The best books on Shakespeare's shelf to grow your mind & your garden

Who am I?

I’ve had myriad careers in my life but the through-line has always been Shakespeare. I became smitten with the “words, words, words” seeing a production of Twelfth Night in 3rd grade and it’s been a passion ever since. Acting led to being a “Journalist, Editor, Speaker, Spy” but everything I’ve done was to fund my secret joy of being in a dusty old archive, transcribing manuscripts. Even though my first favorite book was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (that was already taken here!), I wasn’t that ‘outdoorsy’, but when the wonderful Japanese artist Sumié Hasegawa showed me her Botanical Shakespeare drawings, I got excited about approaching Shakespeare in a totally new way.

I wrote...

Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium of All the Flowers, Fruits, Herbs, Trees, Seeds, and Grasses Cited by the World's Greatest Playwright

By Gerit Quealy, Sumié Hasegawa Collins (illustrator),

Book cover of Botanical Shakespeare: An Illustrated Compendium of All the Flowers, Fruits, Herbs, Trees, Seeds, and Grasses Cited by the World's Greatest Playwright

What is my book about?

The shorter the title, the longer the subtitle it seems. Over the centuries, folks have focused on Shakespeare's flowers, and occasionally some herbs, but no one seemed interested in the lowly bean, the ripe imagery of corn (a generic term for all grains: wheat, rye, oats, barley), that factions were fighting with flowers, or that naughty meanings hid behind innocent fruit. The book takes the Bard out of a dusty past and plants it in the verdant now, as nothing is more present that a growing flower. Plus, it layers the nature with literature, history, poetry, plots, & characters… Botanical Shakespeare creates a fresh and delicious path in, but that’s where the voyage of discovery starts!

The books I picked & why

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Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens

By Trea Martyn,

Book cover of Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens

Why this book?

A sizzling tale of competition, grandeur, and royal romance—and it’s true! Shakespeare loved writing about court intrigue and this story of Queen Elizabeth and the courtiers & ministers who created spectacular gardens for her has loads of it. People always focus on what was going on behind palace walls & inside castle corridors, but it turns out the real drama is down in the garden. Imagine gilding rosemary bushes so they glitter in the sun. I certainly think the theatricality of the landscape inspired Shakespeare’s work. In addition to being intricate and fascinating, this book impelled me to further investigate Queen Elizabeth’s effect on the green space of the country and seeding the prospect of garden competition. For me, it uncovered an amazing origin story of green desire and the intricate facets of female leadership.

The Garden Jungle

By Dave Goulson,

Book cover of The Garden Jungle

Why this book?

I fell in love from the first line of the Prologue: “This book is about the wildlife that lives right under our noses, in our gardens and parks, between the gaps in the pavement and the soil beneath our feet.” Why do we miss the beauty that is right in front of us, not to mention the opportunity to heal? Nature & Shakespeare share being taken for granted because they are always there for us. Yet they are the two things that took center stage during the darkest days of the pandemic, and for the same reason. They are here to heal and anchor us in our shared humanity. We do worry about losing Shakespeare’s plants though, a number of them are now on the endangered species list. But something like plantain (not a banana) really does grow in the cracks of cement, and has amazing healing properties, as Shakespeare mentions. But if you dismiss the book as a polemic, you’ll miss the delicious recipes that start each chapter, such as Sussex honey & apple pudding or Elderberry wine. So you can savor while you save!

Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree

By David George Haskell,

Book cover of Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree

Why this book?

It seems as though Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees kicked off a slew of new books on seeing nature from a fresh perspective. Learning that trees communicate, as do other plants, warning and protecting each other is a sort of modern, scientific parlance for what in Shakespeare’s day might have been the fairyland antics in the anima of plants. But Thirteen Ways takes it a step further, opening an unexpected sensorial ‘conversation’ with our arboreal kin. Naso may be “smelling out the odouriferous flowers” in Love’s Labours Lost but Haskell has us inhaling deeply these silent sentinels that populate our lives with scant acknowledgment, with “every aroma is an invitation to stories of interconnection between trees and people.” And he proceeds to tell us some stories that make you ache for the intimacy of knowing a tree so well. I can’t wait to be able to identify a tree by scent alone!

The Lost Words

By Robert MacFarlane, Jackie Morris (illustrator),

Book cover of The Lost Words

Why this book?

Sonnet 98 begins: “From you have I been absent in the spring”—The Lost Words articulates aspects of springtime that are ever more absent from our world: Acorn, Heather, Fern, Buttercup, Bramble… Words such as these have been taken out of children’s books, he says, and hence, out of their voices, their stories, their experience of the world. MacFarlane is a master of making us see them again in the concise lyricism of an acrostic poem and expansive illustrations—restoring the words & the worlds they inhabit with their inherent joy. It’s a big book, but if portable is more your style, Losing Eden, by Lucy Jones describes in aching clarity how those children become adults without a vocabulary for nature’s riches and what the loss of the natural world means to us as humans, from immunity issues to mental health. She embeds all the studies, science, and data in a poignant prose that quickens the blood. These two books share more than titular conjugations, they embody Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” and are a clarion call not to wait till it’s too late.

How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education

By Scott Newstok,

Book cover of How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education

Why this book?

I can’t seem to recommend one book without recommending two but a teacher once told me, Shakespeare never said one thing when he could say two, and never two things when he could say three. I admit I’m a Shakespeare ‘pusher’ because I believe the works instill wisdom, humanity, and critical thinking skills—attributes that are disappearing as much as some of the natural world mentioned above. Having these tools are essential to saving ourselves and the world around us. We seem to forget how to be human in the same way exercise instructors tell us: Don’t forget to breathe. Newstok serves up a rich menu to digest the delicious process of thinking, so that ‘smarting up’ is as easy as breathing. But I also loved How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare, by Ken Ludwig for similar reasons (and it works well for adults too!).

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in William Shakespeare, trees, and gardens?

5,809 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about William Shakespeare, trees, and gardens.

William Shakespeare Explore 105 books about William Shakespeare
Trees Explore 31 books about trees
Gardens Explore 29 books about gardens

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Julián Is a Mermaid, Stína, and Botanicum if you like this list.