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Archive for the ‘Botany’ Category

The Cactus Handbook (Der Kakteen Führer), Erik Haustein, translated by Pamela Marwood (Cathay Books 1988)

This book reminds me of the Philip’s Guide to Seashells, because it carries the same important themes: cacti can look very different, but they descend from a single common ancestor and their shape and color are governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables.

But there is one big difference between shells and cacti: the shells are dead and don’t change any more; the cacti are living and do. That means that there can be a startling contrast between the vicious spikes or blistering hairs of a cactus, intended to permanently deter, and its beautiful flowers, intended to periodically attract. Notocactus ottonis, for example, is a ridged ball of tough green flesh set with dozens of spikes; its flowers are a beautiful little fountain of yellow petals. Parodia sanguiniflora has even more spikes and even more beautiful flowers: a spray of scarlet petals around a golden heart of anthers and stigma. If the book was scratch’n’sniff, the contrast would because even sharper, because the flowers often smell attractive too.

All of that is adventitious from the human point of view, because the flowers and scent aren’t intended to attract us. But they do, and so do the strangeness and toughness of cacti, which is why a German author has written a highly detailed guide to plants from South and Central America. Some could probably never be grown in Germany, being far too large and demanding even for a specialist greenhouse; others can be grown anywhere with simple equipment.

And once again, as with any sufficiently detailed book about plants or animals, the scientific names have an appeal of their own: Mitrocereus fulviceps isn’t properly illustrated and perhaps could never live up to its name, which means something like “wax-cap tawny-head”, while the name Gymnocalycium horridospinum combines beauty and threat in the way the plant itself does. Its spines are indeed “horrid”, but beautiful violet-pink flowers sprout between them.

The cone-shells provide a similar contrast between beauty and deadliness, but you don’t actually see the deadliness of a cone-shell. However, you need a specialist vocabulary to describe both cone-shells and cacti properly, and both these books will help you acquire one. Being dilettantish, I haven’t put the effort in, but I know I should do, because it would help me to a deeper and richer appreciation of what I’m looking at.

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19186368.jpgA Buzz in the Meadow, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape 2014)

A book that is both a rhapsody and a threnody: Dave Goulson celebrates nature and laments what we’re losing of it. This is what he says in the preface:

In 2003 I bought a derelict farm deep in the heart of rural France, together with thirteen hectares of surrounding meadow. My aim was to create a wildlife sanctuary, a place where butterflies, dragonflies, voles and newts could thrive, free from the pressures of modern agriculture. In particular I was keen to create a space for my beloved bumblebees, creatures I have spent the last twenty years studying and attempting to conserve. (pg. ix)

Bumblebees were the subject of his previous book, A Sting in the Tale (2013). I haven’t read that, but if it’s half as good as this I will certainly enjoy it. Perhaps it’s better: Goulson is a biologist who can both educate and entertain. Expect the unexpected here: he writes about bumblebees and wild-flowers with the same enthusiasm as he writes about cheese and wine.

He’s also good at using the particular to illustrate the general. You’ll learn a lot about science and the scientific method here, from the “robotic beetle drum” he used to study death-watch beetles to the creation of “mathematical models” for predicting outbreaks of flies at a landfill site. Biology is full of puzzles and solving one often creates another. Not that they are always easy to solve: failure and frustration are part of science too and Goulson is happy to admit his own.

But he isn’t happy about the loss of wild habitats and the quickening pace of extinctions. Homo sapiens could also be called Homo exterminans:

New Zealand was colonised much more recently, about 1,000 years ago. As there were no mammals apart from bats, giant birds evolved there, including at least eleven species of moa, the largest of which stood 3.6 metres high, the tallest bird ever to live. They must have been terribly easy to track and kill, for carbon-dating of Maori middens suggests that all eleven species were driven to extinction within just 100 years of man’s arrival. (ch. 15, pg. 242; his emphasis)

It’s a long way from French meadows to Maori middens, as the crow flies, but similar themes apply: humans have exercised power over nature without proper thought for the consequences. Science is giving us more power all the time, but will it kill us or cure us? Dave Goulson is a scientist who increases my hope of the latter.

He also links apparently disparate parts of biology: parasites are part of both botany and entomology. Yellow rattle is a hemi-parasitic plant that exploits grasses and the bumblebees that visit it are parasitized by mites. The world is a web in more ways than one and many aspects of the web are described in this happy, hopeful and highly enjoyable book.

