(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Sharman Apt Russell has labored long and with some success as a writer about the natural world. In her latest work, she seems to have discovered a subject that arouses both her scientific bent and her penchant for lyricism. Anatomy of a Rose is not, however, an exercise in prolonged meditation. A slim 214 illustrated pages (23 of them devoted to an extensively annotated bibliography and 15 to a fairly complete index) utilizing the “trim grace and virility” of Fairfield typeface and presented in a 4.5-by-7-inch format, the book is clearly meant to be a package as precious and as metaphorical as a rose—better yet, as attar of roses.

Russell manages to pack an enormous amount of information into this distillate of received and esoteric knowledge about the vegetable world. She achieves this feat in part by breaking her narrative into sixteen chapters, each of them a stand-alone essay, each of them graced with an evocative or provocative title such as “The Physics of Beauty,” “Flowers and Dinosaurs,” “Alchemy of a Blue Rose,” and, inescapably, “Sex, Sex, Sex.” Flowers are, as Russell repeatedly notes, all about reproduction, and they are no more subtle than she is—especially in the last-named essay:

The jack-in-the-pulpit is considering a sex change. The violets have a secret. The dandelion is smug. The daffodils are obsessive. The orchid is finally satisfied, having produced over a million seeds. The bellflower is not satisfied and is slowly bending its stigma in order to reach its own pollen. The pansies wait expectantly, their vulviform faces lifted to the sky. The evening primrose is interested in one thing and one thing only.

A stroll through the garden is almost embarrassing.

Somehow passages such as this strike a wrong note, taking such an anthropomorphic attitude toward their subject as to be too much at odds with the burden of scientific information they are evidently meant to render more comprehensible. Yet, in what is probably the most affecting, most memorable section of the book, Russell manages to pull this same trick off neatly. At the outset of a chapter titled “In the Heat of the Night,” she introduces the reader to an anonymous man and woman who met “once upon a time” in a public garden in Los Angeles in front of the astonishing—and in that hemisphere, rare—spectacle of a philodendron in bloom. After remarking to one another on the phallic appearance of the nine- to twelve-inch-long flower stalk rising out of the plant, the man and woman are themselves apparently moved to mate, beginning “a conversation that lasted the rest of their lives.” Russell then telescopes their lives, moving quickly to a night many years later when the woman, now widowed and old, finds herself walking through a neighborhood in Brazil, the country where the philodendron originates. Drawn once again to a public garden, she stops before a bed of flowering philodendron, one of which she reaches out to touch. Much to her astonishment—and the reader’s—the flower stalk is hot. The revelation causes the woman to sink to the pavement, where she is at once transported: “the woman heard her husband whisper in her ear. She felt him touch her neck in the old way. Everything that had ever happened in her life was still happening now.”

This sort of thing is exactly what Russell is aiming for in Anatomy of a Rose—an exploration of the ways in which humankind interacts with the world of flowers and why that world means so much. In a chapter called “Phytoremediation,” she discusses the English physician Edward Bach, who in the first half of the twentieth century developed a series of floral concoctions he called Bach Flower Remedies, which were intended as treatments for such maladies and misalignments as “insufficient interest in present circumstances” and “over-care of the welfare of others.” Bach’s potions, which are still actively marketed, are a kind of alternative therapy not just for the soul, but for the intangible energies addressed by such popular but scientifically unproven treatments as acupuncture and deep massage. Russell has some fun with Edward Bach and what she regards as his nostrums,...

(The entire section is 1723 words.)