Despite obvious issues of potential bias, I am going to review a book written by the person most responsible for keeping me grounded. The book is called Tropical Plants and How to Love Them. It is written by Marianne Willburn, who keeps me honest, or almost honest, with her rapier wit and terrible swift pen in our Dear Gardener letters here on GardenRant. Although I can assure you that I am putting the full weight of however much journalistic integrity my name has accumulated over several years, please feel free to take this review for what it’s worth.

If you are one of the lucky handful who have read Marianne’s first book, Big Dreams, Small Garden, you probably expect this new effort to be smart and funny. It is. But this book layers over that already high standard a really clever narrative that effortlessly conveys expert knowledge on how to grow a wide variety of tropical plants. This book contains literally everything you need to know about growing any tropical plants you should consider. Any gardener will find it useful. Lo, many will find it essential.


But that it is encyclopedic isn’t the best part. Unlike the vast majority of “how-to” garden books that are focused on certain groups of plants, this one isn’t content to just stop with the “how-to” part. Nope. Marianne anticipates the second and third round of questions any roomful of inquisitive random gardeners might have after they’ve learned all the how to grow and how to use bits. Questions like, “Why should I grow that?” And, “Is it worth all that much effort?” This last question, I confess, I often ask myself after reading Marianne’s most recent GardenRant letters.

So, yes, you will learn what it takes to keep a Bromeliad alive and possibly even happy in colder climes, but you’ll also be given sufficient notice that perhaps only a chosen hardheaded few will find it worth the bother. This is where the “clever narrative” I referred to earlier comes in. Tropical plants are classed in categories based on human relationships. This device handily gives us everything we need to know about a plant. It also makes you ponder for surprisingly long periods of time about Marianne’s romantic history.

Plants like Hibiscus, Mandevilla, and Nephrolepis are classified as “Summer Romance” plants and described as “sexy, exciting, fleeting.” How could that but not give you an immediate impression? Aglaonema, Dracaena, and Peperomia are lumped under “Long-Term Commitment” plants that are “strong, gorgeous, and versatile.” Other plants are categorized as “The Best Friend,” “The High Maintenance Partner,” and “Friends with Benefits.” Appearing here and there out of the blue are other chapters, like: “It’s Not You. It’s Me,” “Don’t Forget About Your Needs,” and “The Best Friend You Can Completely Ignore.” Indeed, this book might be as valuable to those seeking advice on relationships as it is for those wanting to grow tropical plants. Marianne seems to have plenty of experience with both.

I must confess, I’ve never really grown tropical plants before. Never even had that much interest in them. Had one canna before. I no longer have that canna. I only read this book because Marianne gave me a copy. But now I’m eager to try again and confident I have all the information I’ll need right at hand.

My home alone Kevin the Canna in my garden. Buy this book or Kevin dies.

One last confession. I wish I had written this book. It’s comprehensive, quirky, effective, funny, fun, and a worthy addition to the library of any gardener who wants to grow tropical plants. More than that, it should be required reading for idiot gardeners like me who need to be goaded into trying them. Marianne’s passion for them is infectious and it will transport you out of the cold and into a warm, sunny world of big, bold beauty that’ll have you craving a pina colada. Or, many of them. 

Tropical Plants and How to Love Them is widely available through any bookseller. You can also buy it from Marianne’s Small Town Gardener website. Lately, I’ve been trying to buy books and music directly from the authors and bands whenever I can. Don’t know if it’s true or not, but it feels like doing so might mean a few extra bucks in the artist’s pocket. But I don’t know. It might only mean packaging and postage headaches for the lead guitarist’s second wife, the drummer’s first girlfriend, the bass player’s mother, or the lowest among Marianne’s suitors.   

Marianne’s inscription in my copy. Written during the pen shortage.