I’ve gone through several gardening books since the last post in the winter gardening book review series, but none of them were right for writing a review. Not that they were bad books, but they were reference books that don’t lead to much to review. They were useful if you needed them, but hardly the kind of books you’d want to read cover to cover. After reading several of these reference books, I am very happy to have finally stumbled upon Taming Fruit: How orchards have transformed the land, offered sanctuary, and inspired creativity by Bern Brunner.
Taming Fruit is not a gardening instructional book, nor a reference book. What it is is part natural history, part archeology, part science, part art history, all combined with wonderful storytelling. Brunner touches on all of these subjects and does so in a well researched and authoritative way, all without being too academic. This reads like popular non-fiction, not like an academic work. Yet all primary sources are mentioned, which helps the reader to understand how this history has come together from various disciplines.
Brunner starts in the first orchards, which could have been anywhere from North Africa to Mesopotamia, or even in the Indian subcontinent. These were likely the first places where humans purposely planted fruit trees, most likely figs, pomegranates, or olives near their settlements. Brunner actually mentions that there is some evidence that this may have happened before or during the domestication of grain:
In 2006, a study published by a team of American and Isreali scientists made considerable waves in the field of archaeobotany. In the lower Jordan valley they found six small figs that appeared to have been cultivated, in other words, intentionally planted. The researchers determined these remains were 11,200-11,400 years old. This discovery turns the usual sequence of agricultural development- first grain, then fruit – on its head, at least in this documented caseTaming Fruit p. 9
Lots of other revelations from the history of orchards and fruit are included, and other ideas are challenged. I always assumed that Eve ate an apple in the garden of eden, but it turns out the writers of the Bible/Torah wouldn’t have known apples.
The persistent belief in Eve and the apple was most likely born from an error or even an intentional play on words by the early translators who created the vernacular Latin version of the Bible. They confused the words malus, which means “apple,” and malum, which means “evil.” But the lignumque scientiae boni et mali simply means “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” with nary an apple to be foundTaming Fruit p. 41
Brunner concisely covers many aspects of fruit trees and orchards. He follows them from their earliest inceptions in ancient civilizations, through their development in Europe and Asia, right into modern practices. He touches on the orchards of royalty, monasteries, and for the common person. He delves into horticultural practices, aesthetic tastes, and what became of the fruit after the harvest. He goes through histories of diverse fruits, from figs and olives to apples and cherries, to all varieties of citrus. The book touches on deserts and oases, temperate and mediterranean climates, as well as orchards in the tropics. It’s really amazing how much information is given in such a compact book.
What is even more amazing than the information presented are the plates of art throughout the book. Taming Fruit presents paintings from various locales and ages, garden plans, excerpts from gardening texts, and photographs. These visually reveal the development of orchards, and express the thoughts and practices of gardeners and artists who inhabited or frequented orchards at different points of history in different parts of the globe.
Orchards are magnificent gardens whose importance goes beyond the fruit we get from them. As the subtitle of the book mentions, they have offered sanctuary and inspired creativity. We see this in everything from the Japanese cherry blossom festival to myths about the hanging gardens of Babylon. Orchards have inspired emperors and royalty, merchants and artists, and just about anyone with enough land to plant life nourishing fruit trees. If you’re interested in learning more about orchards and their history, this is the book for you. It is at once authoritative and entertaining. Beyond that, it is also a great inspiration to read in the winter as I make plans for the spring to come. Orchards inspire hope, and this book perfectly captures that.