15 books for budding botanists

15 books for budding botanists

If you follow me on Instagram, you probably know I have a slight obsession with houseplants. What started as an extra treat from Trader Joe’s has developed into a full-blown hobby. Nothing brightens up a reading nook like a trailing pothos or a fiddle leaf fig tree. After talking to Michelle Moreno, whose dream includes books AND plants, on Episode 188 of What Should I Read Next, I started thinking about a few backlist titles to satisfy both book-lovers and plant-enthusiasts.

This is the perfect time of year to dive into a story full of gardens, flowers, and nature’s delights. You don’t need a green thumb in order to enjoy these 15 titles—but reading about someone else’s thriving garden won’t be bad for your own plant efforts. With a mix of classics, nonfiction, and magical realism, this list has something for every reader and plant-lover.

15 stories for plant-lovers

Rebecca

Rebecca

Its vivid descriptions of rhododendrons and azaleas make this 1930s novel the perfect suspense novel for gardeners. When the main character arrives at her wealthy husband's country home, she is struck by its beauty. But as his late wife's presence lingers in every corner of the estate, their marriage is threatened by suspicion and secrets. Don't be put off by its age: this thrilling novel feels surprisingly current (and Mrs Danvers is as creepy as ever). More info →
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The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers

This title comes from the Victorian Era's literal language of flowers, which they relied on to convey feelings rarely spoken of: ardor and friendship, jealousy and envy, infidelity and grief. We meet Victoria Jones on her eighteenth birthday: the day she is emancipated from foster care. Though fluent in the meaning and the messages of the blooms she cultivates, Victoria uses her flowers to communicate not love and friendship, but distrust and discord. But as she strikes out on her own, she comes to learn that the language of flowers is more complicated than she was taught to believe. This beautiful debut is easy-reading, yet has depth and feeling. Ultimately, it's a redemption story—and who doesn't love a good redemption story? More info →
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Garden Spells

Garden Spells

Like all the women in her family, Claire Waverly possesses a unique magic: she uses edible flowers to prepare foods that affect the eater in "curious ways." Years ago, Claire's sister fled town—and her Waverly gift—but she discovers her own sort of magic when she returns. What to say about this book? The romance is cheesy, the magic is impossible, but put them together and it sings. A few love scenes are a little racy (ahem). If you're not down with supernatural food or a magical apple tree, skip this one—but you should know how many readers call this "a wonderful surprise." More info →
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The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things

Gilbert's sweeping novel follows the life of the enigmatic Alma Whittaker, a 19th century scientist (before that was even a word). A maker at heart, and very aware of her strengths and limitations, Alma struggles to develop her unifying "Theory of Competitive Alteration" to describe her findings. Gilbert brings the field of botany to life in this ambitious novel. (Who would have thought moss could be so interesting?) More info →
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The Forgotten Garden

The Forgotten Garden

Author:
If the Brothers Grimm wrote The Secret Garden, this is what it would have been like. After inheriting a mysterious book of fairy tales from her grandmother, Cassandra embarks on a quest to discover her family’s past. Gothic mystery meets family saga in this atmospheric novel. More info →
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Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus

Plant symbolism and lush descriptions abound in Adichie's debut novel. Set in postcolonial Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus is a coming of age story about family, religion, and freedom. This would make a perfect book club pick—and we loved discussing it in the MMD Book Club. For a more in-depth review, check out this episode of One Great Book. More info →
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Lab Girl

Lab Girl

Author:
You've probably never heard the words "science memoir" and "sparkle" in the same sentence before, but this genre-busting tale from one of TIME magazine's "100 Most Influential People" absolutely does. In alternating chapters, Jahren tells the story of her own development—life, career, love, friendship, and always, always budgetary woes—and a little about her surprisingly fascinating (well, to non-paleobotanists) field of research. It's a terrific read, especially if you want to learn about plant life-cycles in an engaging format. More info →
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The Girls in the Garden

The Girls in the Garden

Author:
The action in this suspense novel centers around a beautiful private communal garden in London. Most of the neighbors have lived there for years and trust each other implicitly; one family felt lucky to find their new flat when they were displaced from their home after a tragic fire. In the prologue, one of these new neighbors, 12-year-old Grace, is found in a corner of this supposedly idyllic garden, injured and unconscious after a neighborhood party. Jewell flashes back in time to introduce us to all the neighbors, and we discover much to mistrust as we try to figure out what happened to Grace. (I need to warn you: nothing here is graphic, but as a parent of tween girls, the plot line here freaked me out.) More info →
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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

