STEPPES by Denver Botanic Gardens – Michael Bone, Dan Johnson, Panayoti Kelaidis, Mike Kitgen & Larry G. Vickerman : I always want what I cannot have.


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Receiving books in the post is always a pleasure, receiving books about plants in the post, out of the blue, is even better. This book in particular came as a surprise to me and I must thank my friend (and editor at Guardian gardening) Jane Perrone for sending it.

It covers some of the regions of this wonderful planet that I find quite the most interesting; the steppes. They are a range of grassland habitats that are so multi-faceted, and each so individual, that they really ought not to be lumped under just one heading. To just step into a one of these unique habitats, controlled by intense cold and heat, is an immersive experience. They are like layered cakes of vegetation often taking a significant amount of time to read and begin to understand

Scanning the pages of this book I felt like I wanted to jump into the pictures, to have a good root around and see all the things that are really there and not just the one that the picture highlights. I wanted to hear the wind in those grasses and the crickets chirping, the larks singing and to watch the ants going about their business. I wanted to see the land develop throughout the year; watch the tulips flower in Central Asia, see the summer Penstemons of Nebraska and to smell the sages of the Colorado Basin. In short this book left me wanting more, way, way more.

Here in nice mild, wet Wales I am hard pushed to grow any of the featured plants and that is, I think, the reason for the feeling this book has given. I need to understand these habitats far more deeply than any book could possibly allow. I feel I want to know them intimately and to know each of the plants within them intimately too (in a way that only growing them allows); something that I cannot achieve from reading a book – So for me, any book that attempts to make sense of this will never quite fully reach the mark. Steppes, however, makes a very plausible attempt.

In a world of uncertain climates and increased city sprawl, there are some serious lessons to be learned from this book. The plants of these habitats are survivors of extremes and it is for this reason that we need to understand the steppe grasslands of this world more. The plants of these biomes are the ones that will cope with being planted on rooftops, on roundabouts and on the edges of pavements. They will allow us to reduce water run-off and mitigate climate change. Yet, conversely, these little understood and complex habitats are fragile and unable to cope with the negative impacts of man: overgrazing, mining and politics.

This book does not have all the answers to the multitude of questions it made me ask but it has left me searching for them and wanting something that I may not be able to have. ‘Steppes’ is a beautiful book – but it was never going to be enough. It made me want what I cannot have.

You can buy Steppes (and leave yourself wanting to visit these wonderful grasslands for real) here.