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Drawing and Painting Plants by Christine BrodieDrawing and Painting Plants, Christina Brodie (A & C Black 2006)

A book that combines botany with beauty. Christina Brodie’s beautiful drawings of trees, flowers, leaves, fruit and seeds rely on a botanically trained eye. So it’s a textbook in two ways: artistic and scientific. The colours and shapes of plants please the eye; understanding those colours and shapes challenges the brain.

So does capturing them on paper with pencil, ink and paint. Art is an intelligent activity in more ways than one. Illustration has one big advantage over photography: the eye can be selective and adaptive in a way the lens can’t. When Christina Brodie drew a passion flower for page 31, she reduced it to its essentials to capture its structure: the three-pronged stigma, androgynophore, hinged anther, corona filament, perianth segments, and so on.

Colour and shading weren’t important, so she didn’t depict them. Elsewhere, she does: the autumn leaves on pages 96 and 97, for example. There are also two photographs on page 97 and they underline the advantage of illustration. Brodie’s leaves are isolated on stark white paper; her photographs have backgrounds and inessentials. Photography can’t focus and exclude in the way that illustration does and there’s no clear sense of purpose and mind in photography.

Nor does photography pay proper tribute to the complexity and depth of nature. A camera can record a leaf in the same time and with the same ease as it records a forest. Or record a star with the same easy as a galaxy. If photography is an art, it’s a lazy one. There’s nothing lazy about botanical art and some of the power of this book comes not just from the obvious skill of the artist but also from her implicit patience and perseverance. We see in an instant what sometimes must have taken hours to create.

So art is a ritual that pays proper respect to the deep evolutionary time that is also implicit in this book. From fruits and flowers to ferns and fungi: plants come in a huge variety of forms and have been evolving and diversifying for hundreds of millions of years. Anyone who opens this book will see that for themself, but botanical artists like Christina Brodie appreciate it more deeply. She’s a highly skilled artist and thanks to printing she’s able to share her skill with many others.

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Harrap's Wild Flowers by Simon HarrapHarrap’s Wild Flowers: A Guide to the Wild Flowers of Britain & Ireland, Simon Harrap (Bloomsbury 2013)

The botanist Simon Harrap photographed every plant in this book but for one: the Cornish heath, Erica vagans, on page 399. That’s an impressive achievement. An enviable one too, because he had to combine a lot of expertise with a lot of travelling. On page 70, for example, there are chalk milkwort, Polygala calcarea, and mountain avens, Dryas octopetala. The milkwort is found in southern England and the avens in northern Scotland, as you can see at a glance from the map that accompanies each flower.

The scientific name of the avens means “the eight-petalled wood-nymph”. Botany doesn’t just please the eye and nose: it’s fun for the tongue too, even if you don’t eat anything of what you see. The milkwort and avens please the eye on page 70 and so do the “frothy, creamy-white clusters” of meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, on page 71. Meadowsweet also pleases the nose: its flowers are “heavily scented, recalling musk or honey”.

But Harrap says that its “name refers to its use in flavouring mead and other drinks, rather than a predilection for meadows”. Information like that is rare. Even though he isn’t trying to be comprehensive, he has a lot of plants to cover and usually limits himself to the botanical minimum: descriptions of appearance, habitat, growing season and any similar species. This is a field guide, after all: “take the book to the plant, not the plant to the book”, as he says in the introduction.

The bigger and heavier the book, the harder that is to do. But I’d call Harrap’s Wild Flowers a work of art and not just a field guide. It’s well-designed and a pleasure to leaf through, full of attractive colours and interesting shapes, and the photographs seem like little windows on spring and summer. But summer can be sinister: the section devoted to the Orobanchaceae family (pp. 241-6) has the strange parasites known as broomrapes and toothworts. Their stems jut from the ground in almost predatory fashion, coloured in putrefactive browns, yellows and purples. You could imagine them growing in Clark Ashton Smith’s “Garden of Adompha”, fertilized by corpses. And the flowers of purple toothwort, Lathraea clandestina, look like a convention of hooded priests, conspiring together in a graveyard. It has “no aerial stem, the flowers arising in clusters directly from the underground rhizome”.

