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Posts Tagged ‘plants’

The Biology of Flowers, Eigil Holm, illustrated by Thomas Bredsdorff and Peter Nielsen (Penguin Nature Guides 1979)

An excellent short introduction to one of the most fascinating areas of biology. Flowers are results of millions of years of interaction between plants and animals. The first animals were insects, the next were birds, and the last so far, at least in nature, were bats. Flight is the important thing, you see, because it allows pollinators to travel far, fast and accurately between individual flowers. To take advantage of wings, plants have evolved to advertise with color, shape and scent, but those advertisements aren’t necessarily honest. Some animals are paid for their services with nectar and pollen, or even with seeds, but others are tricked into cooperating or even turned into drug-addicts.

Helleborines of the genus Epipactis, an orchid named after a plant supposed in ancient times to cure madness, actually induce a kind of madness in the wasps that pollinate them: a wasp sometimes becomes so drunk on Helleborine nectar that “it cannot fly, but walks from flower to flower, covered in pollen clubs” (the helleborine glues a little stick of pollen to the wasp’s head as it drinks the nectar). The wasps can even blunder into spiders’ webs while under the influence or end up too weak to move, caught on the sticky helleborine flower. Apart from bee-orchids, flowers pollinated by bees generally play fair. But bees don’t always play fair back: some flowers are designed for only the heaviest bumblebees to enter, so the lighter “buff-tailed bumble-bee (Bombus terrestris) sometimes steals the nectar by biting holes in the corolla tube” (the base of the flower where nectar is stored).

Talk of “playing fair” is anthropomorphism, of course: selfish genes take whatever advantage they can and if a plant has evolved to feed an animal, it’s because the animal performs some service for it in return. Plants that don’t use animals to reproduce, like the grasses, can seem less interesting at first glance, but if you wait patiently by a field of rye (Secale cereale) in summer, you might change your mind. The dull-looking rye-flowers will be waiting patiently too: for a “sudden lowering of light intensity” caused by a cloud passing in front of the sun, which will trigger the simultaneous opening of thousands of stigmas and a huge cloud of pollen. There’s a lot more to even the dullest-looking flower — and plant — than immediately meets the eye, and this book will give you many mind-expanding examples, beside enriching your understanding of those aspects of flowers that do immediately meet the eye (and nose): their shapes, colors and scents.

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The Voynich Manuscript: the unsolved riddle of an extraordinary book which has defied interpretation for centuries, Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill (Orion paperback 2005)

Many things that fall under the Fortean label – they’re supposedly strange, anomalous, mysterious – dwindle under further investigation. There’s less to them than meets the eye. The Voynich Manuscript isn’t like that. It’s a hand-written book, heavily illustrated and annotated, that is genuinely mysterious and interesting. What is it about? Who wrote it? Why? After decades of analysis, we’re no nearer answering those questions.

Even if there’s no real language behind the script it uses, as statistical patterns seem to indicate, it’s still a fascinating object. Someone went to a lot of trouble to create it, whether it or not it’s full of gibberish, and a completely mad creator might be even more interesting than a rational one. Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill, the authors of this detailed study, look at all the main candidates for authorship, from the friar Roger Bacon to the occultist John Dee and the bookseller Wilfred Voynich.

Voynich gave his name to the manuscript because he discovered it. Or so he said. Some have claimed that he created it instead, but they’re certainly wrong. It really is centuries old, as proved by both carbon-dating and provenance, and it’s been defeating the best efforts of cryptologists for centuries too. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher seems to have been baffled by it in the mid-seventeenth-century. In the early twenty-first century, cryptologists are still baffled. Is there a real language there, artificial or otherwise? Probably not:

[S]ome very unusual patterns of words … can be found in the manuscript. On most pages of the manuscript strings of the same words are repeated up to five times, or on other occasions, even longer strings of words with only the odd change to individual letters. This would be like writing the word that five times in succession in a phrase in modern English, or producing a sentence along the lines of Brought bought bough, though tough, through trough. It is almost impossible to conceive of a language where this would happen regularly, if at all. As Mary D’Imperio says, reporting the words of several Voynich researchers, “the text just doesn’t act like natural language.” (ch. 5, “The Cryptological Maze – Part II”, pg. 155)

