Michael Largo admits that as a kid, he used to talk to plants.
“People said I was crazy,” the Miami writer explains, “but I talked to them just like George Washington Carver did. They like it. They grow better!”
You have to wonder if he told his plants about his latest book, The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora (Morrow, 416 pages). They’d probably be pleased. A companion to his earlier volume The Big, Bad Book of Beasts, the new book is an entertaining compendium of unusual plants. Full of history and intriguing cultural tidbits, the book starts with absinthe (Van Gogh painted Starry Night after binging on the stuff landed him in an asylum) and ranges all the way to zubrowka (which can be used to make shampoo, tea, mattress stuffing or, even better, to flavor vodka).
The Coral Gables Museum hosts Largo’s book launch on Friday and will exhibit of some of the artwork in the book — meticulous black and white illustrations from Miami’s Tropical Botanic Artists collective — through the end of August.
Author of numerous nonfiction works including The Portable Obituary: How the Famous, Rich, and Powerful Really Died and Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die, Largo wrote the book hoping to encourage readers to look at plants in a new way.
“We look at a plant and think, ‘It’s pretty’ or whatever, and we forget about this amazing biochemistry that allowed this to survive,” says Largo, who put himself through Brooklyn College as a nature guide at the Greenbelt Nature Center on Staten Island. “That was the diversity I found so incredible. They’re stuck wherever their seeds sprouted. The environment changes, but some things live for 6,000 years, like a cypress tree. They’re fighting to survive without a brain. That kind of makes you think there’s some kind of consciousness there. I don’t want them to lock me up, but I think, wow, there’s so much going on here we’re not even seeing.”
Not wanting the book to bog down in scientific jargon that might scare away the layman, Largo approached the project from a writerly perspective.
“People love stories,” he says. “So I told stories.”
Good stories, too. Onions were used to pay workers on the great pyramids of Egypt. The reason the avocado has such a large seed, one that couldn’t be carried by the wind, is that it most likely had a relationship with some now-extinct animal that ate it, wandered around and then defecated it. The Hot Lips Plant may look seductive with its Mick Jagger-esque “lips” (actually leaflike bracts, Largo writes), but don’t kiss it unless you want to go on a trip, and we don’t mean the kind you have to pack for.
To accompany these captivating tales, Largo wanted illustrations that would mimic the pen and ink drawings in The Big, Bad Book of Beasts.
“In Beasts, I tried to capture that old-fashioned encyclopedic, Farmer’s Almanac-looking book,” he says. “I wanted ink drawings to give it that old flavor as opposed to the glossy National Geographic full color.”
He turned to the Tropical Botanic Artists, a local collective founded in 2006, for help. Founder Donna Torres, who teaches painting at Florida International University, and her fellow artists responded happily, so Largo sent them lists of the plants he planned to feature. The artists divvied them up and set to work reproducing them in pen and ink. In some cases, they Photoshopped watercolors down to shades of gray.
“You can render them pretty easily once you know the plants,” says co-director Pauline A. Goldsmith, who drew more than 25 illustrations for the book. “But sometimes I had no clue what the plant was. I had to go on the Internet and search what this plant was all about, the history and peculiarities, which was fun. I’ve now got a mind full of useless information about plants.”
Co-director Beverly Borland, who drew the licorice, castor oil and lavender plants in the book, believes the book has wide appeal.
“Most people, when you say ‘botany,’ they look the other direction,” she says. “Something whimsical like this, it’s more interesting.”
Some of the plants Largo had planned to write about didn’t make the cut due to space. “We’re wondering if he’s coming back for volume two,” Borland jokes.
Considering the way Largo writes and talks about plants, a second volume might not be a bad idea. The research is time-consuming, but Largo’s enthusiasm for his subject is doesn’t wane.
For example: “The senator cypress in Florida is 350,000 years old,” Largo marvels. “Imagine the history!” If only it could talk back.
Meet the author
For information on the Tropical Botanic Artists, visit www.tropicalbotanicartists.com