Category Archives: Books

Summer* Reading

*Or winter reading for our followers in the better hemisphere.

In the northern hemisphere, the summer break is upon us. If you’re looking for some light reading to take with you on holiday, what would you recommend? Kirkus Reviews has a short article on recent ecological science fiction, Seeders by A.J. Colucci looks like it could be interesting, combining plant neurobiology with horror. io9 has their own list from 2011, which includes a few I haven’t read as does SF Signal from 2012. Alan Cann has read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I realise is another book I haven’t read.

Is there a science fiction book you’d recommend that tackles plants in a credible way?

If you prefer your SF to feel like work, then you’re not limited just to moving from science to fiction. Recently a few have tried going the other way in the Science of Tatooine Blog Carnival. Matt Shipman explains Why a Bunch of Science Writers Are Writing About a Fictional Planet, including Malcolm Campbell’s speculative Tatooine’s tangled bank – plants evolve in a galaxy far, far away

Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak

Tomorrow's Table cover

Quite a few people have recommended this book to me, but I hadn’t made time to read it. My loss, this is an excellent book. I was told it was a good explanation about the uses of Genetic Engineering in farming. It does tackle that, but it also has a much broader vision, also talking about the role of organic farming in the future.

The authors Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a husband and wife team. Pamela Ronald talks about genetic engineering, while Raoul Adamchak talks about the teaching he does on UC Santa Cruz’s organic farm. The third feature of the book is the recipes interspersed with the text. The recipes highlight one of the best features of the book, it’s very personal, which makes it very relatable. There is a danger with this in that you risk replacing facts with anecdata: genetic engineering is ok, because it worked for me. Fortunately they authors move from the specific, this is what we do on the farm, to the general, and this is what the science says about how it works.

The book opens with Pamela Ronald’s work with rice. She had been trying to make a breed of rice that can survive flooding. I’ve seen paddy fields and I thought all rice could survive flooding, but you can take it too far. It matters because rice is the staple food in a lot of the world. The climate is becoming more unpredictable and while drought might be a problem in some places, in others there’s a very real danger of catastrophic flooding. Rice can survive some flooding but not weeks.

Pamela Ronald found a gene in another form of rice that could help it survive longer and then used genetic engineering to transfer the gene to a rice people ate. It’s not the popular image of genetic engineering, but it is one that could make a lot of difference.
Continue reading

Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking by Olson, Barton and Palermo

Connection Book cover Scientists want to communicate their findings and their work means they have a well of novel discoveries, but their language can be so specialised that no one outside their field understands what they’re doing. Therefore, says Randy Olson, scientists need to work out how to connect with other people. He thinks the answer is in Hollywood, so he’s teamed up with two actors to produce a book on storytelling for academics.

I liked Don’t be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson’s first book. Or at least I wanted to like it. It is a good book, and he makes a good case that to persuade people you have to move their emotions. Facts are not enough. But how do you do that? The title, basically saying “that thing you keep doing, stop doing that” isn’t helpful. If Don’t be Such a Scientist is about showing there’s a problem, then Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking is a step towards working out what the solution is.

Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. Poincaré.

A simple collection of facts aren’t enough for scientists, they have to be presented a certain way. and Olson argues the same is true of the public. Facts alone are not the answer, the solution is story telling, and in this era that means taking advice from Hollywood. This is depressing for me as I find a lot of Hollywood output tedious. There is a reason for that. But if you want to communicate with the public en masse there’s not a lot of mileage in complaining you have the wrong public.

Fortunately Connection doesn’t through me into a pit of despair, because there are useful practical guides in the book. Continue reading

Book Review – Pollination and Floral Ecology

Pollination and Floral Ecology

Pollination and Floral Ecology

Pat Willmer. 2011. Princeton University Press. £65. pp. 832.

Any text book that tries to assess and summarise the whole of a multidisciplinary research field such as pollination ecology and floral biology is required to be four things:  (1) comprehensive in its scope; (2) up to date in its coverage of the literature; (3) accurate in its assessment of the current state of the field; and (4) authoritative in the conclusions it presents.