With growing concerns about the environmental impact of their food consumption, Barbara Kingsolver and her family vow to eat only what they can grow, catch, or locally source for an entire year. What follows is a family memoir, a gardening how-to guide, and a treatise on sustainability as Kingsolver chronicles their adventures in farm-to-table living. More info →
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The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

Author:
"Sometimes I think I've figured out some order in the universe, but then I find myself in Florida." Follow Susan Orlean—who you may know from her bestselling work The Library Book on her investigative journey through the world of orchid-collecting, a surprisingly high-stakes environment. This true story about plants, passion, and justice also inspired the feature-length film Adaptation. More info →
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The Black Tulip

The Black Tulip

At 246 pages, this adventure story is less intimidating than The Count of Monte Cristo, but it contains just as much intrigue and excitement. At first blush, the story sounds much like The Count, with its tale of false imprisonment, political intrigue, and the pursuit of revenge. But this short novel is set in the Netherlands, and the plot revolves around the breeding of an expensive and sought-after flower: the perfect black tulip. More info →
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The Botanist’s Daughter

The Botanist’s Daughter

Author:
I am here for this tagline: "Two women, separated by centuries. Can one mysterious flower bring them together?" Spanning from present day Australia to 19th century Chile, this novel is well-researched and fast-paced. It’s the perfect summer afternoon read, preferably in a garden with a cool drink in hand. More info →
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A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants

A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants

What started as a mission to become a better gardener resulted in an in-depth research mission to understand botany. If you've ever killed a plant (oops…it happens), you'll relate to Kissinger’s experience. This book combines science, history, and biography in a completely engaging narrative. Pick this one up for a deeper understanding of your own garden and the world's first botanists. More info →
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My Garden (Book)

My Garden (Book)

In this collection of personal essays, Kincaid connects her own experiences with gardening to larger issues like colonialism and prejudice. Her poetic writing style makes for a unique reading experience. If you enjoy authors who play with language and form, you should definitely pick this one up. More info →
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The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden

"If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden." A spoiled, loveless orphan and a coddled, cantankerous invalid bring a forgotten garden—and each other—to life again in this childhood classic. Its themes of rebirth and renewal serve as the perfect inspiration for beginner and expert gardeners alike. As you read, perform a quick image search for "Victorian Gardens" and prepare to be awestruck. More info →
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Do you share my houseplant obsession? Can you tell me where to find an Audrey ficus or purple oxalis? Do you have any titles you’d add to this list? Tell us all about it in the comments section!

P.S. A beginner’s guide to happy, healthy houseplants, 6 fascinating books about an unlikely favorite subject, and more stuff I love.

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110 comments

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  1. I am new to your blog but so excited that you are in Louisville. I managed to keep aloe plants (from Trader Joe’s!) alive for over 6 months, and outdoor summer herbs. I lack a green thumb but I’d like to get there! My go to spot for questions and garden “stuff” is Secret Garden Shop in Middletown. The owner, Cheryl Susemichael is so kind and knowledgable. I am sure she’d have a lead on where to buy these! If not there, Mahanoia in NULU.
    https://secretgardenshop.com
    https://www.mahoniastudio.com

  2. Melissa says:

    Beautiful list! Several of my favorites have been included: The Secret Garden, The Forgotten Garden, and The Language of Flowers (which I binge read in a day due to a slow recruiting event back in my days of recruiting)! Love your lists.

  3. Faith says:

    The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman is perfect for this list! Funny, eclectic characters- a story of new beginnings and hope all centered around a community garden.

      • Anne says:

        That’s a GREAT one for this list! (I had no idea how many good garden-related books there were until readers started piling on the recommendations here. 🙂 )

    • Cathy says:

      I came here to add this book. Includes honest relationships (including a heartclenching one between the protagonist and her sister), and laugh out loud moments following tear-jerking ones. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

  4. Hilary says:

    Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire by Margot Berwin is a fun book! It takes you from NYC to the jungle looking for cool plants .

  5. Robyn says:

    Definitely check out Amy Stewart’s From the Ground Up: The Story of a First Garden. She has written several follow-up books on plants, bugs and botanists but this one about her deep dive into gardening is a treasure.

  6. Ellen Berkowitz says:

    Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s not just about moss, although who knew how fascinating moss is! It’s about seeing the world and experiencing life. There’s also a wonderful interview with her on the On Being podcast.

  7. Trisha says:

    I’d add The Garden of Small Beginnings to the list. It’s women fiction with substance and features a beginner’s gardening club. Every other chapter or so has a page with gardening care tips, often with a humorous wink. It’s a funny yet emotional read and great for summer!

  8. Karen says:

    I’ve recently read Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver and it made me look up all sorts of plants (and birds) on google. That was fun.

