Phaidon’s plethora of printed plant pulchritude

Plant: Exploring the Botanical World by Phaidon editors, 2016. Phaidon


From the first sight of Plant: Exploring the Botanical World [hereafter reduced to Plant]’s cover – which is in gorgeous, glorious technicolour – you can guess this is a book with a difference. But whether it is a coffee-table book or one of a more serious and cerebral nature – or something in between(!) – readers will have to decide for themselves. I must admit to a certain ambiguity in my categorisation of this publishing phenomenon; I approached it from the perspective of a botanist observing scientific records of plants but ended up appreciating it from the standpoint of one who simply likes looking at beautiful things.

Simply put, Plant is a celebration of humans’ attempts to represent plants throughout the millennia. And it is millennia – thousands of years – that we are talking about; the oldest entry is a limestone carving of wild emmer wheat from 1352 – 1336 BC (interestingly from a period ruled by the Pharaoh Akhenaten who, rather enlightenedly and far ahead of his time, encouraged “far more naturalistic styles of painting and sculpture”, as witnessed in the lifelike rendering of the cereal’s ears in the carving). The most recent entries are from 2015 and include images of Brazil nut-tree, the potato plant, and wisteria. And there are plenty of examples of botanical art in between those dates; e.g. a pretty realistic blackberry from ‘before AD 512’, a 15th century chamomile, an elegant ginger from 1832, and a beautifully rendered yellow lantern banksia from 1988.

Throughout its 352 pages, Plant showcases 300 images of plants from the many tens of thousands that must exist. Whittling down that enormous wealth of botanical art to those few hundred must have been a monumental task for the team of ‘Phaidon editors’ (who are named on p. 351 and are “an international panel of botanists, horticulturalists and experts”). One can only wonder at the ‘discussions’ that might have ensued before the chosen images were agreed (unanimously or by a majority vote..?) upon. I suspect that so much worthy material will have been omitted that one might predict a further collection, in future.

Although the majority of the images are what I – no doubt naïvely – refer to as drawings or paintings, many other media are represented: tempera and ink on vellum; colour photographs; painted bronze; laser-etched hand-tinted plexiglass; painted wood; an alumide 3D print; and X-ray images. All of which creative use of techniques and technology attests to the wonder that plants inspire and which fuels a desire on the part of Man not only to record these natural creations, but also to adorn his surroundings and his things with representations thereof. In that way plants can be kept close to humanity, even if we are divorced and distanced from the living things in their natural setting. And, because many plants are under threat in the wild, for some species it is likely to be only these human-crafted facsimiles that remain as botanical mementos mori of what we’ve lost…

Whilst many of the images are of the outward form or appearance of the plants – their morphology, some go deeper and explore their inner structure – their anatomy. Thus, in Plants, it’s not just representations of what the naked eye sees – or how it is interpreted by the human brain – that are presented. The intricately detailed (though one may wonder at the veracity of some of the representations…) internal structures of some plants are also illustrated by micrographs from the imaginations of such great names of plant anatomy as Nehemiah Grew, Marcello Malpighi, and renaissance man Robert Hooke, all three working at the dawning of the new age of microscopy. And this represents the duality of the plant representations in Plant – some are of scientific merit as documenting new species or structures, others might be viewed as serving more decorative or aesthetic purposes. But, perhaps it isn’t ‘either/or’; all representations are probably somewhere in between as people try to record and reflect some of the beauty and truth of the natural world around them. For me (and not that surprisingly with my background in plant cell biology and microscopy), some of the most memorable – and beautiful – images are the micrographs – whether they be fluorescence images or false-coloured scanning electron microscope images. Are they science or art, or both? Does it matter?

For their proper appreciation, the featured images need some context, which is provided at the front of the book by the insightful Introduction of James Compton (described as ‘botanist and plant collector’), and throughout by the text that accompanies each illustration. And which is further enhanced by the really useful 10 paged, 4-columned timeline of botanical art, which extends from c. 9400 BC up to the 2016 Kew Report on the State of the World’s Plants. Plants is very good at giving the scientific names of the presented plants, which is to be applauded (and helps to elevate Plants above the merely coffee-table). For completeness, Plants also includes biographies of selected ‘artists’ whose work is represented, a decent Index and suggestions of Further Reading.

Plants is an unashamed celebration of the myriad ways that plants – predominantly flowering plants (angiosperms), but also gymnosperms, ferns/tree ferns, a moss-like liverwort, fungi, and even some seaweeds – have been represented and in turn celebrated by humankind for thousands of years. Whether you want to delve into the stories behind the artists or the images they’ve created, view this as a scientific text, or simply wish to wallow in the wonderful imagery, Plants is a beautiful book. Pick it up from the table, open it, and enjoy it … maybe with a coffee.