This volume by Professor Pat Willmer of the University of St Andrews certainly ticks the first box.  It’s a huge book, and covers everything relating to the evolution of flower attraction and reward systems, ecological interactions with pollinators, biochemistry, physiology, agriculture and conservation; all in 29 chapters split into three sections, with 87 pages of references.  The literature extends to 2010, which is impressive for a book published in 2011 (though see my comments below about completeness of the literature).   Specialist terms are highlighted in bold to direct the reader to the glossary at the back, a useful device even if there are a few inaccuracies, which I’ll mention later.

So far so good, and the author is to be congratulated on putting together such a comprehensive, not to mention timely, single-author book.  It’s clearly the summation of a career devoted to studying pollinators and flowers, and the author’s passion for her subject is apparent throughout.

However when we come to points 3 and 4, things are less straightforward.  There are some issues with accuracy that are troubling in a book aimed at newcomers to the field as well as established researchers.  To give just a few examples:

- on p.18 we are told that asclepiads have “one stamen” (they have five); on p.169 and in the glossary that asclepiad pollinia are the pollen grains from one anther (they are the contents of half an anther); and on p.170 that the pollinaria are “glued” to pollinators (they actually clip on).

- in the glossary, tree ferns are referred to as “cycads”, an error that is repeated on p.89.

- on p.88 there is a statement suggesting that tree fern spores were dispersed by “animal fur” 300 million years ago, long before the evolution of mammals, and that this (and dispersal of spores of fungi and mosses) is the equivalent of pollination: it is not, it equates to seed dispersal.

These are troubling errors of basic botany that are forgivable in an early draft of the book (everyone makes mistakes) but not in the final published version, after it’s been read, reviewed, checked and edited.  If the book goes to a second edition I hope that these (and other) mistakes will be fixed.  But they do hint at a fundamental problem with a book (and a field) as large and complex as this: a single author is arguably unlikely to be able to do justice to all of the subject matter.

There are parts of the book where it is unclear (to me at least) what the author is actually saying.  For example, on p.96 there is a graph which, it is suggested, demonstrates that pollination by animals is “technically uncommon when assessed in terms of the numbers of broad taxonomic groups that use it”, though the legend to the figure claims that “most orders of plants have no families” that possess wind pollination.  This is confusing: what is to be concluded by someone new to the field?  Is animal pollination common or rare?  Likewise, on p.91 we are told that the “first angiosperms… would probably have had their pollen moved mainly by wind…”, but then on p.92 that “an element of insect pollination could be regarded as almost ancestral”.  Which is correct?

There are other aspects to the book that are simply out of date; for example the linear, rather deterministic schemes set out in Figures 4.6 and 4.8 showing that Cretaceous flowers were open and radially symmetrical, and only later evolved into complex, bilateral flowers in the Tertiary, ignores fossil discoveries showing that orchids evolved in the Cretaceous (Ramírez et al., 2007).  Likewise, discussion of “counterproductive” crypsis in flowers (p.124) neglects recent findings of cryptic, wasp-pollinated plants in South Africa (e.g. Shuttleworth & Johnson, 2009).

There is a theme emerging here: some of the botany that the book presents is inaccurate, confused or out-dated.  Fortunately the zoological aspects of the book are much better, as one might hope from a Professor of Zoology.

The final criterion, that the book should be “authoritative in the conclusions it presents”, is however, in my view, the main weakness of this volume.  The author is unhappy with recent developments in the field, particularly as they relate to community-scale assessments of plant–pollinator interactions, in terms of network analyses and predictive utility of pollination syndromes.  Clearly Professor Willmer is on a mission to rebalance what she perceives as failings within some of the current trends in studying pollination.  A book review is not the place for a technical dissection of the author’s arguments, which is best left to the peer-reviewed literature (though I would argue that that’s also the place to present some of the criticisms the author introduces, rather than into a text book such as this).  I could focus the whole of this review on these topics because: (a) they take up a large proportion of the book, about one-third of the text pages; and (b) they are highlighted on the cover as being one of the main contributions of the book; specifically, that the author provides a critique of previous work that does not distinguish between “casual visitors and true pollinators” that can in turn result in “misleading conclusions about flower evolution and animal-flower mutualism”. Unfortunately her targets are straw men, and one – I believe quite telling – example will suffice.

