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Year of 52 Books #13: The Black Tulip

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, père

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I love the idea of gardening but I am an irredeemable plant-killer.

I can back up this assertion.

Ninth-grade biology was traumatizing in many ways (anyone else who took Mr. Ekberg’s class can attest to this), but one of the assignments I actually was looking forward to was the project for the asexual reproduction unit. We had to grow and tend an asexually-reproducing plant and keep it alive until it reproduced asexually (yes, I am deriving a disproportionate amount of amusement from typing “asexual” so many times. In some ways I might still be in ninth grade).

“If you’re not so great with plants,” Mr. Ekberg told us, “try a bryophyllum. They’re pretty much impossible to kill.” My ears perked up. My previous biology project—growing a flower from a seed—had failed spectacularly. Come to think of it, all my elementary school and primary class bean sprouts had met similarly sad fates. Bryophyllum sounded right up my alley.

For those of you who don’t know what a bryophyllum is, it looks a-like this:

Cute, right? All those little flowers on the edges are the asexually-reproduced new plants.

I marched up to Mr. Ekberg’s desk with the other students to get my bryophyllum starter. I cradled it carefully all the way home. This was going to be my first real, successful plant, I just knew it. I’d keep it alive until it reproduced and get an A on my assignment but then I’d also keep it alive FOREVER. This plant was going to come to college with me, just you wait and see. Hadn’t the teacher said they were impossible to kill? Yes. Yes, he had. He had even gone further: “If you can manage to kill a bryophyllum, you should probably just give up on plants altogether.”

Well, I did get an A on my assignment. Two days later the bryophyllum went from beautiful, A-grade flowering to brown, dry, dead practically overnight.

I pretty much gave up on plants altogether. Except in books. Because, as we know, the plants in books cannot die merely from being in my presence. (They may not have taught you that in biology, but I am here to share important tidbits like that.) This is part of the reason why I like books which feature gardens or plants or growing things.

So I was excited for this book. It was another book club read. Kristen already described it (aptly) as a horticultural thriller. It follows the efforts of a tulip breeder, Cornelius, to create a perfect black tulip and win the national prize. He must battle his neighbor’s jealous efforts to thwart Cornelius and steal the prize for his own. He must deal with false imprisonment. He must learn to balance his love of tulips with his love of Rosa, the prisonkeeper’s daughter. And he must not get too entangled in political drama. Can he do it? Will his fortunes and love affairs flower like a prize black tulip or wither like my ninth-grade bryophyllum? Will the reader accidentally learn some history on the way? Will good times be had by all?

This book moved much more quickly than the other Dumas works I’ve read, but felt slightly less richly developed. It was still an enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone else who, like me, dreams of the flowers they cannot grow. Or, you know, who just likes a good horticultural thriller. Three stars.

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