Weird Plants by Chris Thorogood, 2018. Kew Publishing.
There is a view that plants are sufficiently amazing in their own right that they don’t need to be ‘sensationalised’ or over-hyped in order to make them ‘interesting’ or worthy of study. I understand that view – and share it. However, there is no harm in making the most of the quirkiness of some plants if it helps to draw in those who would otherwise ignore these wonderful organisms in order to pursue other more animated creations. In that regard, Chris Thorogood’s * latest book Weird Plants [hereafter referred to as … Weird Plants] is to be welcomed.
Variously described as the Head of Science and Public Engagement at the Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum [OBGHA] and Deputy Director thereof and thereat, Dr Thorogood has a brief to engage the public’s interest in plants and plant science. And with the OBGHA as his base, he has access to the perfect assemblage of material to engage in that most important activity. Not only in Oxford, but also during his many travels around the globe in search of the plants (and at Kew), he has had the opportunity to examine first-hand some of the world’s weirdest plants. Additionally, his research interests have had much to do with carnivorous plants, which botanics are – without doubt – amongst the weirdest members of the plant kingdom. And that combination of scientific insight and public engagement with [plant] science has been brought together to very good effect in Weird Plants. Indeed, Thorogood’s stated goal is to “showcase plant behaviour: the inter-relations among plants, the inter-dependencies between plants and animals, and the intrigue of plant evolution”. Or, as he more succinctly puts it, “Ultimately, it [Weird Plants] is about the science of weird plants” (and that is done using language that should be widely-accessible to reach the biggest audience).
So, what do you get in Weird Plants? Well, you get examples of plants from throughout the world (e.g. Mediterranean, the Americas, southern Africa, south-east Asia, the Indian Ocean (well, lands therein), Australasia, and Borneo). Some idea of the plant biology that’s covered can be gained from the chapter titles: Vampires (with such oddities as the “world’s weirdest plant” Hydnora (also featured on the book’s cover), devil’s guts, and Maltese fungus (not a fungus, but with Maltese connections)), Killers (the author’s home territory with carnivorous plants aplenty here), Fraudsters (with look-alikes such as the starfish flower, the flying duck orchid, and the monkey-face orchid (the amazingly-named Dracula simia)), Jailers (such as the titan arum, and Dutchman’s pipe), Accomplices (e.g. New Zealand flax and its reptile pollinators, and the bat pitcher plant), Survivors (highlighting the weirdly wonderful welwitschia, and Sturt’s desert pea), and Hitch-hikers (featuring the aptly-named snake gourd).
The ability to tell a good tale – which he has – is one thing. It’s quite another to have the expertise to illustrate those stories. But the multi-talented Dr Thorogood is also an extremely accomplished artist. Appropriately therefore Weird Plants is replete with his own sumptuous oil paintings (which are as ‘life-like’ as the book’s back-cover blurb states). The combination of text and pictures in the book’s 120 pages adds up to a creation that is pleasing to the eye as well as informative. Although devoid of references – or any indications of further reading, this charming book should open the eyes of the plant-averse to the wonderful – and weird – life of plants. And with various end-of-year celebrations just around the corner, what a brilliant present Weird Plants ** would make. Well done, Dr Thorogood!