On p.447 there is a criticism of the use by Waser et al. (1996) of Charles Robertson’s historical data set, and specifically that the analyses they present “…did not distinguish visitors from pollinators even though Robertson’s database did include information on this”.  However Waser et al. clearly state (p.1045 of their paper) that only pollinators were included in the analyses, not all flower visitors, and that “visitation is not a synonym for pollination… non-pollinating visitors are excluded (as in Robertson 1928)” (p.1048).

Why should Professor Willmer make a statement to the contrary?  Evidently she wishes to impress upon her readers that (in her opinion) there are fundamental problems in current approaches to studying pollination at a community level.  But even if that were the case (and I don’t believe it is) misrepresenting previous studies to suit an argument is poor scholarship at best.

Regardless of whether some of her criticism is well founded, the author does not seem to appreciate that plant–flower visitor interaction networks are ecologically important regardless of whether or not a flower visitor acts as a pollinator.  More fundamentally, true pollination networks possess similar attributes to flower visitor networks, for example a nested pattern of interactions, and arguments about level of generalisation of species are a matter of scale, not category (Ollerton et al., 2003).

At the end of her Preface, Professor Willmer reveals to us quite a lot about her personal attitude to research when she states that some readers might find her approach “too traditional” in an “era where ecological modelers [might be claimed to] have more to tell us than old-style field workers”.  What the author fails to appreciate is that this is a grossly false dichotomy and that most of the pollination ecologists who have embraced new analytical methodologies for understanding plant–pollinator interactions are also “old-style field workers” with considerable experience of studying the ecology of flowers and their pollinators beyond the computer screen.

In summary this is a book that, for all its good qualities of comprehensiveness and (mostly) up to date coverage, should be read with caution: parts of it are neither as accurate nor as authorative as the field of pollination and floral ecology deserves.


Jeff Ollerton



Ollerton J, Johnson SD, Cranmer L, Kellie, S. 2003. The pollination ecology of an assemblage of grassland asclepiads in South Africa. Annals of Botany 92: 807-834.

Ramírez SR, Gravendeel B, Singer RB, Marshall CR,  Pierce NE. 2007. Dating the origin of the Orchidaceae from a fossil orchid with its pollinator. Nature 448: 1042-1045.

Shuttleworth A, Johnson SD. 2009. The importance of scent and nectar filters in a specialized wasp-pollination system. Functional Ecology 23: 931-940.

Waser NM, Chittka L, Price MV, Williams N, Ollerton J. 1996. Generalization in pollination systems, and why it matters. Ecology 77: 1043-1060.


Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook

Kews Global Kitchen Cookbook Kew’s Global Kitchen Cookbook is an illustrated celebration of the amazing variety of edible plants and how we can use them. The range of edible plants is far broader than we may suppose, with huge variety, from all corners of the world, and continually changing in how they are used and perceived. Some now regarded as familiar were once exotic, such as tea, grapes and chillies, and the source of fortunes for those who ‘discovered’ and transported them, such as the staples of the Dutch East Indies spice trade – nutmeg, cinnamon and black peppercorns. An introduction gives context to the plants that provide the ingredients for the book’s 101 recipes featuring plants from around the world, including parsnip tart, truffle crepes, Cincinnati chilli, orange vacherin, Kashmiri curry, plantation smoothie, sweetcorn and crab fritters and pineapple cheesecake with chilli. A further section features the herbs of Europe and the Mediterranean and spices from the East, with details on how they grow, tips for growing windowsill box herbs, and how to use and combine different flavours to the best effect. Each plant has its own story of travel and adventure, and historical, botanical and economic themes are brought to life through the text and beautiful botanical illustrations from Kew’s archives. Relishing edible plants today needs to go hand in hand with acknowledging how lucky we are to have access to so much diversity, and how we need to preserve that for the future.

