Plant food and sex (lots of sex!)

Sex on the Kitchen Table: The Romance of Plants and your Food by Norman C Ellstrand 2018. University of Chicago Press.

What comes to mind at the mention of sex on the kitchen table? * Perhaps many different things – most of which probably can’t be shared in this blog. However, probably what doesn’t readily come to mind are the results of sex that we daily bring into our homes and consume. That would be plant food in the form of vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices. And this daily avalanche, the product (one way or another) of plant sex, is the fitting subject of Norman Ellstrand’s book Sex on the Kitchen Table [hereafter referred to as Plant Table Sex]. Lest you still wonder what the book is actually about, its subtitle The romance of plants and your food, gives more of an insight into the true meaning of the book’s deliberately attention-grabbing main title.

Unashamedly, this book explores the many different facets of plant sex. And I mean many; I never knew plant sex was so complicated (or as important to humanity as its understanding is, but which is made abundantly clear here). Ellstrand suggests that readers who are “well-studied in botany or other plant sciences may want to skim Chapter 2” [entitled Tomato: The plant sex manual]. However, and speaking as one who thought he was reasonably well-studied in botany, to do so will leave you at a serious disadvantage to appreciate all the ins-and-outs of plant sex that are expanded upon in subsequent chapters.

In short, Plant Table Sex is the story of the often-bizarre sex lives of plants told through the tales of five food crops: Tomato (for which some producers – allegedly – use hand-held electric vibrators to stimulate and simulate natural buzz-pollination); Banana (whose fruits are technically giant berries); the whole-plant sex-switching Avocado; Beets (the sugar-alternative crop “born from a cascade of geopolitical incidents”, but also with a good sprinkling of sugarcane…); and Squash (the world’s oldest continuously commercially-available engineered crop species). And those tales are told in a way that firmly underlines Ellstrand’s view that “scientific understanding should be accessible and fun”. In that regard Plant Table Sex is eminently informative, educational, and entertaining (admirably fulfilling the mission of another great educator, the BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation]). But, it does require quite a lot of concentration if the reader is to get the best out of the book. For that reason I’d advise not consuming more than a single chapter in one sitting (and I repeat my advice not to skim Chapter 2…).

Each chapter ends with a recipe using the chapter’s plant subject – so you can digest the chapter’s messages as you consume the subject matter? For those of you – like me – who want to know more, the sources for much of the information are cited in-text, and listed together as Literature Cited towards the end of book. Plant Table Sex concludes with a pretty comprehensive Index.

What distinguishes this book is Ellstrand’s lovely – and ‘lively’ – writing style (yet another tribute to the freedom that the publisher offers its authors), and the information he is sharing. One particularly insightful section was his consideration of whether tomato flowers are edible (or not…), which included musings on the limits of knowledge of so-called experts, and the usefulness of the internet. All chapters contain nuggets of information that deserve to be more widely known and shared (e.g. the Latin name of tomato, lycopersicum, means ‘wolf peach’, and has much that is relevant to our better appreciation of plants and people.

However, I’d like to highlight Chapter 6 (on sugar beet). For me this was the most fascinating chapter as it looked at GM [genetic modification], and argues that it is the oldest form of plant sex (and therefore is the most natural…). Importantly, that chapter related the too-little-told tale of Frederick Griffiths, the discoverer of genetic transformation. Having made the point that this was probably the first type of sex in the history of life, Ellstrand then naturally leads on to a consideration of horizontal gene transfer [HGT] and its role in plant evolution. What humans are doing nowadays, with their attempts at GM, is merely rediscovering the truism of the naturalness of that process. Chapter 6 therefore contains much of relevance to the ongoing debate about the pros and cons of GM and deserves to be read by all who have an interest in that topic (and that should be everybody). And, for good measure, Chapter 6 also is a very good primer on virus ‘bio’logy, resistance against which is the main focus of the squash’s story.

Summary

Sex on the Kitchen Table: The Romance of Plants and your Food by Norman Ellstrand is a great little book that delivers on its promise of sex, sex and more sex. Although the sex is of the plant kind, that process has been crucial to the civilising, and is essential for the continued survival, of the human race; plant sex is therefore of relevance ** and interest to us all.


* Splinters. Why? I have in mind a wooden table in a kitchen and that famously frolicsome and farinaceous scene between Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson in the 1981 remake of The postman always rings twice. The easily offended are strongly advised not to ‘Google’ ‘sex on the kitchen table’…

** If your appetite for matters of a phytosexual nature is now truly whetted, why not give Taiz and Taiz’s Flora Unveiled a try? That book is also about plant sex, but recounts the tortuous tale of the discovery – and eventual acceptance – of the fact that plants have a sex life at all.