Teaching 'plain language' botany inspired bestseller for gardeners

By Arthur Lightbourn

Contributor

He rarely gives interviews and considers book signings a waste of time, but a book he wrote 20 years ago persists as an international bestseller in its field.

The book, "Botany for Gardeners," has just been republished in a new, updated, and expanded third edition.

Its publisher is the preeminent horticultural and gardening publisher Timber Press of Portland, Oregon.

And its author is Brian Capon, a Del Mar resident since 1995 and professor emeritus from Cal State Los Angeles. He not only wrote the words, but took all the photographs and did all the line drawings for this extraordinary book that has become an indispensable guide and reference book for gardeners in the U.S., Canada, Britain, South Africa, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

We interviewed Capon in his Mediterranean-style home he designed and built in 1995 with the help of local architect Herb Turner on a small lot near the beach which he and his partner, longtime Del Mar resident and area historian Don Terwilliger, inherited from Don's father, Ted Terwilliger, who bought the lot for $400 in 1946.

The two-bedroom house sits privately behind a walled central courtyard that serves as an extended outdoor living room filled with potted plants and flowers and rattan chairs and with French doors leading into the home's interior.

For the interview, we settled at the dining room table amid a gallery of semi-Impressionist landscapes painted by Capon, who includes oil-painting, photography, world travel, and the enjoyment of theater, opera and ballet among his many and varied interests.

Looking lean and fit in a sports shirt, chinos and white running shoes, Capon speaks with a remnant of an English accent. He was born in Wallasey, Cheshire, England, 79 years ago. His father was a carpenter and avid gardener. His mother was a self-taught artist.

When Capon was 15, the family emigrated from England after World War II to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where Capon remained until, in search of somewhere "more exotic" (i.e. Southern California), he enrolled at La Sierra College (now La Sierra University) here in Riverside, where he earned a bachelor of science degree with dual majors in biology and chemistry in 1958.

Afterwards, he immediately headed for graduate school at the University of Chicago with a full fellowship that "paid for everything," and where he earned his master's degree in botany in 1960, and his Ph.D., also in botany, in 1961.

Next stop, Los Angeles, where he joined the faculty of Cal State Los Angeles, eventually becoming a full professor in botany. He remained at Cal State for 30 years until his retirement in 1991, when he settled down to to complete "Botany for Gardeners," and, in 1994, a second book, "Plant Survival: Adapting to a Hostile World," directed at young readers, 10 to 14.

Both books were written purposely in a straight-forward, non-complicated style to attract general readers who do not have a science background.

And both books arose out of general introductory courses in botany that Capon taught for many years to non-science, liberal arts majors.

He also had taught various botany courses to science majors, but it was those he taught to non-science majors that especially fired his imagination.

"I had to learn to speak to them in a different language ... I had to speak at the layman's level and interest them in this wonderful science, without overpowering them with scientific jargon and vocabulary," Capon said.

"And they loved it. And I loved teaching it."

He is particularly gratified that reviewers of "Botany for Gardeners" have, over the years, said "that here finally is a book we could understand."

In the U.S. alone, more than 200,000 copies of the book have sold.

"Some of the best sources of sales for this book," he said, "are as a text book in colleges and universities in precisely the type of course I was teaching at Cal State to non-science majors ... and in horticultural master classes in botanical gardens throughout the world.

"I also found out that it's used at Kew Gardens in London and they call it the bible."

In the latest soft-cover edition he has added a preface, four new essays on plants as food, 25 sidebars of additional information, a slightly revised text and several new photographs, including extreme close-up images as seen with scanning electronic microscopes. It retails for $19.95.

"It's telling people who know and love plants, (and they know them because they grow them and they are gardeners), it tells them what really plants are all about. Let me put it this way. It's not about how to grow plants. It's about how plants grow.

"Gardeners love their plants," he said, "but they often don't have an appreciation of what wonderful creatures they are ... and what they do, all in a very unassuming way...They are miracles in the way they evolved and survived with changing environments."

The central core of botany, he says, is the structure of plants, how they are made, how they are constructed, how they function and how they reproduce.

There are still things we don't know or are just learning about plants, he contends, despite centuries of observation and study.

"Plants don't reveal their secrets as easily as do animals or as regularly," he said.

QUICK FACTS

  • Name: Brian Capon, Ph.D.
  • Distinction: Cal State Los Angeles Professor Emeritus Brian Capon used his retirement to best advantage when, 20 years ago, he wrote Botany for Gardeners, an international bestseller now in its third edition.
  • Resident of: Del Mar
  • Born: Wallasey, Cheshire, England, 79 years ago
  • Education: B.S., biology and chemistry, La Sierra College, Riverside, California, 1958; M.S. and Ph.D. in botany, University of Chicago, 1960 and 1961 respectively.
  • Family: He and his partner, Don Terwilliger, have been together for 38 years. They have an 80-year-old pet tortoise name Myrtle, who, when she's not hibernating for the winter, often visits them in their kitchen.
  • Interests: Gardening, travel, painting, opera (a heavy Wagner fan), ballet, theater and ethnic cooking.
  • Favorite Travel Areas: Burma (now Myanmar), all of Southeast Asia, Morocco and Europe.
  • Favorite Plays: Those of Noel Coward, Anton Chekhov, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams and a growing number of contemporary playwrights.
  • Current Reading: "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years," by Oxford University church history professor Diarmaid MacCulloch.
  • Favorite Recent Film: "Mao's Last Dancer", a 2009 biopic based on the rags-to-riches autobiography of male Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin.
  • Philosophy: "Take one day at a time and enjoy it. And never look back. You can't relive or rewrite history."
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