Sample recipe – Pineapple cheesecake with chilli
Native to South America, pineapples were first introduced to Europe by Columbus as the ‘pina de Indias’. Rich in manganese and vitamin C, delicious raw or cooked, they feature in many cuisines. This tasty dessert uses the pineapple’s sweet juice to balance the bite of hot chilli. Serves 6–8.

12 digestive biscuits, crushed
75g (3oz) unsalted butter, melted
40ml (8 tsp) pineapple juice
10ml (2 tsp) powdered gelatine
500g (1lb) cream (or curd) cheese
50g (2oz) icing sugar, sifted
60ml (2½fl oz) light rum
75g (3oz) caster sugar
10ml (2 tsp) fresh lime juice
¼ of a large, medium ripe pineapple (or ½ of a small/medium one), peeled and thinly sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 large red chilli, halved, de-seeded and finely chopped


  1. Mix the biscuit crumbs and butter and press on to the base of a 19cm (8in) spring-release tin. Chill.
  2. Put the pineapple juice and gelatine into a small saucepan and leave to soak for 2–3 mins, then warm over the gentlest heat until dissolved.
  3. Beat the cream cheese with the icing sugar, then slowly beat in the rum. Stir a spoonful of this mixture into the gelatine, and then slowly mix that back into the bulk of the cheese mixture. Spoon on to the biscuit base and level the surface. Cover and chill for at least 4 hours, or up to 24 hours.
  4. Meanwhile, dissolve the caster sugar in 100ml (3½fl oz) of water, then bring to the boil. Add the lime juice, prepared pineapple and chilli, and bring back to the boil. Immediately switch off the heat and leave the syrup to go cold.
  5. Remove the cheesecake from its mould and decorate the top with the drained pineapple. Serve the syrup separately.


Alice in the Wonderland of plants…

Alice-coverMilitary campaigns are sometimes intended to display ‘shock’ and ‘awe’ to overcome the adversary. Well – and rather less militaristically – Yiannis Manetas’ book, Alice in the Land of Plants: Biology of Plants and Their Importance for Planet Earth (hereafter referred to as Alice), is also intended to ‘surprise’ and ‘amaze’. And, like 21st century invasions of certain middle-eastern countries, but in its own quieter, more benign – though nevertheless subversive – way, Alice attempts to effect its own ‘regime change‘. The regime – “a system” – it is here attempting to change is the pernicious cult of zoochauvinism [or animal chauvinism, “the widespread tendency of biologists to consider it more important to study and teach about animals than about plants”; “a bias for animals and against plants”], which contributes to the condition known as ‘plant blindness’ [“the widespread lack of awareness of plants and neglect of plants both in biology education and in the general population“]. Ambitious? Certainly! Does it do its job? Well,…

The main text of Alice’s approx. 400 pages comprises a Preface, 10 Chapters, and an Epilogue. Whilst it is devoid of in-text illustrations (maybe to encourage us to imagine..?), it does have drawings of Alice at the front of each chapter which purport to summarise that chapter’s theme. [Is it just me, or does Alice look like a little like a hibiscus flower still in bud?] In the Preface Prof. Manetis confides that he considers writing this book to be part of a university professor’s duty, as part of a wider responsibility to transfer knowledge accumulated during the course of an academic career to the general public. Consequently, and as part of the mission to dispel plant blindness, Alice’s goal is to “share 30 years of plant study with readers so they can look at plants in a different – and friendly and entertaining – way” (p. viii).

