Dürer’s “The Large Piece of Turf”.
This is probably the best introduction to British wild flowers that I’ve seen: drawings, photographs and text complement each other perfectly over more than four hundred pages. Despite being compact, it’s a little heavy to be a good field guide, but it would be useful in every British field, wasteland and marsh. From Indian balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) to flowering-rush (Butomus umbellatus) by way of green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), it’s got a lot, if not the lot (no Mycelis muralis, or wall lettuce, for example). The drawings are skilful, detailed, and often show the plant growing with different species in its habitat, which prepares the eye for identifying it in situ. The drawings also often have the adventitious additions that make David N. Pegler’s Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools more enjoyable too, like the half-brick with Canadian fleabane (Conyza canadensis), the chewing-gum wrapper with sea mayweed (Matricaria maritima) and the frog with water violet (Hottonia palustris).
The drawings dominate the page devoted to each plant, but there’s a small photograph of a living specimen too, though “small” doesn’t always mean undramatic. Sea thrift (Armeria maritima) is shown growing quietly on a cliff-top with swirling sea and towering rocks beyond and below it. The photo sums up the book: wild flowers are often delicate and unobtrusive, but they illustrate some grand themes of evolution and biology, from ecological webs to mimicry, parasitism and toxicology: dead-nettles (Lamium spp.) mimick nettles, broomrape (Orobanche spp.) parasitizes broom, clover and more, and lots of British plants can kill you, sicken you or drive you insane, from hemlock (Conium maculatum) to henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). The book explores some grand themes of culture too: the text mixes serious botany with folklore, cuisine, herbalism, and literature. Pignuts (Conopodium majus) appear in The Tempest, for example, and in Ireland “were thought to be the food of leprachauns”. The etymologies aren’t always trustworthy — the “-ard” of “mustard” doesn’t mean ardente, “burning” — but that makes the book itself part of folklore and adds to the plants’ appeal. Highly recommended in this first edition.
This is a brief but burgeoning book, covering a lot of science and a lot of scientific history. Plants stay in one place and don’t seem to suffer pain or discomfort, so they’re good experimental subjects, particularly for introverts. That’s why Charles Darwin devoted even more time to plants than he did to worms and barnacles. Chamovitz describes Darwin’s ingenious experiments and the even more ingenious experiments of the researchers that followed him. Over millions of years the world has set problems of survival for plants; in solving these problems, plants have set puzzles for scientists. How do plants know when to flower and prepare for winter? How do they resist attacks by insects? Or prey on insects? Or invite visits from pollinators? And how do they communicate with each other? The answers aren’t just chemical: they’re electrical too, as research on the world’s most famous carnivorous plant has proved:
Alexander Volkov and his colleagues at Oakwood University in Alabama first demonstrated that it is indeed electricity that causes the Venus flytrap to close. To test the model, they rigged up very fine electrodes and applied an electrical current to the open lobes of the trap. This made the trap close without any direct touch to its trigger hairs … (ch. 6, “What A Plant Remembers”, pp. 147-8)
Acoustics is also at work in the plant kingdom:
In a process known as buzz pollination, bumblebees stimulate a flower to release its pollen by rapidly vibrating their wing muscles without actually flapping their wings, leading to a high-frequency vibration. … In a similar vein, Roman Zweifel and Fabienne Zeugin from the University of Bern in Switzerland have reported ultrasonic vibrations emanating from pine and oak trees during a drought. These vibrations result from changes in the water content of the water-transporting xylem vessels. While these sounds are passive results of physical forces (in the same way that a rock crashing off a cliff makes a noise), perhaps these ultrasonic vibrations are used as a signal by other trees to prepare for dry conditions. (ch. 4, “What A Plant Hears”, pg. 107-8)
All of this is mathematical: a plant is a mechanism that processes not just sun, water and carbon-dioxide, but information from its environment too. But then sun, water and CO2 are all part of that information: sunlight signals plants as well as sustaining them. Its strength and duration are cues for the seasons and time of the day. So is its colour:
By the time John F. Kennedy was elected president, Warren L. Butler and his colleagues had demonstrated that a single photoreceptor in plants was responsible for both the red and far-red effects. They called this receptor “phytochrome”, meaning “plant colour”. In its simplest model, phytochrome is a light-activated switch. Red light activates phytochrome, turning it into a form primed to receive far-red light. Far-red light inactivates phytochrome, turning it into a form primed to receive red light. Ecologically, this makes a lot of sense. In nature, the last light a plant sees at the end of the day is far-red, and this signifies to the plant that it should “turn-off”. In the morning it sees red light and it wakes up. In this way a plant measures how long ago it last saw red light and adjusts its growth accordingly. (ch. 1, “What A Plant Sees”, pg. 21-2)
There’s an obvious analogy with a computer automatically turning itself off and on, which would make phytochrome and its associated chemicals a kind of hardware created by the software of the genes. Plants share some of that software with human beings: in one fascinating section, Chamovitz discusses the links between healthy plants and sick people:
The arabidopsis [A. thaliana, mustard plant] genome contains BRCA, CFTR, and several hundred other genes associated with human disease or impairment because they are essential for basic cellular biology. These important genes had already evolved 1.5 billion years ago in the single-celled organism that was the common evolutionary ancestor to both plants and animals. (ch. 4, “What A Plant Hears”, pg. 105)
What a Plant Knows stimulates human minds as it discusses plant senses. It’s one of the best briefest, or briefest best, books on science I’ve ever read, packing a lot of history and scientific information into six chapters. Plants don’t move much, but they’re a very lively topic and botany is a good way to understand and appreciate biology and scientific research better.
Language doesn’t create the world, but it can manipulate the way we see it or can focus our attention on things we were overlooking. When I read a book on architecture and learnt about the three classic forms of column – Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian – I started to see them everywhere in towns and cities. Something similar happened to me because of this book. After leafing through its colour photos, I suddenly started noticing moss much more. And it’s worth noticing, both scientifically and aesthetically. It’s a humble but fascinating plant and has a surprising beauty and variety: Thuidium tamariscinum, common tamarisk-moss, for example, looks as though it should be with the ferns, because it has a similar branching structure. Lichens aren’t beautiful in their own right like mosses, but they can create beautiful patterns and colours on rock and stonework. And like mosses, they’re something humble that should make us humble: they’ve been around for much longer than we have and may be around long after we’re gone.
The same is true of ferns and grasses, though I have to admit that I still find it hard to see much interest in grasses. I know that interest is there, but they still seem dull. Ferns don’t, despite being a simpler plant. But they have a romance that grasses lack. You could call them the Celts of the vegetable kingdom: pushed to the fringes by later invaders. Where once they ruled the world, now they’re confined to specialized habitats. Damp ones. Meeting ferns at home can be refreshing in all sorts of ways: the air is cool and moist and their green is easy on the eye. I like their fractal structure too and there’s even a fern that refreshes the nose: mountain fern, Oreopteris limbosperma, which has a “strong almost citron scent released by brushing past or rubbing the leaves”. The scientific names are fascinating too and books like this are spiritually refreshing in our increasingly soulless, mechanized and electronic world. Leafing through Grasses, Ferns, Mosses and Lichens is like taking a walk through woods and mountains without leaving your chair. Lots of people like flowers and trees, and lots of places host them. These botanical groups are much more specialized and easy to overlook, confined to the fringes of our world, and have a cult-appeal that reminds me of obscure forms of music or art.
Pre-previously posted (please peruse):
Mushrooms, Roger Phillips