Talk About Plants to Talk About

June 25, 2021

Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori will give you more than enough to talk about, think about, and research for the rest of the year. This will be a book to take its place beside any plant book you thought was your favorite – and should be alongside Drori’s Around the World in 80 Trees (previously reviewed here.)

The book is simultaneously a handbook for exotic and meaningful plants from cultures, countries, and world regions that we can learn a lot about plus a means to gain insight into the lives of people who live in the same places as those plants. As the review quote from Monty Don, excerpted on the cover, says, this book “informs and charms in equal measure.”
It’s informative in the way it shares information about plants and how they produce seeds, nectar, are pollinated, or how they grow as hemi-parasites, as in the case of France’s Mistletoe (Viscum album). There’s a key to the Latin name of the plant in the way it is propagated – that layer of viscin (“glutinous sticky stuff that adheres to bird beaks”) carries the single seeds as birds scrape the viscin off their beaks and in crevices of trees. We learn here that mistletoe favors apple, lime, and pear trees – and that once established, slowly over time the tree becomes more susceptible to disease and diminished fruit or timber quality. There are regulations in northwestern Europe requiring landowners who spot mistletoe on their trees to remove the young established plants immediately. The regulation is followed since there’s a demand for mistletoe by florists and people wanting to decorate reminiscent of early Druid festivities with this plant.

That’s only one example of what we learn about the plants included in this book. There are 79 other plants, along with lavish illustrations by Lucille Clerc, who was also the illustrator for Around the World in 80 Trees.

These two books, published by Laurence King, UK, are printed on high quality, ecologically sensible paper, which leads the way in conscientious publishing terms, perhaps a small point, but meaningful when we learn more about Jonathan Drori. He is a trustee of the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, which you should take time to Google and learn more about. If you have a sense of the Biosphere II in Arizona, the Eden Project will take that concept to another level and astound you with its design elements and botanical purposes. Check out the Eden Project! Drori is well-known to British and BBC television fans, as he’s been involved in many BBC series on science and nature. You may also recognize him from work he’s affiliated with for the World Wildlife Fund.

With such a fascinating life and fascination for researching plants, it’s no wonder this book is info-dense about each of the plants chosen to be included. You sure don’t have to read this cover to cover. It’s organized with most plants getting at least a double page spread, so you can thumb through and read about all the fruits first or all the prehistoric plants that have survived the ages and how they appear now. You could go through and read about the plants from places you have traveled, such as the Pineapple, chosen to represent Costa Rica. From this section of the book, I learned that the very word “pineapple” was once a slang word in the mid-eighteenth century, for things valued in high society, things decadent and highly sought after, but not readily attainable. Besides this type of historical reference, Drori includes a lot about the botany of this plant as he does with each of the 80 in the book. Forming compound fruit (syncarps) and pollinated primarily by hummingbirds, Costa Rica is a rich area for these plants since they require equal daylight and darkness which is just the way the tropics lie relative to the day and night, nearly year ’round.

That’s a magic quality in Drori’s work – he manages to bring in the facts with the colorful language and descriptions that make each plant vivid and memorable. I love coconut and the way he describes it, again, accurately as far as the development of the plant and the botanical interest in coconut palms alongside the details about the taste and textures we eat. But, reminding me that at one stage, “the milky, translucent layer, spoonable and delicious, except to those who squirm at gelatinous textures” it’s not descriptive of what I think of when I think of eating coconut. Yes, I like it fresh and shredded, but also all cared for and included in a Lindt bonbon!

There are a lot of linguistic facts included in the book besides the frequent references to the Latin names connected to our language or other languages. For instance, the coconut was called that by Portuguese sailors, from their word for “smiling” due to the facelike pattern of the three germination spores. Who hasn’t thought of the coconut as having a face? There’s so much to learn about each plant – the coconut is so rich in history, folklore, recipes and the coconut palm so valued as habitat and building material. Even with a medicinal link: coconut water is sterile and has sometimes been used to help medics in the field as an IV to help rehydrate wounded patients. I won’t share information about calcium carbonate sometimes found in coconuts. Read about that aspect of this fascinating plant when you get your copy of Around the World in 80 Plants.

Why is this book important for gardeners, landscapers, Master Gardeners looking to increase their skills and plant enthusiasts? At first you may say these plants are, for the most part, from parts of the world in completely different hardiness zones than we grow here, so why bother? I would suggest that if nothing else, it’s relaxing to learn about these plants and gain the benefits we have learned through the pandemic that gardening, talking about plants, and seeing plants brings us. But, to be more academic, it’s a great book to read and test your skills and memory about plants you may be familiar with and refresh skills as you read about their botany and things such as how they propagate or how they relate to other plants in the same over arching family which you may be more familiar with.

For whatever reason you choose, I hope you will check out this as well as Around the World in 80 Trees since each of these books will complement your book collection as well as engage you in new ways with the plant world.

This book includes an extensive list of Drori’s recommendations for books on related topics, all organized in categories for easy reference. From books on specific plant families to books on social and cultural history where plants are a focus, those references alone are a valid reason to take this book seriously or simply relax and take an arm chair vacation to distant places as you sit back, drink in hand, in your own backyard garden or patio oasis, where your own favorite plants beckon you now!

— by Cris Blackstone, NHCLP

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