Whilst I don’t intend to summarise every chapter in Alice, it is worth making mention specifically of some. For example, Chap. 1 “Introduction”, which includes such sections as “Plants are no less complex than animals: They are just different”, also makes the important point that plants’ significance is not limited to their resource use by humans, but also includes their role as ‘shapers’ and ‘moulders’ of Earth (which is probably the greatest – but largely unsung – and enduring importance of plants; pp. 2/3). Plant blindness is here considered (pp. 8-10), as are some interesting reflections on ‘popular science’ (pp. 10-12), and the practitioners thereof. Alice gets her first mention on p. 7, but without much build-up, the presumption being that all readers will already be familiar with Lewis Carroll’s 19th Century book ‘Alice’s adventures in Wonderland’ [AAIW] wherein a human – Alice – enters a very strange land which challenges many of her – i.e. our – preconceptions about everyday notions, objects, etc – and which are very much the same sorts of issues we are faced with as we try to understand the world of the plant. Chap. 2 “Basic Plant Organisation: How it Differs from that of Animals” provides important scene-setting for the tome, and hints at deeper consideration of phenomena mentioned later in the book. Other chapters are entitled “Why Trees are Almost Immortal and Other Related Issues”, “Short Evolutionary History of Plants”, “Sex in Nonmotile Organisms”, “The World through the Eyes of Plants”, “The Defence of a Stationary Organism”, “Symbioses Galore”, “Deviations from the Basic Biological Type”, and, finally, Chapter 10, probably the most contentious of all, “Are Plants Intelligent Organisms After All?” [Spoiler Alert No. 1: the answer is … yes (with qualifications…)]. Bringing it all together, the Epilogue contains a 16 pp. tribute to Charles Darwin, in which Manetas makes the point that the overlooking of Darwin’s botanical work – and its relevance to his ideas on evolution – is yet another example of plant blindness. Surely, recognition of such flagrant disrespecting of that venerable Victorian should help push the cause for APB (Abolition of Plant-Blindness) forward!

Although references are not cited within the text – “to enhance the flow of the main text” (p. xi) – this omission does detract a little from any claims to scientific robusteness and pegagogic rigour that Alice might make. However, for further enlightenment, etc p. 361 lists 18 books (which includes many ‘standard‘ plant biology texts) as additional reading, and there are also approx. 5.5 pages of ‘reviews, opinions, and research papers’ (which includes >30 post-2005-dated items). The 3 pages of two-columned Index contain some surprises. For example there is no entry for chlorophyll, but there are 7 entries each for ‘stomata’, ‘respiration’, and ‘competition'; bizarrely, ‘affinity’ gets 6 entries(!), and even ‘asteroid’ and ‘aspirin’ merit 2 entries, each. Another surprise; the pages have very wide margins – c. half the width of the text. But, these expanses provide spaces for copious ‘marginal notes’ that “highlight essential points, guide the reader through the text, stimulate thought and memory, and serve as a verdict or final judgment on the issue at hand. Together they comprise a smaller book within the larger one that may be read separately” (Preface, p. xi)(!).

As a literary device AAIW has been used before in science writing, to capture that sense of awe and wonderment as unusual concepts and perception-challenging notions and ideas are dealt with. For example, AAIW is alluded to in Lamkanfi et al.‘s 2002 paper ‘Alice in caspase land. A phylogenetic analysis of caspases from worm to man’, and much more directly referenced in Ariah and Roberta Ben-naim’s 2011 book Alice’s Adventures in Water-land. Alice therefore seems an appropriate title for Manetas’ tome because it does aim to challenge – and change – (y)our perceptions about plants, and the entrenched view that perpetuates the myth that plants are boring and not that important; certainly not as important as animals. Plants are all around us, plant biology is therefore commonplace, yet at the same time it is incredible and fantastical, because much of it is beyond our own direct zoocentric understanding and experience of the world. Like Alice we are all exploring a marvellous land. But unlike Alice – Spoiler Alert No. 2 – we don’t wake up at the end of the journey to discover that it was all a dream. Fantastical though it is, this botanical Wonderland is very real and all around us; it is our waking world, and if we only opened our eyes to la vie en rose (en petunia, en thale cress, en potato, etc), we’d probably be much better off.

