed. Until he realized my house was filled with fresh flowers and I knew the botanical name of everything. After we were married and began to garden together, he used to carry little “flash cards” in his pocket with the botanical name of the plants we had in our new garden. He would memorize them in his spare time, waiting for meetings, walking down a hall etc. Now that is a great husband!

  2. When I force my husband to wander through my yarden with me, he makes up names for the plants. Some of them are down right risque. But he does make the wander amusing. He tosses out a name, I correct him, and on we go. Usually with a bottle of wine under an arm, headed for the pouting shed, where I have a bistro type table ready for the wine glasses. I’m a happy gardener, with a husband that tolerates what I do out there! But I do know the name of most of the plants, although not generally the latin one.

  3. I need good botanical tidbits! As a young gardener (in the 20-something range), I come from a long line of plant-loving family members who know a ton about plants and gardening. I have been reading frantically to catch up, but it’s intimidating to face them down outside. My interest in gardening is relatively recent, and they’re delighted that I picked up the gardening “gene,” but I feel like I’m arriving at the party decades behind schedule!

  4. When I unexpectedly became President of a large regional garden society (too long a story to go into here), I was thrust into a world of people with much more botanical knowledge than I had. To say I was intimidated is an understatement.

    One night I was at a dinner with a distinguished group of horticulturists and a rather famous plant hunter – no, not Hinckley nor Avent, who are both fine people. This was another famous plant hunter. I was keeping my head down so as not to let anyone know how out of my depth I was. As the dinner progressed, Famous Plant Hunter turned to me and asked “what plant can you not live without this year?” I answered that and said I had just bought a Daphne that I was loving a lot right then. He asked which Daphne and though I knew it, I could not for the life of me remember “odora” and ‘Carol Mackie’. After a few seconds,he insultingly sneered to the entire table “probably odora” – then turned his back to me and never spoke to me again.

    I was humiliated, but most of all I was royally pissed. What a jerk.

  5. Darn, in the social circles I mix in I’m the one with tidbits of fascinating gardening knowledge and no way to insert them into the conversation.

    I too am a Ken Druse fan and am so glad to hear that he has another book out, I know that it will be fascinating and beautiful without even seeing it yet.

  6. Twenty-five years ago I lived up on the wild and wooly California north pacific coast.
    I kept myself busy during the days working as a full-time gardener .
    Occasionally I worked a few odd jobs during the evenings helping a local chef with her catering service.
    One of my day time gardening clients was a Nobel Prize winning economist who consulted to the White House. Their garden was one of my favorites. We had a large vegetable garden, a cutting garden, a cliff side native garden overlooking the crashing pacific ocean below and a variety of meandering shrub, tree and flower beds.
    My clients loved their garden and often assisted me while I worked in the various garden rooms planting seeds, constructing new grape arbors and other enjoyable gardening chores.
    One evening after working a good 8 hour day in my clients garden I came back to their home in the evening to assist my catering friend who was hired to provide the food and service for one of their dinner parties.
    My job, explicitly detailed to me by the chef was to simply deliver the culinary treats and retrieve them. ‘No chatting’ with the guests or the patrons.
    Mid way through the cocktail party the hostess of the party asked me to explain to one of his guests something about the garden.
    Seems that his guest, an international television newscaster was fond of gardening.
    I was excited to be chatting about the garden with this man who I watch on evening news almost every night.
    But at the same time I was nervous that the chef would come out and find me chatting with the guests and fire me on the spot.
    Soon another guest joined the gardening conversation and asked about the grapes on the property. Evidentially this woman owned a winery in Sonoma and was curious about the varieties I was growing on the coast.
    Looking around me I found myself in gardening conversation with several internationally recognizable guests as the cocktail plates piled up on tables beyond me.
    Out of the corner of my eye I could see the chef giving me a deathly evil eye.
    With as much diplomacy as I could muster , I wrapped up the gardening conversation and scooped up a couple of empty plates as I made my way back to the kitchen.
    Needless to say I was never hired again by the catering chef but my gardening clients told me that they had a delightful party and that their guests thoroughly enjoyed the garden and the gardening conversation.
    I continued to work in the economist’s garden for another 7 years or so until I left the coast.

  7. I’m sure there are many garden club presidents and past presidents on this blog who lust for such titillating knowledge. I, however, choose to wield this new-found knowledge on my unsuspecting family and add it to my dwindling repertoire of “How Best Can I Annoy – I mean Converse With – My Teenager and Husband At Dinner?”. As the sullen teenager grows more distant, I find “20 Questions” getting me nowhere. But this, THIS, is sure to set him on fire. And the engineering husband will savor these conversations as well: No more drivel of architects, designers and contractors – we will flourish, yes, FLOURISH!, with this new botanical scripture. Quick: Send book NOW! PS Where do these people find clever husbands who actually walk thru the garden and comment nicely as they sit down to sip wine? OMG. Just shoot me.

  8. Well, being able to answer that question is pretty much impossible for me as I don’t get to socialize with other people who actually give a whit about plants.
    I’m with cloverann – Just shoot me.

