Blooming, brilliant botanical miracles

BotMirac-BookCoverBotanical Miracles: Chemistry of Plants That Changed the World. Raymond Cooper, Jeffrey John Deakin. CRC Press, 2016.

Warning: this book [hereafter styled as Miraculous Botanicals] contains … chemistry(!).

If you like chemistry, you’ll probably like Miraculous Botanicals – because it’s about the natural chemistry [organic chemistry, biological chemistry…] of plants, a subject that doesn’t get mentioned that much ordinarily, but which is about as interesting as anything in the living world. If you don’t like chemistry, you can still enjoy this book – because it’s about plants and their relationships with humans, a topic that’s endlessly fascinating in its own right (but which is made even more so here by a consideration of the chemistry that underlies aspects of that intimate, life-sustaining, and life-changing relationship…). So much for the soft sell. Beyond plants, people and phytochemistry [the chemistry of plants and their products], what is Miraculous Botanicals really about?

As the book’s Foreword states, Drs Cooper and Deakin have produced a text aimed at encouraging young people at “A”-level/high school to early undergraduate studies of the value and utility of plant natural products”, which is a most worthy endeavour in my opinion. More specifically, in the Introduction the authors declare their intention that Miraculous Botanicals is to be viewed as “a platform to present an educational journey and to supplement and extend the teaching curriculum by providing context for learning in organic chemistry”. Miraculous Botanicals therefore has a clear educational intention and sees itself as a textbook (and usefully shows how each topic links to the chemistry syllabus by indicating the curriculum content and chemistry considered). Its pedagogic credentials are strengthened by a list of questions that examine the reader’s knowledge of the chemistry involved for that topic, along with References and suggestions of Further Reading.

But Miraculous Botanicals is not just a teaching text to accompany formal studies of biological chemistry. The authors also intend that the book will “inspire, enhance, and enrich an enquiring mind through a multidisciplinary approach: embracing science, medicine, the natural environment, geography and history”. That is of relevance to all who seek to understand the world – and plants – better, and most definitely not just the preserve of A level students or undergraduates. Even if some of the subject matter may seem a little daunting to those unfamiliar with chemistry, it is hoped that Miraculous Botanicals’ writing style and range of topics will make it equally accessible to those outside of the classroom or lecture theatre. And, our relationship with plant chemicals is a multi-faceted one, which not only has a very long history [as far back as 25,000 BC – Introduction, p. 1], but also has influenced relationships between people [e.g. the ‘pill’ (p. 17), tea (p. 103), coffee (p. 116), and tobacco (p. 150)], and not always in a good way!

Accordingly, Miraculous Botanicals’ six main chapters deals with such uses of plants and their products as medicines (Chapter 2 e.g. aspirin and pain relief, anti-cancer drugs, quinine…); foods (Chapter 3’s wheat, rice, quinoa, and … garlic…); beverages (Chapter 4 – tea, cocoa/chocolate, coffee and maca…); ‘euphorics’ (i.e. drugs, Chapter 5 and morphine, cannabis, cocaine, tobacco…); exotic potions, lotions, and oils (Chapter 6 – camphor, frankincense and myrrh, lavender, aloe…); and the world of colour with green chlorophyll (probably the most mention of photosynthesis in the whole book), golden saffron, blue woad and indigo, red henna and madder, and the flavonoid-created colours of flowers and fruits (Chapter 7).

Whilst many of the stories told are probably familiar (e.g. aspirin, cocoa/chocolate, morphine…), some are either new to me (e.g. maca, and much of Chapter 6 on potions, lotions and oils), or given more of an airing than is usual. In that latter regard it’s really good to see a prominent mention of steroids and oral contraceptives – the liberation that plant-derived product brought to the lives of women (in particular) in the 1960s is a topic that fits in admirably with the book’s sub-title, Chemistry of plants that changed the world. It’s therefore a little surprising that the book’s consideration of quinine and its use as an anti-malarial doesn’t mention relevance of this discovery in helping the European powers spread their influence to Africa and Asia in the 19th centuries in establishing their various ‘empires’, and in helping combatants prosecute the Second World War in the Pacific. However, Miraculous Botanicals does mention artemisinin, a plant-sourced alternative to quinine, and the half-share of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology to Prof. Youyou Tu for her part in developing this anti-malarial treatment (which also shows how up-to-date the book is). But, and however familiar – or less so – they may be, all subjects are dealt with here a little differently to usual because of the chemistry dimension (which, I for one, really appreciated). Although it is possible to enjoy the book whilst glossing over the chemistry, its inclusion makes for a much better, more rounded appreciation of the botanical tales, and further underlines the important role of plants in all our lives. In trying to put the chemistry into these everyday things, I’m reminded of Andy Brunning’s Compound Interest website, which also explains the chemistry behind the commonplace, e.g. foxgloves as poison and medicine.

Having seen what Cooper and Deakin have done with Miraculous Botanicals – and being appreciative of their efforts – I do hope there will be an updated version of this title in future. If that happens, I have some suggestions of topics that they might like to feature: Spices (and the associated tale of globalisation of world trade, Columbian exchange, and empire-building amongst the super-powers of Europe; Sugar – more extensively than here, to include sugarcane plantation system and slavery, and modern-day concerns of obesity and diabetes and debate about high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS); Biopharming – although GM was touched upon, the exploitation of plant’s natural synthetic chemical abilities to produce even more exotic products is a major development; and cyclotides – cyclic peptides that challenge one’s notions of what a polypeptide should look like. And putting in more historical/geographical context for quinine…

In a world with an estimated 369,400 species of angiosperms [flowering plants] (RBG Kew (2016) The State of the World’s Plants Report), of which only 31,128 currently have documented uses, there is an enormous, and as-yet-untapped, reservoir of phytochemical potential that awaits exploration and appropriate exploitation. Miraculous Botanicals shines a much-needed light on that world. Using established examples it clearly demonstrates what’s already been achieved, but also hints at further discoveries to come. Botanical Miracles: Chemistry of Plants That Changed the World provides a glimpse of that exciting botanical future (and an opportunity to marvel at past and present achievements too!). And, if you are put off by the thought of chemistry, there’s still plenty of plants and people interest in the tales told to make Miraculous Botanicals an extremely worthwhile read because all botanicals are miraculous…