However, the beauty of flowers like peach-leaved bellflower, Campanula persicifolia, outweighs the beastliness of the broomrapes, and this book is a sunny read. I would make only two changes to it. First, the maps use dark green dots to indicate where a particular plant has been recorded. That’s fine when it grows inland, where the green stands out against white, but when it’s a coastal species the green is sometimes hard to make out on the black line of the coastline. A different colour or lighter green would have been preferable.

Second, Harrap doesn’t always record when a plant is poisonous. Monkshood, Aconitum napellus, and deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, get info boxes about their deadliness, but hemlock, henbane and thornapple don’t (Conium maculatum, Hyoscyamus niger and Datura stramonium, respectively). Nor does hemlock water-dropwort, Oenanthe crocata. These omissions save space but make the plants less interesting to the uninitiated. I don’t think anyone will be put in danger by not being told about henbane, thornapple and company – poisonous plants generally look unappetizing – but you look at a plant in a new way when you know it’s poisonous and a little symbol like a skull-and-crossbones could have been added if there wasn’t room in the text.

But these are minor flaws. Harrap’s Wild Flowers is delightful to look at, easy to use and deserves a place on every British botanophile’s bookshelf, whether you’re interested in avens above or helleborines below.

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Enchanting Alpine Flowers, Alfred Pohler, trans. Jacqueline Schweighofer

If the author’s name had been removed you might guess from the title alone that this is a translation. If so, the “PROTECTED!” that punctuates the text would tell you the original language. And yes, Enchanting Alpine Flowers was originally called Zauberhafte Alpenblumen, or “Bewitching Alp-Blooms”. But being shouted at in a book about flowers that are often very delicate isn’t so odd. The flowers themselves are generally photographed against mountain and snow, rather like a young soprano singing sweetly at the front of a stage while a group of basses rumbles away at the back. That kind of photography is sometimes necessary to properly justify the inclusion of a flower, because many of them aren’t unique to the Alps or to mountainous regions. Some of the most beautiful are, though, like Cortusa matthioli, or Alpine bells, a member of the primrose family whose five red petals droop like bells or fairy caps at the top of long, slender stalks.

Aconitum lamarckii

Aconitum lamarckii, Lamarck’s Wolfsbane


It’s found only in the Alps, while the strange yellow Aconitum lamarckii, or Lamarck’s Wolfsbane, extends to the Appenines, Pyrenees and Jura, and isn’t just “PROTECTED!” but “POISONOUS!” too. Neither of those shows any obvious adaptations to cold and altitude, but Leontopodium alpinum, the famous Edelweiss (its scientific name means “Alpine lion’s-little-foot” and its common name “precious-white”), is really a woolly daisy, while the five-petalled, yellow-eyed white flowers of Androsace helvetica, or the Swiss rock-jasmine, are on very short stalks and curve back against the densely packed leaves, as though the plant is hugging itself against the cold.

That is exactly what it’s doing: evolution becomes most obvious under extreme conditions and mountain flowers are often interesting not just for their beauty but for their biology too. The text that fills half of each double-page is short but full of scientific detail and precision, affording another contrast to the richness and delicacy of the photographs standing opposite. Enchanting Alpine Flowers is indeed enchanting.

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Scented Flora of the World by Roy GendersScented Flora of the World: An Encyclopedia, Roy Genders (Robert Hale 1977)

It’s hard to believe that even a horticulturalist as expert and dedicated as Roy Genders (1913-85) was personally acquainted with every flower, tree, and shrub in this large and detailed book. But the back cover claims that it was “a thirty-year labour of love”, so perhaps he was. Either way, he was a lucky man. There is a Chinese saying that runs: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; happy for a year, get married; happy for a lifetime, get a garden.”

Plants and flowers are endlessly rewarding and in a way the absence of pictures here intensifies the romance and sensuality of its subject. Even the appendices, running from “A” to “T”, are good to read: “Night-Scented Flowering Plants” combines the mystery of night with the strangeness of scientific names (Heliotropicum convolvulacaeum), the evocation of scent (vanilla, honey, lily), and the enchantment of distance (Mexico, Brazil, South Africa).