  9. In the past few years I’ve found myself in several situations where I’ve been able to speak face-to-face with such garden luminaries as Tony Avent, Paul James, Roger Swain, and even Ken Druse himself. I’m always the total star-struck fan and end up talking way more than I should with my limited beginners’ plant knowledge. I do it to myself, though. I walk up, introduce myself, and try to start a conversation with some stupid question or a too-familiar comment that I can never back up when the conversation actually starts. So, I babble for a bit then try to excuse myself quickly, and it usually works. A couple of years ago a friend and I visited Woodlanders Nursery in Aiken, SC, which is pretty much by appointment only if you want to see the plants in person. I had never met or heard of Bob McCartney until then, but I soon realized I was in the presence of a highly proficient and worldly plantsman. I also realized after the first few minutes that he’d be cheerfully following us through the nursery, all the while elaborating and enlightening us on the horticultural treasures we viewed. My friend and I were both won over by his enthusiasm and eagerness to share his knowledge and experiences with us, and he even asked us to lunch at a local diner afterwards. Imagine our horror on the way to the diner when we realized we’d be sitting at a table conversing with him and another plant-hunting buddy of his, Dean, over fried egg sandwiches!! There was no getting away from embarrassing ourselves that day, but looking back on it now, I wouldn’t trade that opportunity for the world!

  10. My family would not want me to get this book. I have inherited the family trait of having the curiousity of the Elephant’s Child and the desire to share all my new found tidbits of information with everyone. This is not appreciated by many. In the last week I have bored the family with info about: natural grazing for sheep (you have to change the lambing time) subsistance farming in the subsahara (fist size rocks placed in lines catch the soil particles carred by sheet flooding) This was in National Geo article which also used an acronym new to me. MEGO Major Eye Glazing OVer. I see that a lot on people’s faces.

  11. When I discovered composting through Master Gardener classes and online gardening websites, I found my true calling. I admit I garden so I can compost, not the other way around. Anyway, at the height of my learning and trying new ingredients in the compost my husband and I were at a dinner party and I overheard him say, “By all means, come to my funeral, but it is better if you don’t hang around for the interment!”

  12. I don’t have anyone to talk to about plants either and I don’t have a blog, but I do have a husband who drinks wine with me in the gazebo and carries the heavy stuff for my hardscape projects. I am very lucky.

  13. I am thrilled that Ken Druse has a new book. Even if I didn’t know his reputation I’d be a sucker for that cover with a red poppy. I’m probably also guilty of collecting odd bits of knowledge and boring my friends with ‘I’ll bet you didn’t know that . . . ‘ conversations. I do try to control myself.

  14. WOW! What great stories! The thing that gets me is how many people claim to have been embarrassed by saying something “wrong.” I can only think of a few things wrong when it comes to gardening — using potentially hazardous chemicals — especially without reading the directions — and perhaps, intentionally planting a potentially invasive plant in the wrong place. But not knowing the correct name for plant? That only means there is more to learn.

    A great thing about gardening is anticipation, whether it is meeting a new plant, looking forward to blooming spring bulbs, or something you’ll discover next. As Richard Nixon once said, “The future lies ahead.”

    I don’t care if a garden is humble, or a grand estate. The thing that interests me is what I see as the soul of a garden — evidence of a guiding hand.
    I love reading about such wonderful, passionate, soulful gardeners. I hope to meet you all.

    Enjoy the book — winner or not.

  15. Ken , the innovative ladies at GardenRant and my fellow GardenRant readers and contributors,

    Thank you for the beautiful book. I look forward to many evenings of discovery between the pages.

    If anyone finds themselves in Northern California please feel free to stop on by so that we can share our stories of gardening together.


  16. Except for a bioligst friend or two, I don’t know many other plant nuts that appreciate talking about the surprising things plants do.

    I do notice here and all the time that people with a spouse or significant other willing to spend time in the garden always use the word “lucky.”

    I’ve always wondered why there are so many gardeners and yet its not easy to find them outside your family. After volunteering at gardens and doing plant swaps a long time, my plant friends all have twenty years on me, and I’ve decided those my own age must be working away
    in their gardens, yet to show themselves.

  17. Such interesting timing… I hadn’t seen this post until now, but this evening I cruised through my local Borders and took a cursory look at the gardening section on the off chance that there was something new there. You know what I discovered–and 2 hours later, I was kicking myself for not having brought my Borders card and coupons with me.

    So I reluctantly put it back for the evening… thankfully, they had 3 gorgeous copies, and are open again tomorrow. (Sorry, Ken. I’d order it from you, but I need instant gratification on this one. It’s that good!)

    Oh, and I’m so glad that you won out on “Making More Plants.” I always liked that book title–and I can see why they would want to capitalize on your earlier successes, but this is so much more interesting. I’d rather not be “Natural Garden”ed out. 🙂

  18. Oh, and Ken, if you come back and read this… I kind of giggled, too, at your note in the new book that some sources say that digitalis parviflora are frost-tender in zone 6. I’ve had them since the summer of 2005, and I’ve moved them every year but this one. Sometimes even in late fall. And I haven’t lost one here in this zone 6. *knock on wood*

    That said, mine do not get nearly as tall as the ones you show in the PNW garden where you first saw them–either they’re too young, they get moved too much, or it’s the climate here. Either way, I like them as they are.

  19. My Digitalis parviflora in the northwest corner of NJ, were as tall, is not taler than the ones in the PNW, but they did conk out after three years, or so. I tried moving the pups, and I had one last year, but it did not flower. It might make it to next year, I hope. I have them in very gravely soil. What’s your trick?

  20. “Scintillating botanical tidbits” are definitely in the ear of the beholder… alas, too far and few between are those in the real life of most gardeners who would appreciate these to their fullest extent!

    In fact, most of the time, my friends and family assume I’m just making up nonsense words for botanical names. I’m not!

    But there is another spring fling for garden bloggers coming up. If ever there was on occasion that called for “scintillating botanical tidbits”, that is it!

    (Dear Santa, Carol wants this book for Christmas. She has been very good. Thank you. Carol)

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