But why would anyone write gibberish for so many pages and accompany that gibberish with so many strange drawings? There are plants, charts and naked women in baths. Is it a botanical text or an alchemical treatise? Or did a hoaxer want people to think that it was? Most researchers think that it was created with a serious purpose. I agree, but in one important way that doesn’t matter. The Voynich Manuscript may never be deciphered, but it’s already given us some valuable lessons in wishful thinking. As with Egyptian hieroglyphs, which Kennedy and Churchill also discuss, researchers have claimed successful decipherments of the Voynich Manuscript that turned out to be nothing of the kind. William Newbold saw microscopic variations in the symbols that weren’t really there; James Feeley thought they were Latin shorthand.

Both of them announced their decipherments with great confidence; both of them were completely wrong. No-one else has been any more successful and the Voynich Manuscript has defeated researchers with much more expertise and much more powerful analytical tools. This book is an excellent introduction to a genuinely mysterious object. Theories about it will continue to multiply, but it may never reveal its secrets. Perhaps that would be for the best.

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restless-creatures-by-matt-wilkinsonRestless Creatures: The Story of Life in Ten Movements, Matt Wilkinson (Icon 2016)

A fascinating book about a fascinating thing: the movement of plants and animals. It’s also a very familiar thing, but it’s far more complex than we often realize. Human beings have been watching horses gallop for thousands of years, but until the nineteenth century no-one was sure what was happening:

The man usually credited for ushering in the modern study of locomotion is the brilliant photographer Eadweard Muybridge. […] His locomotory calling came in 1872, when railroad tycoon and former California governor Leland Stanford invited him to his stock farm in Palo Alto, supposedly to settle a $25,000 bet that a horse periodically becomes airborne when galloping. (ch. 1, “Just Put One Foot in Front of Another”, pg. 16)

To answer the question, Muybridge used a series of still cameras triggered by trip-wires. And yes, galloping horses do become airborne: “not when the legs were at full stretch, as many had supposed, but when the forelimbs and hindlimbs were at their closest approach.” However, Matt Wilkinson calls another man “the true founding father of the science of locomotion”: the French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey, who had been investigating movement using a stylograph. In fact, it was Marey who first proved that galloping horses become airborne (ch. 1, pg. 19). Muybridge’s photographs were dramatic confirmation and the two men began to collaborate.

Marey also pioneered electromyography, or the recording of the electrical impulses generated by moving muscles. Like the rest of modern science, biokinesiology, as the study of animal movement might be called, depends on instruments that supplement or enhance our fallible senses. It also depends on mathematics: there is a lot of physics in this book. You can’t understand walking, flying or swimming without it. Walking is the most mundane, but also in some ways the most interesting, at least in its human form. Bipedalism isn’t an everyday word, but it’s an everyday sight.

What does it involve? How did it evolve? And how important was it in making us human? Wilkinson looks at all these questions and you’ll suddenly start seeing your legs and feet in a different way. What wonders of bioengineering they are! And what a lot of things happen in the simple process of “just putting one foot in front of another”. Scientists still don’t understand these things properly: for example, they can’t say whether or not sport shoes are dangerous, “lulling us into a false sense of security, causing us to pass dreadful shocks up our legs and spine without our being aware of them” (ch. 1, pg. 29).

But there’s much more here than horse and human locomotion: Wilkinson discusses everything from eels, whales, pterodactyls, bats and cheetahs to amoebas, annelid worms, fruit-flies, zombified ants and the “gliding seed of the Javan cucumber Alsomitra macrocarpa”. He also discusses the nervous systems, genes and evolution behind all those different kinds of movement. This book is both fascinating and fun, but I have one criticism: its prose doesn’t always move as lightly and gracefully as some of its subjects do. Wilkinson mentions both Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins. I wish he’d written more like the latter and less like the former. If he had, a good book would have become even better.

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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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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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