Then there are “Scented Aquatic Plants” and “Scented Cacti and Succulents” — and that is only the appendices. In the first part of the book Genders discusses the history, chemistry, culture and psychology of scented flora, then plunges head-and-heart-long into the encyclopedia of the book’s title. There’s everything from Abelia chinensis, with its “rose-tinted flowers, like miniature fox-gloves”, to Zylopa glabra, whose seeds, “much sought after by wild pigeons… impart their particular odour to the birds’ flesh”. In between there are plants like Illicium religiosum, an omnifragrant Japanese tree used for incense and for strewing at funerals. Genders says that it’s known in China as “Mang-thsao, ‘the mad herb’, for it is said to cause frenzy in humans”.

Scent can do that, either by attracting or by repelling. And Genders doesn’t neglect the repellent side of his subject: he describes the pongy and pungent with the sweet and soporific. The final appendix draws up a “Phew’s-Who” of “Plants bearing Flowers or Leaves of Unpleasant Smell”. It’s like a remainder of the death and decay that await us all, but those are what nourish the plants that are beautiful and sweetly-scented, as well as those that are only one of those or neither.

So Scented Flora is big both in bulk and in its themes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “encyclopedia” is spurious Greek for “all-round education”. Despite its focus on one aspect of one subject, that’s what Genders reveals and provides here. He knew a lot not just about horticulture and science, but about literature and culture too. We call Filipendula ulmaria “meadow-sweet” nowadays, but Ben Johnson knew it as “Meadow’s Queen”, perhaps after the French reine-des-prés, “queen of the meadows”. The herbalist Gerard said that its scent “makes the heart merry and delighteth the senses”. It does exactly that, but there are thousands more scented plants to explore and anticipate here.

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Wicked Plants by Amy StewartWicked Plants: The A-Z of Plants that Kill, Maim, Intoxicate and Otherwise Offend, Amy Stewart (Timber Press 2010)

One of the most memorable villains in fiction is Ernst Blofeld, who battles James Bond in various books and films. Blofeld’s most memorable scheme is the garden of death he creates in You Only Live Twice (1964) to exploit the Japanese taste for suicide. As Ian Fleming puts it: Blofeld wants to “slay it with flowers”.

He would have found this book an excellent guide for his gardening. But he couldn’t have hoped to collect everything here, because it covers a world of wickedness and weathers, from monkshood in Scotland to mouse trap trees in Madagascar. The former is metabolically offensive: its alkaloid poison aconite “paralyzes the nerves, lowers the blood pressure, and eventually stops the heart” (pg. 2). The latter is mechanically offensive: its seeds are covered in hooked spines and “humans who have been caught in its grip report that attempting to remove the seedpods is like getting caught in a Chinese finger trap” (pg. 218).

The Chinese are famous for their ingenious tortures, but Mother Nature is more ingenious still. After all, she invented the Chinese too. Natural poisons can attack the muscles, the nerves, the skin and the brain. They can cripple you, blind you, kill you and drive you mad. That’s why they’re interesting. Amy Stewart covers every kind of offensive plant, from trees and grasses to cacti and algae, and quotes everyone from Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud to Hippocrates and Ovid. Whether it’s poisonous or simply a pest, you should find it discussed here: deadly nightshade and tobacco are killers, kudzu and water hyacinth are pests.

But there isn’t actually an entry under “Z”: the book starts with “Aconite” and ends with “Yew”. Which is appropriate, because humanity wouldn’t exist without plants. They enhance our lives in countless ways too. This book turns the leaf and discusses plants that destroy or distress us instead. It’s full of botany, chemistry, history and mean green machines.

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Flora by Sandra KnappFlora: An Artistic Voyage through the World of Plants, Sandra Knapp (Natural History Museum 2014)

There’s a phantom at this floral feast: photography. How much did we lose when it became easy to capture accurate images of the world with a camera? How much do we continue to lose? The botanical drawings and paintings here are almost sacramental in their intensity: beautiful natural objects receive the care and attention they deserve. Wordsworth said this: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give | Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

The artists represented here understood what he meant. So does Sandra Knapp, the botanist who collects and commentates their art in this beautiful book. She complements it with serious science too as she discusses twenty broad groups of plants, from arums and water-lilies to palms and grasses, from daffodils and poppies to roses and morning-glories. Tulips too, whose vivid patterns are produced in an unusual way:

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

Lilium suffureum (1936) by Lilian Snelling

The fantastic red and purple feathers and flames that appear as if by magic on tulips are not the result of man’s interference with nature, but are a viral disease transmitted by aphids. […] There are many varied viral diseases of plants, but tulip-breaking virus is the only one known to increase the infected plants’ value. Tulip plants infected by tulip-breaking virus have blotchy, mottled leaves and intricate and finely patterned petals, and appear as if hand-painted in pure colour. The variegated effect is caused by interference of the virus in the plant’s production of anthocyanins (pigments responsible for producing the reds and blues of flowers), without which the background colour shows through, pure white or yellow. (“Tulips”, pg. 294)

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

Tulipa cultiva (1900s) by J.J. Hormann

But this book isn’t just about colourful and scented plants: it also covers conifers, with their odd and interesting cones. They include some of the largest plants on earth, like Sequoiadendron giganteum, the giant redwood. The heathers, on the other hand, are often tiny and easy to overlook, but they can introduce some big themes:

There are more than 750 species of Erica in South Africa – with the proteas and restionads, they are one of the three main constituents of fynbos, the characteristic and wonderful vegetation of the Cape region. The Cape fynbos [Afrikaans for “fine bush”] has been described as a wonder of the world, a statement with which it is impossible to disagree. Imagine an area the size of Portugal or the state of Virginia with more than 8000 native species of flowering plants, more than half of which are endemic (found nowhere else on earth). (“Heathers”, pg. 255)

Flora is a fynboek, a “fine book”. Serious science, enchanting images, and literary quotes that range from Robert Burns and Ovid to Frank L. Baum and Zhu Pu: Sandra Knapp has combed archives, combined disciplines and created something worthy of its beautiful subjects.

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The Bonsai Bible by Peter ChanThe Bonsai Bible: The Definitive Guide to Choosing and Growing Bonsai, Peter Chan (Hamlyn 2014)

In “Slug Is A Drug”, I claimed that Innsmouth was an ideal place to live because it was by the sea and had a river running through it. But even as I said that, I knew I was only two-thirds right. One vital ingredient was missing: trees. Living in a forest with a river by the sea would be best. Innsmouth was surrounded by salt marsh, not trees.

But even in Innsmouth there would be a way to enjoy the shapes, colours and scents of a forest: bonsai. When bonsai are grown right, they offer no sense of scale, either in space or in time. What looks like a tall tree, ready to house squirrels and flocks of chattering birds, might sit comfortably on a windowsill. And what looks gnarled and centuries old, tortured by salt winds on a sea-cliff, might have been created in much less than a lifetime. With bonsai, ars est celare artem: “the art is to conceal the art”. The trees should look natural in every way but one: their size. But you can’t simply plant a seed in a pot and let it grow, because it won’t grow right. Bonsai is really a form of sculpture, sometimes of living wood, sometimes of wood that’s dead by design:

Bonsai driftwood carvings, which seek to replicate the hollow trunks and deadwood found on trees in nature, have become very popular in recent years, the world over. The fashion has been stimulated by the great Japanese bonsai artist Masahiko Kimura, whose carved masterpieces are sculptures in their own right.

Jin is the term for deadwood on a branch, while shari refers to a stripped trunk effect. […] To achieve the authentic, white, bleached effect seen on some bonsai, apply lime sulphur or bleach to the dry, dead wood. Once the driftwood effect has been created, the wood should in any case be preserved by applying lime sulphur to the wood once or twice a year when the weather is dry. (“Jins and Sharis”, pg. 33)

This book is like its subject: small but enchanting. It describes the history, techniques and terminology of bonsai, then catalogues the suitable species, outdoor and indoor, flowering and non-flowering, from Acacia to Zanthoxylum, from mimosa to yew. The photographs are beautiful, like the red wave of a “Japanese maple Acer palmatum in its autumn colour grown in the semi-cascade style” (pg. 106), and the advice is concise but detailed. Bonsai can attract pests and need to be fed and watered right. They’ve even had political enemies. What was invented in China hasn’t always flourished there:

The Chinese loved the art of bonsai, but during the 1950s and until the 1980s it was nearly extinguished by the communist regime, which regarded growing bonsai as a revisionist and bourgeois pastime. It is only in the last few decades that the Chinese authorities have started to encourage the practice of bonsai again, and now it is once more a thriving and vibrant art form. (“What is a bonsai?”, pg. 11)

It’s also a thriving business: “almost all the indoor bonsai sold around the world today come from China” (pg. 12). Whether you want to buy one or grow one, this book is a good place to start.

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