Teaching plant anatomy, via hangman?

Plant Anatomy: A Concept-Based Approach to the Structure of Seed Plants by Richard Crang, Sheila Lyons-Sobaski and Robert Wise, 2018. Springer.

I suspect that anybody who’s ever taught – or studied – plant anatomy has their favourite textbook for that topic. I’m also prepared to believe that that choice is likely to be age-dependant: I therefore won’t embarrass myself by stating mine. But, I also suspect that I can predict what will be the text of choice for many future generations of plant anatomists. And that may well be Plant Anatomy: A Concept-Based Approach to the Structure of Seed Plants [hereafter referred to as Springer’s Plant Anatomy] by Richard Crang*, Sheila Lyons-Sobaski and Robert Wise.

Having tried to enthuse undergraduates with the joys of plant anatomy for many years I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s probably no perfect way to teach that subject, whose main components continue to be “roots, shoots, and fruits”. Similarly, I don’t believe there’s an ideal way to lay out a text on the subject. Although Crang et al. are keen to promote the ‘concept’ approach to plant anatomical study that they use, they have still opted for what may be regarded as a fairly conservative, traditional layout to the text in its six sections: From cells to tissues of the primary plant body [Chapters 3 – 8 in Sections II Cellular Plant Anatomy, and III Vascular Tissues], to extension growth [Chapters 9 – 13 in Section IV Primary Vegetative Growth] (where the organs of the vegetative plant body are first encountered), increase in girth [Chapters 14 – 16 in Section V Secondary Vegetative Growth], and finally reproductive structures [Chapters 17 – 19 in Section VI Flowering and Reproduction]. Throughout Springer’s Plant Anatomy both gymnosperms and angiosperms are covered – since both are seed plants. However, there is a strong bias towards the latter – as might be expected by the sheer numerical superiority and corresponding anatomical variety of the flowering plants.

Although one might be tempted to get stuck straight in to the main anatomical chapters 3 – 19, the two chapters in Section I’s Plants as Unique Organisms; History and Tools of Plant Anatomy is the rightful place to begin your reading of Springer’s Plant Anatomy. Chapter 1 – ‘The nature of plants’ – is an important scene-setting one that considers the ’nature’ of plants and looks at plant evolution and provides an overview of plant structure that’s developed in more detail in subsequent chapters. Chapter 2 – ‘Microscopy and imaging’ – is another important scene-setter as it considers the tools and techniques that generate the information about, and understanding of, plant anatomy. Chapter 2 also looks at the development of our understanding of plant structure, and considers the contributions of some of the major players in the subject’s history. Thereafter, the real structural meat of the book commences in Section II’s Cellular Plant Anatomy with Chapter 3 – ‘Plant structure and ultrastructure’ – with … cell structure and ultrastructure, and Chapter 4 on mitosis and meristems, the process and structures that generate the raw material which is fashioned into the internal plant structure we know as anatomy.

Each chapter is full of succinct sub-headings [the ‘concepts’], statements which summarise that section’s main message, and which are a valuable aid to navigating the text. Although, as the authors proudly claim, such text has been kept to a minimum to allow the images to tell the real story of plant anatomy. Each chapter concludes with a chapter review (a ‘concept review’), which succinctly summarises the content of the chapter’s main sub-sections, and a list of references and additional reading. The book is completed with Supplementary Information: An Appendix (answers to the end-of-chapter questions), a 21 page, 2-columned Glossary, and a 9-page, 3-columned Index, from A (Abbé) – Z (zygote).

Whilst the text seems as up-to-date as one would expect in a 21st century plant anatomical text – and packs in a great deal of information within its 675 pages of subject-related text, what really marks this book out as something special is the illustrations, which are nothing less than superb! As the publisher’s proudly proclaim, Springer’s Plant Anatomy includes “over 1150 high-resolution color micrographs, color diagrams and scanning electron micrographs”. However, and despite the high information content from confocal techniques, I was somewhat disappointed to note that only a few CLSM images appear to have been used in the book – e.g. Fig. 2.9 on p. 60, Fig. 3.12 d, e (although not described as CLSM images…), and Fig. 9.4A, panel ‘n’, on p. 299. But, a most laudable positive feature of the images is that the great majority – and seemingly all of the micrographs – have scale bars. Disappointingly, this essential aid to understanding is not always a feature of plant anatomy texts(!) So, full marks for Crang et al. on that score.

And that important educational dimension is but one of several other pedagogical touches that make me very well disposed towards Springer’s Plant Anatomy. Other great educational features are:

End-of-chapter multi-choice questions (MCQs) – although described as ‘concept assessments’ – which are answered in the Appendix, and which could easily form the basis of an MCQ section of an exam in plant anatomy;

The ‘concept maps’ – e.g. on pp. 176, and 242 – that should really get the student to think about plant anatomical issues and demonstrate true understanding;

The end-of-chapter ‘illustration interpretation’ exercises, which could also form part of a plant anatomy exam. But, I’m not convinced that the answers are included on this exercise for Chapter 17’s Floral development and male reproduction (see p. 693…).

Springer’s Plant Anatomy also contains several other nice touches, which have instructive and educational value. For example, Table 6.1 (which lists examples of parenchyma, collenchyma, and sclerenchyma cell types), and the crosswords (e.g. on pp. 41, and 71), which could easily be converted to a game of ‘hangman’ to provide variety in-class. The book also includes numerous portraits of the historical figures who played such an important role in getting us to where we are today with our knowledge of plant structure. It’s always nice to see them appreciated and celebrated, and the historical dimension of the discipline acknowledged.

Crang et al. also do their bit to try and dispel that view prevalent amongst students – and others who really should know much better! – that plant anatomy is boring and irrelevant by providing a good deal of functional context throughout the book. This is achieved within the normal text where appropriate, and also by use of ‘side-boxes’ highlighting the relevance of plant anatomy to investigations in plant molecular biology, and to functional activities of plants, underlining the point that the structures actually do – or help the plant to do – something. Hopefully, this helps to ‘justify’ the relevance of the study of structure to a better understanding of plant biology and ecology.

Summary

I really liked Crang, Lyons-Sobaski and Wise’s Plant Anatomy: A Concept-Based Approach to the Structure of Seed Plants. This book is a veritable phytostructural image-fest – as any plant anatomy text worthy of that title should be, and deserves to do well in helping to promote a fundamental topic of plant biology that underpins many other studies within plant science.


* Sadly, Richard Crang passed away before the book was published, and the completed text is dedicated to him.