Generally, I found Alice to be well-written, thoughtful and thought-provoking, and very easy to read – largely because of its style (which reminded me a little of King’s ‘Reaching for the sun’). But, and despite Manetas’ intention that Alice is a book for the general public (p. xi), Alice is not necessarily one for the novice since it does include a lot of ‘textbook terms and concepts’, e.g. allelopathy, thermogenic respiration, horizontal gene transfer, PMSOs (polysubstrate monooxygenases (p. 253), which may be off-putting. However, all terms are explained and put in context. Still, Alice does contain some references that might not translate too well to a global audience (e.g. referring to Prof. Edmund Schulman’s realisation of how old bristle-cone pines can be upon counting their annual rings, “he must have felt the same as Professor Andronikos upon opening King Philip’s tomb”, p. 52 [presumably this is the Mediterranean countries’ equivalent of Howard Carter and the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb – which may be more familiar to a UK/USA audience…]. But Alice is a book that is worth persevering with – you will learn a lot about plant biology, and especially about the interconnectedness of plant and planet (in which regard the section on ‘plants as environmental engineers’ – pp. 63-73 – and pp. 74-85’s ‘chemical history of the atmosphere’ are particularly interesting; both of which topics are not bad going for a chapter entitled “Why trees are almost immortal…”!).

Does Alice have competitors? Yes, sort of… Almost any standard botany/plant biology textbook – e.g. Mauseth’s ‘Botany’ or Evert and Eichhorn’s ‘Biology of plants’ – must be considered competitors for some of the factual content in Alice; but Alice doesn’t pretend to be a textbook, so such comparisons are probably misleading. Perhaps its major competitors are those texts that are also trying to deliver the ‘plants really are interesting and worth looking at…’ agenda, such as Beerling’s ‘Emerald Planet’, Hall’s ‘Plants as persons’, Koller’s ‘The restless plant’, and Chamovitz’s ‘What a plant knows’. But, each of those is different and none is a complete substitute for another. Alice is therefore pleasingly different and a great addition to the blossoming phytocentric literature.

To return to our rather tortured regime-change analogy, the Earth’s ancien régime is a plant-dominated one – plants after all were around long before us humans appeared on the scene, currently our world and ‘world-view’ is far too zoocentric/zoo-oriented. Arguably, we need to return to the former state of affairs. Not literally, but certainly in terms of giving plants the recognition and respect that they rightfully deserve, for all that we are now (and hope to become…). But, and important though it is, this tome’s goal will only be achieved if its message reaches those who are yet to be persuaded of the value and importance of plants; the fact that a botanist is here praising it is not enough! How we reach out to the ‘botanophobes’ is the real challenge. Nevertheless, Alice will help to remind the converted of the justness of our cause; we just have to keep spreading the word and convert the non-believers, and win over those hearts and minds. Vivat Alice! Vivat flora!


What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz

Cover of What A Plant KnowsIf you’re looking to show doubters that plants are fascinating then a good starting point is Daniel Chamovitz‘s What a Plant Knows. I was a bit wary of the book at the title made it sound a bit twee. In fact the book is an accessible and extensive exploration of how plants react to their environment. They key is what exactly Chamovitz means when he says that a plant knows something.

For example the chapter What a Plant Sees is clear that plants don’t see like you or I. However, they do respond and react to light. Chamovitz talks about human eyes and the various kinds of rhodopsin and photopsin in the eye. He then talks about sensors in a plant and in what ways they’re similar and in what ways they’re different. When he was talking about all the different sensors in Arabidopsis, my initial reaction was that there’s a lot more going on with light than in my eye. The next page, Chamovitz writes that while a human eye and plant’s sense of light aren’t the same, in some ways you can say that a plant has a more complex understanding of light.

A similar thing happened in the chapter What a Plant Smells. Here Chamovitz talks about reactions to chemicals in the atmosphere and in particular those given off by damaged leaves. This has been proposed as a way that plants ‘talk’ to each other. My own feeling reading this was that it could be an internal signal for the plant and other plants receive it by being close to the injured plant. This would be something almost like eavesdropping on an internal monologue and not intent. A couple of pages later Chamovitz raises this very possibility and then goes on to explain various experiments done to test if this is what’s happening.