  9. Heidi says:

    I still think about Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire, about how plants sort of adapt themselves to make themselves more appealing. He’s (obviously) more eloquent about it than that, and it was fascinating.

  10. Pam says:

    -the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. Wolfe spends several hours a day tending his orchids, while solving mysteries from his brownstone.
    -The Victory Garden by Rhys Bowen
    -The Potted Gardener by M. C. Beaton (#3 in the Agatha Raisin series)
    -Dream of Orchids by Phyllis A. Whitney
    -Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

  11. Heather says:

    I can recommend The Forbidden Garden by Ellen Herrick. This book is The Secret Garden for grown ups. Sorrel Sparrow, a gardener with an almost unnatural ability to work with plants, is hired to restore a garden that is rumored to be cursed for its inability to support any plants for over 300 years. Sorrel finds that more than just the ground needs healing. Also, it has the best epigraph: “Hiraeth: (n.) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was: the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.”

    • Ellen Cole says:

      Hiraeth is a Welsh word! My father was Welsh. I remember learning a song in Welsh as a child and “hiraeth” was one of the words…I asked him what it meant and he told me it was more than just homesickness, more so a longing for home. I’ve never forgotten it. I understand a lot more Welsh than I speak, but hiraeth has always been one of my favorite Welsh words. Hadn’t thought about it in ages. Thanks for the reminder! I’m returning to Wales for a visit in a couple of weeks and will hear a lot more Welsh then. Can’t wait.

    • Ginger says:

      Oh! I didn’t know there was a word for this! I experienced this so much after my childhood home was sold and after my grandparents died and their house (that I thought we might be able to buy but couldn’t) was sold.

  12. Allison says:

    Would definitely add Francine Rivers’ book, Leota’s Garden to this list.
    It is primarily about how a grandmother (Leota) and granddaughter reconnect when the granddaughter works to bring Leota’s derelict garden back to life, but there is SO much more to the story than that. A deep redemption story that I highly recommend for anyone who loves flowers and gardens!

    • Debbi says:

      I just recently read Leota’s Garden. It had been on my bookshelves for years. I am so happy I finally picked it up……5 stars for me.

    • Kristen says:

      Because I know many people here have children in their lives, I’ll throw in a picture book recommendation that fits the topic: Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner is lovely.

  13. Christine Engel says:

    If you want to walk a little further down the garden path, I encourage you to check out Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles mystery series. China is the protagonist of an herbal shop and several other herbal based businesses. I just finished the 19th one in the series and they are truly delightful. You will finish the book with a smile and be a bit of an herb expert.

  14. Jackie Tougas says:

    A favorite botanical novel of mine is “A Violet Season: A Novel” by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. It’s a riveting historical novel about the lives of a family involved in the violet growing industry in the late 1800’s in the mid-Hudson Valley in upstate NY. Who knew that growing flowers could be such grueling work!

  15. Lindsey says:

    The English Garden Mysteries by H. Y. Hanna is a fun garden cozy mystery series. Book 1 is Deadhead and Buried. As far as the plants, I’ve seen purple oxalis in the grocery stores around St Patrick’s Day. That doesn’t help you now though, sorry.

  16. Beth B. says:

    Not a book, but if you are a plant/garden lover you must watch Big Dreams, Small Spaces on Netflix. Monty Don is beyond charming and the show is so warm, inspiring, and peaceful.

  17. Kelly says:

    I would have to add The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is such a powerful book that is thoroughly immersed in the world of trees.

  18. Barb says:

    At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier (who wrote The Girl With the Pearl Earring. This is about taming the west, gardening failures, and Jonny Appleseed.
    Also, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth by Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl). This is about gardening in England and the plant collectors who brought many plants from the new world for the gardens of collectors.

  19. Allyson Wieland says:

    Anne — who waters your plants when you are traveling?
    That’s my hesitation to invest in lots of plants. A pet you can leave at the kennel. Do they have kennels for plants?

    • My mother used to put her plants in the bathtub on a towel soaked with water. They would be fine for the week or so we were gone camping. (they’d have to be in a pot with a hole in the bottom)

      Or put a cup of water beside your plant and a string from the cup to the plant. The water goes from the cup to the plant. I haven’t tried this one, so i’d try it first at home to see how long the plant takes to suck all the water from the glass.

  20. Kimiko says:

    A children’s book (equally delightful for adults) that hits upon the language of flowers, is E. Nesbit’s “The Wonderful Garden”.

  21. The Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters follows a medieval herbalist monk as he heals and solves mysteries using his knowledge of plants. You don’t have to read them in order. Awesome list here, Anne! I loved The Orchid Thief.

