A sensuous botanical delight

The Botanical Treasury. Christopher Mills. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

BotabicalTreasury-CoverWhat’s better than a glorious book of botanical portraits and plant tales? A glorious book of botanical portraits and plant tales AND an accompanying pack of 40 separate – and frameable – plant prints! And that’s just what the University of Chicago Press has launched on an unsuspecting world. The Botanical Treasury [hereafter referred to as Treasury] edited (or, Curated as the book would have it) by Christopher Mills is a veritable botanical bonanza, a truly sensuous (even sensual..?) experience that rightly celebrates 40 of the world’s most fascinating plants through historical art and manuscripts (including the occasional photograph…).

As Head of Library, Arts and Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (London, UK), Curator Mills is in the right place to get his hands on iconic images of plants. But, as he states in the book’s Introduction, that means access to 200,000 original plant portraits and drawings – in addition to hundreds of thousands of images in the Rare Books’ collection. Selecting those that appear in Treasury must have been no easy task. But selected they were and the book showcases those 40 worthies. Quite how they were chosen for this honour is not clear – and I’m sure every botanist would have his/her own, different list of ‘worthy botanicals’. Arguably, that onerous task didn’t fall to Mills alone because the majority of the selected plants and their stories are provided by >20 contributors who’ve penned the individual plant entries [Mills’ sole entry is for Banksia]. So, how were they – plants and contributors – selected? Were the contributors identified (how?) and then invited to write about their favourite plant (some have more than one entry, so that can’t be true for all..)? Or what? That is an interesting part of the book’s story that is not disclosed. How would you choose just one plant? Tough call.

But what a feast the ‘chosen ones’ provide. And feast is an apt word to use because many of the plants featured are of immense food value to humans (and their livestock), e.g. sugarcane, maize, and wheat. But the collection is more than plants that satisfy Man’s most basic of cravings, it also features plants of other worthinesses. Thus, we have those of medicinal and/or ‘recreational’ value (e.g. angelica and quinine/opium poppy); plants of curiosity value (e.g. the pitcher plant Nepenthes); plants that “change body and mind” (Datura and Brugmansia); plants primarily of aesthetic value (e.g. Tulipa, Strelitzia, Vanda); plants of religious reverence/relevance (e.g. Nelumbo, the lotus); plants of amazing weirdness but which survive in extreme environments (e.g. the Welwitschia of the deserts of southern Africa); and the ‘deformed gigantic penis plant’ (Amorphophallus titanum).

The plants, however, are only half of the story; there is also the human dimension, which is graphically (double meaning recognised) illustrated by the various text-based items that accompany the illustrations. Those people-based plant stories brought out in Treasury include: the high vitamin C value of baobabs; use of citron to protect clothing against moths; zombification of humans fed a meal of sweet potato (not showcased in Treasury) and Datura; the 10-page letter (try explaining that concept to the minimalist Twitterati amongst the present generation!) from William Colenso to Sir William Hooker accompanying botanical samples, etc. sent from New Zealand to the UK; the revelation that wine can be made from Vitus species other than V. vinifera; how ancient Sanskrit text gives us the modern word ‘candy’ and its associated sugar-rich-diet-related health problems, etc., etc. Even hard-core botanists who’ve devoted many years to studying plants and their stories are likely to find new nuggets of information amongst the tales told in Treasury. And, if not, they can still wallow in the wonderful plant images!

I was concerned that Treasury might be a direct competitor to the University of Chicago Press’ 2013 title The Golden Age of Botanical Art [GABA] by Martyn Rix, which includes “250 rare or unpublished images by some of the world’s most important botanical artists”. But Treasury and GABA are quite different: different plants are featured; different stories told; GABA has a geographical-based, temporal theme, whereas Treasury’s is plant-based. Plus, GABA doesn’t have Mills’ secret weapon – the 40 plant prints! Interestingly, Martyn Rix contributes the Treasury’s entries for Fritillaria, handkerchief tree, and damask rose. And, in a nice gesture of brotherliness between botanists, Rix’s book is listed as General Reading in Treasury (as is another University of Chicago Press title, the Bynums’ Remarkable Plants that Shape our World).

And suitably framed the ‘bundled’ collection of 40 – frameable (I think that is so cool!), and multi-coloured – plant prints would make great presents for your nearest and dearest and botanically-minded individuals. And even – especially..? – for those who aren’t yet so inclined but whom you’d like to cure of their plant blindness. Having a plant picture (one can’t call them portraits because some are in landscape orientation…) on your wall to admire every day would surely cure even the most phyto-resistant sufferer of that grand malaise of the age. Mills’ Botanical Treasury, the gift that (allows you to ) keeps on giving! And, in terms of getting more for your money, the images on the prints are not the same as those reproduced within the book’s pages(!)

But, can somebody tell me who the official publisher of this book is? My review copy was published by the University of Chicago Press, but I see the Kew logo writ large on the book’s cover; was Kew a co-publisher? I’ve also seen an item on the internet that states André Deutsch is the book’s publisher, and noted a review of the book that claims it is published by Carlton Books Ltd.

 

Summary

The Botanical Treasury is a very worthy addition to the University of Chicago Press’ already very impressive list of plant biology/botany titles. It’s a great publishing coup, and very well done to all concerned! But, with an estimated 352,000 species of flowering plants out there – all of which have their own botanical story to tell – might we dare to wish for a sequel that showcases another 40 ‘eclectic’ plants (with frameable prints – surely the new standard in such publications)? Whoever publishes it!