Blooming in books: Jack Kramer writes and collects horticultural works immortalizing his name

Jay Kramer

Jay Kramer

There are thousands of botanicals in Jack Kramer’s Naples home.

They aren’t in pots, though, soaking up the sun through a window.

They’re on bookshelves. Kramer is the author of 161 books, most of which are about gardening. He got his writing start in the 1960s, and worked with some of the biggest names in publishing, such as Charles Scribner, Jr. Prior to moving to Naples in 1987, he wrote about five books a year.

About 75 percent of what he’s written was on a Smith-Corona typewriter that still sits in his home office.

“Now, I have to use the computer, which I don’t like, but it’s part of the generation,” he says. “So I use it.”

His newest work is “Bromeliads for Home and Garden.” These tropical beauties are familiar subjects; Kramer started learning how to cultivate them in the 1960s and authored his first bromeliad book in 1967. Still, it took him three years to put together this most recent book, and with good reason.

“This is all I’ve learned,” he says. “I’ve worked with 250 bromeliads.”

Flipping through the color plates in his book is like going on a miniature nature walk, stopping to spot leafy lovelies en route. Some of the plants are what we find everyday in Southwest Florida, used often in our landscaping or as companion plants to orchids.

Others seem as if they could have only arrived on this planet yesterday. They’re otherworldly, such as the Tillandsias cyanea, which blooms with what Kramer describes in the book as “a feathery pink sword of large, purple-shaded flowers.” He also notes that it can be a difficult bromeliad to cultivate, needing moisture and humidity.

But would-be bromeliad growers can take heart.

Most are much easier to cultivate. Simply dig a hole, he says, and fill it with good, loamy soil. Drop in the bromeliad, and once it’s in place, fill the reservoir cup or vase with water. Make sure the reservoir is kept filled with clean, fresh water, changing it out once a week if it’s doesn’t rain.

“And leave them alone,” he finishes.

Partial sun is good, and it’s not a bad idea to try growing them in trees or in the house. Pests are not a big problem for these hardy plants, either, because their leaves are too tough for insects to devour. Small frogs and lizards might make bromeliads their temporary home, in part because of the water supply, but they’re not a threat to the prosperity of the plant.

“They hang out and move on,” Kramer notes.

Not every book Kramer’s written has been a how-to, however.

His World Wildlife Fund “Book of Orchids” describes the legend, history, botany, and cultivation of orchids and includes more than 200 color photographs. It was sold throughout the world and endorsed by the Prince of Wales.

But by far, Kramer says his most popular work has been “Women of Flowers.” It was a tribute to Victorian-era female floral illustrators, women whose work was largely unrecognized during their lives due to the societal constraints of the day.

And not every book on his botanical bookshelves is something of his own creation. In addition to writing, he also collects.

It was because of this pastime that he discovered a rare and sought-after volume about 10 years ago. The book came in a batch of books for which he had paid $600. The artwork, he recalls, “was so phenomenal” it even surpassed the artistry of the painters in “Women of Flowers.”

He didn’t know anything about the artist, a “Miss Smith” — but he recognized her work as exceptional.

“All I knew is that I know my art, my floral art,” he says.

Kramer kept the book for seven years. He ultimately decided to sell it, and after some initial debate, settled on using Nicholas Worskett at Chiswick Auctions in London. Worskett estimated the work would bring 7,000 to 10,000 pounds at auction. That worth was largely because the book is dedicated to Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King George III.

The book did not reach its selling reserve at auction, but Worskett had another idea: Would Kramer consider offering it to Kew Gardens?

He would.

“They almost dropped over,” Kramer says. “They said, ‘We’ve been looking for this book for almost 30 years.’”

The book turned out to be a work that had been missing from their archives and would complete an existing set. Although Kramer parted with the book to Kew Gardens for less than he hoped to earn from its sale, it was a fair trade, he says: The longtime gardening author says he always wanted to be represented in one of the world’s most celebrated botanical places.

Later this year, the gardens will display the book in the Kew Gardens Library.

Kramer admits that bidding goodbye to that particular volume was bittersweet. In a house brimming with botanical books, it’s surprising what a big gap the loss of such a slim volume can leave. Kramer’s more than a little sorry it’s gone.

“I sure am,” he says. “The paper — it wasn’t paper. It was like vellum it was so thick.”

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