Visually stunning: Flora for juvenile – and adult – fauna

Flora: Inside the Secret World of Plants by DK [Dorling Kindersley] with contribution by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2018. Dorling Kindersley.

Dorling Kindersley’s Flora: Inside the secret world of plants [hereafter referred to as DK’s Flora] is a stunning book.

However, with no Introduction, one can be forgiven for not being entirely sure what DK’s Flora aims to achieve. In the book’s Foreword, Prof. Kathy Willis – formerly Director of Science at RBG Kew, which renowned plant science organisation is a co-publisher of the book – states that: “This book starts to redress this balance [contribution of plants to all aspects of life on Earth], combining beauty and science to celebrate the wonderful world of plants…” Scrutiny of the book shows that DK’s Flora certainly achieves that.

Elsewhere one learns that “DK … is now the world leading illustrated reference publisher … and … publishes highly visual, photographic non-fiction for adults and children…”. DK’s Flora has that reference quality about it (it’s not a book to read cover-to-cover, but one to dip into from time-to-time), is highly visual (with photographs, micrographs and drawings), is most assuredly ‘non-fiction’ (plants are an undeniable – if under-appreciated – fact of life!), and is suitable for adults and children alike.

From the publisher’s ‘blurb’, we are invited to: “Discover the extraordinary diversity of the plant world – and how plants work – with this photographic celebration of the trees, flowers, and foliage plants that share our planet.” And to “explore the plant kingdom from the ground up, and from root to leaf tip. DK’s elegant introduction to botany is packed with sumptuous photos and crystal-clear artworks that explain the mechanics of photosynthesis, why leaves change colour, how cacti store water, and how seeds know when to grow. … Flora is a fresh and engaging introduction to the mysterious inner workings of the plant world”. Yes, it is fresh and engaging, and showcases some of the extraordinary diversity of the plant world.

So, now we know what the book is about, what do you actually get in DK’s Flora?

The book can probably best be described as a catalogue of plant parts with numerous insights into different aspects of their biology. The plant parts considered are grouped in sections, which – in the order they appear – are: the plant kingdom; roots; stems and branches; leaves; flowers; and seeds and fruits, and each begins with a dictionary definition of the section’s term(s). Lengths of sections vary, from approx. 7 pp. for the plant kingdom, to c. 50 pp. re seeds and fruits, and about 102 pp. on flowers. In terms of botanical coverage, although mosses and ferns get mentions, the great bulk of DK’s flora is devoted to flowering plants. Apart from the first section, each section has at least one ‘Plants in art’ item. Although these items are nice to look at, it’s not clear why they’ve been included – unless it’s to reinforce the idea of science and art being intertwined, especially with a visually-pleasing topic such as plants?

Revelations of plant ‘secrets’ include: contractile roots; cauliflorous plants; the quiver tree; buzz pollination; armoured flowers; and exploding seedpods, which topics are hopefully suitably intriguing – and sufficiently unexpected – to warrant further study, thereby drawing-in the otherwise plant-unappreciative. Each topic covers no more than two pages, and is so arranged that both pages are open at the same time. This ‘bite-sized morsels’ approach is ideal for those who want to browse the buffet of botanical delights laid out before them. But, I wonder if it’s also mindful of the limited attention span that may be presumed amongst today’s young audience? But, the over-riding impression one gets is of a profusely-illustrated carefully-chosen and curated collection of botanical insights with an abundance of examples e.g. of different compound leaves, or leaf shapes, or types of bracts, or types of inflorescence. DK’s Flora is visually very attractive, and appears about as educational as it can be given its intended broad audience of adults and youngsters.

The 343 pages of abundantly-illustrated text – which have a great ratio of text: images: white space – are supplemented by 8 pages of 4-columned Index, with entries from Abutilon sp. to zygomorphic flowers. Pleasingly, DK’s Flora doesn’t shy away from using proper botanical terms, and they are explained in approx. 6 pages of 4-columned Glossary, with entries from abaxial to zygomorphic. But, surely something useful’s been missed here – why not include page numbers in the Glossary for the image(s) that illustrate the various definitions? Which musing on ‘improvements’ leads me to the following suggestions…

This great book can be even better

DK’s Flora is a great book. However, I think it could be improved – when it would better serve as an educational/reference work. Some suggestions for changes are:

Scientific names are used (which is good to see), but could they be displayed correctly, and consistently? Although they are correctly shown in italics, only the first letter of the first part of the name – the genus – should be shown in upper case – rather than the whole binomial being capitalised (as we have on, e.g. pp. 12, 120, 231, 288…). Scientific names are correctly laid-out, e.g. on pp. 54, 72, 73, 119, 200, and 324. And – which is to be lauded and applauded! – where several species of the same genus are mentioned – e.g. Corylus spp. (p. 222) – ‘spp.’ is correctly shown unitalicised. Rather irritatingly, the scientific name Cibatium glaucum is shown both correctly AND incorrectly on p. 121. Definitely, mixed messages for the impressionable readers here! Pleasingly, binomials are correctly shown on the 4 “exclusive botanical prints” included with the book I reviewed * – which might persuade one to display them with pride on the living room wall.

As “the world leading illustrated reference publisher” specialising in “highly visual, photographic non-fiction for adults and children…”, one expects the very highest educational standards in the book’s imagery. It’s a pity therefore that there is no indication of the true size of the features that are illustrated. An indication of scale is really important – albeit missing – information, especially for the micrographs, e.g. stems on pp. 60/1, pine trunk on p. 83, false-coloured SEM image on p. 112, and fern sporangia on p. 339… It’s also important to state that some images have been coloured – for whatever purpose, whether disclosed or not – e.g. SEMs of pollen grains on p. 198 (and which also need scale bars…).

And there’s no indication of any further reading to take one’s interests … further. Whilst the publisher might like us to think that DK’s Flora is the last/only word on the subject, there’s a whole treasury of plant books out there for those whose botanical interests have been awakened, and who desire to take their interests further. Whilst an entertainer might be encouraged to leave his audience wanting more, in this instance I’d encourage the publisher to provide details of some books or other sources to allow readers to continue their journey of botanical discovery.

Like van Gogh’s Tree Roots (‘plants in art’ item “impressions of nature”, p. 31), DK’s Flora has the feel of an unfinished masterpiece: We need a suitably revised edition – ASAP!

Summary

Dorling Kindersley’s Flora: Inside the secret world of plants is a stunning work of science-art. Although it’s not yet ‘perfect’ – as an educational, ‘plant-appreciation awareness-raising’ tome – it is recommended to all who aspire to interest others in plants and plant biology, and to those who want to find out more about plants’ inner secrets for themselves. This may be a secret world, but it’s one you are meant to share!


* My caution here is because I don’t know if the same quartet is included with every copy of the book – interestingly a USA version of the book, and additionally co-published with the Smithsonian, has a different cover image [a Hibiscus sp. – evidently that shown and named on p. 201] to the UK version I reviewed. Mine had teasel (Dipsacus fullonum) on the front cover [a different image of the same plant shown on p. 277, but which was one of the four plants featured as a print]…