  22. Sue says:

    The first thing that came to my mind was Eleanor Perenyi’s “Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden”! I just picked up another copy at a book sale—it’s not a book I thought I’d like, but I LOVED it. If you like good writing, PLUS garden tips (and thoughts) this is for you! The chapters have alphabetical titles, Asparagus, Blues, Compost, Dahlias, all the way to Paths, Sweet Peas, Treehouses and Weeds… She’s informative, but very chatty and interesting. She once lived in a castle in Hungary!

  23. Alison says:

    Thanks for this list! I’ll definitely read some of these. I,too, am obsessed with house plants. There are 6 in our living room and 3 in our bedroom, for instance. It’s almost embarrassing 🙂 It doesn’t help that a beautiful nursery is 1/4 mile from our house! My newest addition is a combination of my love for both books and houseplants: a Romeo bust planter with a lime philodendron.

  24. I LOVED Garden Spells, but Signature of All things, with all the masturbation in the library closet? I finished it–and the parts you point out were very good. But her sex life got really old, really fast. Someone else mentioned Nero Wolfe–a great series. Also good is the book: Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden

  25. Dianabeth says:

    I’ve just seen a recent book in a local bookstore titled Skogluft (Forest Air): The Norwegian Secret to Bringing the Right Plants Indoors to Improve Your Health and Happiness, by Jorn Viumdal – it looks to be a fascinating take on indoor plants – has anyone read this?

  26. Carol Rendell says:

    Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants
    by Robin Wall Kimmerer is a beautiful book and a must read for anyone who cares deeply about our earth. As a scientist & someone who is curious about nature, I learned so much from this book and enjoyed it immensely!

  27. Aubrey says:

    Such a fun topic! I would add At The Edge Of The Orchard, which uses varieties of Ohio’s apple trees and California’s giant sequoias to illustrate the toxic dynamics in one nineteenth century family.

    Heart Of Darkness and The Lord Of The Flies came to mind as well, though I hesitate to suggest them because both books view the jungle as a dark force of destruction, and I think all of us here want plants to have a place of honor, wouldn’t you agree?

  28. Staci says:

    These look wonderful! I have to also recommend two fascinating books by Marta McDowell: “All the Presidents’ Gardens” and “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life.” She also wrote “Emily Dickinson’s Gardens,” which I haven’t read, but am sure won’t disappoint!

  29. Michelle L says:

    You win – Anne, your podcast is my only “must listen” weekly. I’ve been a little slower to add your newsletters to my must read, but they have arrived. I’m not a burgeoning botantist, thus I didn’t think this list was for me, so I was surprised to find many of my favorite reads are here (including a top 5 – The Secret Garden). I love that your simple lists make me take a moment to think about the things that I am really grateful for. Thanks.

  30. Barbara Campbell Kochick says:

    I am a master gardener and I contribute articles to our quarterly newsletter. I always include a book review. Great ideas here. Thank You!!

  31. Andrea says:

    Podcast recommendation! Bloom and Grow Radio is a great podcast all about houseplant care, and even has an episode “Your Brain on Plants” about why accumulating houseplants may sometimes feel like an addiction.

  32. Marty Davis says:

    This is not on the list, nor is it a novel, but I believe it is one of my favorite books of all time. However, you may run the risk of becoming as obnoxious as I am about it. It has blown my mind.

    “The Hidden Life of Trees: The Illustrated life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben
    If there is a black and white version, do NOT buy it.
    You can probably get it from the library, but if you do, you will surely be compelled to buy it. Kindle version? I have no idea.

    • Erika K says:

      I also loved “ The Hidden Life of Trees” – preferably illustrated . I think this book would be good to read with “The Overstory” by Richard Powers which other people have recommended. In addition I enjoyed “The Big Burn” by Timothy Egan. All the books have really changed the way I view our trees and plants and I have a much deeper appreciation of them.

    • Ginger says:

      The Revolutionary Genius Of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior by Stefano Mancuso has a lot of fascinating info about plants. I would definitely check out Lab Girl too—great story, interesting info about plants, and a good look at how being a scientist actually works (spoiler alert: It’s not all glamorous!).

    • Anne says:

      There are so many great ones in the comments section here! Great memoir and science books abound here, so I’ll add that my books-on-houseplants collection is going strong. I especially love Leaf Supply, Urban Jungle, and How to Houseplant.

  33. Andrea S. says:

    A book from my childhood that I could happily read over and over again – Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows

  34. I bookmarked this so that in late winter when i’m tired of the snow, i can read about gardens and gardening… Might even bring a few plants into my house! I can grow stuff outdoors, but have killed most of my indoor plants over the years. My daughter gave me a basil plant last year for mother’s day, and it’s still going strong! So maybe it’s time to try again!

