Books Reviews

Glorious global gambol through the plants

Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori 2021. Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

In my review of Jonathan Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees [‘80 Trees’], I suggested there were many more tree species worthy of being celebrated in such a book (or books). Whilst I don’t know if my comments influenced the author in any way, I’m very pleased to see that Drori has produced a follow-up to that 2018 work. Although this new book, entitled Around the World in 80 Plants* [and which is here appraised as 80 Plants], extends the author’s admiration for plants beyond trees.

A book that bears comparison

Given the similarity of their titles, the authorship, and the hint from the publisher that 80 Plants is the author’s “follow-up to the bestselling Around the World in 80 Trees” (from the inside of the dust cover), comparisons with 80 Trees are inevitable. The format of 80 Plants is pretty much the same as that for 80 Trees: two (occasionally three or four) pages per plant, which includes text and illustrations. And those pleasingly petite plant pen portraits are just the right size to avoid overwhelming the reader. I couldn’t find any ‘repeats’ – i.e. species included in both 80 Trees and 80 Plants. So, in those two books at least 160 species are covered (some entries mention other species related to the main entry). But that still leaves 369,240 more [being 369,400** less 160] flowering plant species for future publications(!) As for 80 Trees, 80 Plants is not a book to read in one sitting – however well-written and stylishly-phrased it is (which it is). If you did, you’d get information overload. Instead, I suggest, it’s one to dip into now-and-again. And, for anybody looking for interesting snippets of plant lore to include in a plant-based talk, there’s plenty here. As for 80 Trees, 80 Plants is beautifully enhanced by the awesome artistic skills of Lucille Clerc. Although those colour illustrations are more representations of the plants than photographic-quality reproductions, they appear sufficiently faithfully recorded that they should allow you to identify the plants should you encounter them in the wild. Their colourfulness enliven about half of the pages of 80 Plants, and are a visually stunning accompaniment to the text; Drori and Clerc – and plants! – is a great combination.

‘Plants’ is – pleasingly – broadly defined…

The principal subject matter of 80 Plants is flowering plants (angiosperms). Although most of the examples selected are non-woody (e.g. stinging nettle, mistletoe, lotus, and chrysanthemum), there are plenty of trees/bushes for those who like more of the 80 Trees content (e.g. rhododendron, mango, coconut, citron, and oil palm). But, Drori doesn’t limit himself to angiosperms, he also includes some gymnosperms (e.g. welwitschia, and ginkgo). Nor does he stop at those seed-bearing plants. Recognising that these are part of the broader Plant Kingdom, he gives appropriate space to sphagnum (a moss), horsetail, and silver tree fern. Furthermore, and united with land plants because of their photosynthetic ability, he extends use of the term ‘plant’ to seaweeds (kelp and giant kelp, and nori), and even to unicellular algae – marine phytoplankton. Marine phytoplankton is an interesting choice for several reasons – not least because it is a term that incorporates tens of thousands of species. But, its inclusion as the last entry in 80 Plants, and whose distribution is described as ‘global’ rather than being associated with a particular country as for the other 79 entries, emphasises the planet-wide nature of plant diversity.

Local begets global

Although the plants included are selected from around the world, the country featured for each plant is not necessarily its evolutionary home – e.g. Spain and tomato [tomato’s “native range is Peru”]; Brazil and sugar cane [sugar cane “probably originated in New Guinea”]; and Kenya and water hyacinth [water hyacinth’s native range is “S. Tropical America”]. But, in sharing and airing these seemingly geobotanically mis-matched pairings, Drori makes an important point: Plants have been moved around the globe by humans and often adapted and adopted very successfully in their new homes [that is why the national dish of Hungary is goulash, which is famously flavoured by paprika, a spice that comes from a Capsicum pepper that originated in the Americas, in particular in what is now Mexico]. Loss of any one of these botanics will therefore impoverish each of us – wherever we now live on the planet. In recounting his tales in 80 Plants, Drori gives us at least 80 reasons why each of these plants – and all the others not show-cased in the book – is special and deserving of our notice, attention, and why we should care about all of them, and conserve and preserve their rich heritage.

Idiosyncratic individual entries

Maintaining variety and reader’s interest – certainly important for those hardy few trying to complete the book in a single reading! – there is very little that’s formulaic about each plant’s entry (apart from assigning it to a country, showing its scientific name and one of its common names at the top of the entry): Each species account is different. I really don’t know why I should be surprised – after all, there are loads of plant stories waiting to be told, but – and gratifyingly, 80 Plants contained a lot of information that was new to me. Even where well-known species are included Drori manages to tease out new facts and tell you something you probably didn’t know. For example: the plant-fibre-based derivation of the word line; the notion of sound-delayed tomato ripening; palm-wine music; Pliny the Elder describing papyrus as “the commodity that ensures immortality”; the association of the Western ‘hen night’ with the Night of Henna before a traditional Muslim or Hindu wedding; derivation of the word tattoo; and the significance of the peacock flower in the wedding of UK’s Prince Harry and USA’s Meghan Markle. The information used to illustrate the biology and people interest in each species is therefore an eclectic mix of the straightforwardly factual, the intriguing, and the downright quirky. And all of this is expressed with what now appears to be Drori’s trademark mix of warmth, wit and wisdom.

Taking your plant interests further…

Although Drori has “avoided footnotes and detailed references…” (p. 11), there are several opportunities to pursue your now-piqued plant interest further – whether you just want to know more or to check on the veracity of the information that the author has presented. First, 80 Plants lists several books and other sources for more information. Second, Drori directs you on-line to a much more comprehensive list of sources – including books and scientific articles – to support statements made in the book. A particularly useful resource is the Individual Species References***, which holds sources of information devoted to each of the plant entries in 80 Plants, from Agave tequiliana to Zingiber officinale (and Z. spectabilis). Do note, however, you’ll have to do a bit of toing-and-froing between the various resources Drori provides to track down all of the sources for a particular plant entry, but that activity in itself will contribute to your own personal voyage of plant discovery.

A worthy successor to 80 Trees

80 Plants is a most worthy follow-up to Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees, and – like its predecessor – is highly recommended for all who want to know more about plants and our relationship with them. During these days of covid-curtailed country-visiting, the armchair-based plant voyage around the globe provided by 80 Plants is probably the best we can hope for. But, it’s a journey that’s well worth taking, and Drori is a most knowledgeable and engaging guide to the plethora of people-and-plantness that’s out there***.

Summary

How best can I sum up the essence of 80 Plants? I don’t need to; let’s just use the author’s own words: “For me, plant science is fascinating, but enlivened when it is entwined with human history and culture. Most of the stories in this book reveal as much about people as they do about plants” (p. 9). Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori is a brilliant and – thanks to Lucille Clerc – a beautiful book. It’s an excellent companion to the same author’s Around the World in 80 Trees. Everybody who has the slightest interest in plants – and people – and wonders why we need to conserve botanical biodiversity should read this book.


* Do be careful if searching the internet with just the book’s title, there is another tome with the same name, Stephen Barstow’s Around the World in 80 Plants.

** 369,400 is a current best estimate of the number of flowering plant species in the world.

*** Although the on-line resources are not technically part of the book I’m appraising here, I’m happy to alert the author/publisher/reader to a correction that is required for one of the resources specifically listed for Phyllostachys reticulata. In the entry “W. P. Armstrong, Bamboo: Remarkable giant grasses, Wayne’s World online resource”, the online resource site should be shown as Wayne’s Word; Wayne’s World is a film…

**** If I was still teaching, 80 Plants would go straight on to the reading list for my Plants and People module – alongside 80 Trees

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