Plant anatomy goes back to its roots (stems, leaves…)

Does "Essentials of Developmental Plant Anatomy" cover the essentials of developmental plant anatomy? Nigel Chaffey looks over the introductory textbook.

Essentials of Developmental Plant Anatomy. Taylor A. Steeves and Vipen K. Sawhney. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Essentials of Developmental Plant Anatomy (hereafter referred to as Essentials) by Taylor Steeves and Vipen Sawhney is not what I was expecting in a 21st century tome on developmental plant anatomy. It’s rather a slim volume – 168 pages (+ x), whose 11 chapters, plus Glossary plus Index, average out at 13 pages each. Essentials is quite a small book – page sizes are 15 x 23.5 cm. It has no colour pictures. Its text is almost completely devoid of in-text references, and chapters have no suggestions of further reading. Indeed, only a few articles are included amongst the single page Bibliography. AND, there’s no mention of genes (there’s not even an Index entry for this term…), other than apparently a solitary mention of the word ‘gene’ on p. 28. In summary, the appearance of Essentials is rather old-fashioned. Are these criticisms? Do they mean the book is not fit for purpose? Not necessarily; they are observations and only my first impressions of Essentials. But, it’s not my expectations that are important, what do the book’s authors think is its purpose (and what are my second impressions…)?

Essentials’ declared main aims are to provide (a) fundamental information on plant structure and development to students at the introductory level, and (b) a resource material to researchers working in nearly all areas of plant biology i.e., plant physiology, systematics, ecology, developmental genetics and molecular biology. And that it does. Focused on angiosperms (and why not? As the main food plants on the planet that is justified – and keeps the anatomy relatively straightforward), it provides some of the most succinctly written contributions on plant anatomy that I’ve encountered (which is always nice to see and presumably a result of the authors’ many years in teaching plant anatomy). It covers plant anatomy – both of vegetative and reproductive structures – and with that promised developmental slant. It isn’t exhaustive in that coverage; it just covers the essential information on, for example, the shoot system, diversity of plant cells and tissues, structure and development of the stem, leaf, root, and the secondary body. Essentials really “does exactly what it says on the tin”. So what are my reservations?

The opening paragraph of this review lists most of them. Recognising that Essentials is an introductory text many of my criticisms relate to the instructional, pedagogic aspirations of the book. It would be nice to have suggestions of further reading for each chapter to take one’s interest further. There is too little interest in/appreciation of plant anatomy these days. So, having now kindled an interest in the subject, lets’ provide the additional fuel to let that fire of enlightenment burn brighter. It would be so much more educational if all micrographs had scale bars or – at the least – some indication of their magnification, the better to inform the intended readership. But, on the rare occasion that size/location information is provided it needs to be correct; e.g. Fig. 8.4’s section is presumably taken 80 µm (units of length) below the shoot apex, not µM (units of concentration) as stated. Is there no way we could have some nice colour images to brighten the book up (but not at the risk of adding to the book’s cost – see last sentence)? As it stands it’s all rather black, white and various shades of grey (reinforcing the old-fashioned feel of the book). In my view a few carefully-chosen micrographs of stained material would make such a difference to the educational value of the book.

And what about those genes – or rather lack thereof? Whilst I’m not the most molecularly-minded individual – and I do think there is a general lack of appreciation of plant anatomy basics – I do appreciate that it is that molecular-genetical dimension of modern-day plant biology that ultimately drives the development of plant structure and form. Perhaps that’s the missing element that would bridge the gap between essential/fundamental plant anatomy and an appreciation of the deeper insights into its developmental side that we now have. Granted, that wouldn’t be the book that is before us (and which I’m reviewing). But with so much of the contents of Essentials (probably all of it – and more!) freely available on the internet, maybe that’s the book that we really need: A basic primer in plant developmental anatomy incorporating sufficient molecular biology/genetics to put both in their proper – developmental – place. Another project for another time?

Final words

Essentials of Developmental Plant Anatomy is extremely well written and achieves its aims admirably; it provides fundamental information on plant structure and development to students at the introductory level, and it acts as resource material to researchers working in nearly all areas of plant biology. Judged by those criteria it must be considered a success. And, as long as you know what to expect in this book, you shouldn’t be unduly disappointed. Whether you think this slim volume justifies its official UK price tag of £45.99 is another matter.