  35. Christina says:

    Just want to say thanks for this book list! I’ve found myself reading many books this summer about book-lovers and bookshops. How delightful to get some new book ideas to add to my TBR list that center around another fascinating topic 🙂

  36. Susan in TX says:

    You can’t miss Beverley Nichols’ gardening memoirs! Start with Down the Garden Path or Merry Hall. Each of these starts a trilogy – a house and garden for each trilogy. So delightful! Think small British village humor. 😊

  37. Amy says:

    Based on the number of books on this list that I have read and loved, this is a cherished genre for me! For some reason I think “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett would work well here, although it’s not a “local” garden! Trees and plants galore, though!

    • Anne says:

      That’s a great rec for this list! (I just read a book recently where the protagonist was READING Elizabeth and Her German Garden, and I thought that was such a fun touch. But now I can’t remember what the book was!)

  38. Jennifer says:

    I loved Signature of All Things and second it being on this list. For nonfiction I recommend Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf – about a forgotten revolutionary thinker whose ideas are now commonplace. Where I live we have parks named after him but I didn’t know why.

  39. Ginger says:

    Any Stewart’s Flower Confidential is an interesting look at the cut flower industry—so much stuff I never thought about!

    The Revolutionary Genius Of Plants: A New Understanding Of Plant Intelligence and Behavior by Stefano Mancuso shows the many fascinating ways plants have adapted to their environments and how we might be able to use some of those tricks to help save the environment.

    The Wild Trees by Richard Preston is about exploring the canopies of the giant Redwoods—lots of stuff going on up there!

  40. Jess says:

    The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander, is one of my favorites. It’s funny and relatable for anyone who has experienced the joy and frustration of getting something to grow. He wrote a similar book about his quest to make a perfect loaf of bread which I’d recommend if you have a similar passion for baking.

  41. Aimee Sterk says:

    Some of my very favorites made the list (Language of Flowers, Signature of All Things, and Garden Spells). One to add–Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. The book focuses on Appalachia (like many of Kingsolvers books) and the interwoven ecosystem web with a focus on wolves, moths, chestnut trees as examples and metaphors for how humans live, adapt, and destroy the world around us and our worlds. My favorite book of all time and also the reason I came out of my own woods and looked around and found love and eventually marriage, and very eventually, a family.

  42. Ashley Thompson says:

    Botanists, gardeners, or anyone interested in plants (or Japan) would probably like The Sakura Obsession by Naoko Abe. I just read it recently; it covers a span of history relating to an English ornithologist/botanist who helped save some of Japan’s unique cherry tree species from going extinct.

  43. I haven’t read it yet but I plan to – Gone to Pot by Jennifer Craig might fit this list?

    From the jacket:

    A flat broke grandma puts her green thumb to good – if not quite legal – use.

    Breaking bad? Try breaking into the job market when you’re past a certain age. Jess, single and proud of her independence, finds that her options are limited when she loses her job and most of her investments on the same day.
    Jess’ search for a new income leads her to the world of growing weed, a journey that comes with some surprising revelations – about herself, the people she comes to know through her new enterprise, and the people she thought she knew all along. Not to mention her own talent at growing her “special” plants…

    Love your book lists, Anne!

    Cheers,

    Julie Valerie

  44. Candy says:

    I just discovered an Audrey ficus a few months ago during a visit to my daughter and fell in love with it. I couldn’t stop petting its leaves! My daughter works at B. Willow (www.bwillow.com), a plant shop in Baltimore, and they have Audreys there. My big regret was that I was flying home and couldn’t bring one back with me. I’m in the same boat as you, trying to find one in Boone, NC.

  45. I didn’t realize I was a botany kinda gal until I read this list and realized how many books I love that are botany adjacent! I would add just a few to this already incredible list:

    1. Anything by L.M. Montgomery. All of her books are so lush in outdoor environments that they make me want to go bury my head in flowers.

    2. The Martian by Andy Weir. Botany on Mars is unexpectedly very intense and interesting.

    3. The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. This book came out this spring and I keep wondering why everyone isn’t talking about it?! Why is no one reading this? It’s UNBELIEVABLE! Anne, have you tried it?

  46. Pam says:

    Harry’s Trees! Fictional redemption story that takes place in the Endless Forest with a little fantasy thrown in for good measure. 🌳🌲🌳

  47. Kristen says:

    These are out of print but Beverley Nichols’ Merry Hall trilogy is completely delightful. I defy you to read one and not feel immediately compelled to find his others.

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