If this kind of foreshadowing happened once then it could be coincidence. But with it happening again it’s clear that the narrative has been very carefully planned. Yet it doesn’t feel contrived. There’s no sense Chamovitz is holding anything back to create a ‘ta-dah!’ moment. In fact I was struck by the clarity of the writing.

The hook of looking at correlates for human senses for plants could easily risk fixing the evidence to a convenient narrative mould. This doesn’t happen. What a Plant Hears demonstrates this. Everyone has heard of the experiments that plants prefer Mozart to Motorhead. Chamovitz argues that while they have results, these are bad experiments. He shows why they may get results, and why other experiments suggest that plants are entirely deaf. This is the only part of the book where I could suggest something is missing.

There is recent research showing plants avoid noisier parts of a city. In fact what is happening is that their seeds are dispersed by animals, so the plants themselves are not reacting to the noise. It’s the animals carrying them. It’s another example of an apparent reaction to sound that isn’t. But given that the news story I’ve found dates from November 2012, and the book came out well before that, it’s not a fair criticism. In fact it points to how active a research area Chamovitz is covering.

The book concludes with a discussion of if or how plants are aware. This includes a discussion of the controversial idea of plant neurobiology and Trewavas’s paper Aspects of Plant Intelligence (which you can read free). By the time you get here this could be essential reading if you want to eat salad without guilt.

I picked up the Kindle version and whoever formatted it did a much better job than many science books I’ve read on it. There are no regular typos where it looks like someone simply hasn’t checked the formatting. It does end at 56%, which is mildly jarring on a Kindle. In a paper book this would reinforce how well referenced and noted the book is.

All in all, for this non-botanist, it was an excellent read. Once I finished the book I had a look to see if Chamovitz had any other pop-science books out. That’s a good result.

You can search for a copy in a local library at WorldCat or read more reviews at LibraryThing or GoodReads.

FoPDWe’re celebrating Fascination of Plants Day today on AoB Blog. As the day progresses these links will become live:

  • 09:00: Welcome to Fascination of Plants Day
    What is Fascination of Plants Day? And more importantly, what happens when you pull apart a cell with lasers?
  • 13:00: What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz
    That’s this entry, you could read it again, but you’d be better off reading the book.
  • 17:00: Will Martian cuisine have a terrifying secret?
    The colonists for Mars One will venture into a hostile environment farther from their families than any human has gone before. It’s a difficult life, but one that might be harder still when they see what’s for lunch.
  • 21:00: 10 Plants used to spice up sex
    Spice is a bit of a give-away that some plants have been used as aphrodisiacs but you might be surprised at what common plants have been used to ignite desire.

Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen

Judgement Day Cover

Wizards fight Priests for control of Roundworld in the latest Science of Discworld book.

The Science of Discworld series is one of the more interesting ideas in popular science writing. The first came out in the late 90s when there was a fad for the Science of the X Files or the Physics of Star Trek books. Between them Pratchett , Stewart and Cohen had a very sensible idea. A Science of Discworld book that explained how the creatures of Discworld could work would be rubbish. You could write about genetics, selection and hunting strategies to explain why a troll under a bridge would wait for a third billy-goat to cross. But the answer is nothing to do with biology, it’s simply how stories work. There wouldn’t be much of story if the first goat kicked the troll over, yelled “Eat dynamite you filthy ore!” and blew the troll up.

Instead the Science of Discworld books have taken another tack. There’s a story that alternates with non-fiction chapters that discuss the science around the story. Continue reading

They live among us (or is it the other way around..?)

They live among us (or is it the other way around..?)


Plants and Habitats of European Cities; John Kelcey and Norbert Müller (Eds.), 2011; Springer.

Despite semantic concerns to the contrary (Stromberg, 2013), like it or not, we are now firmly in the Anthropocene – the period of Earth’s history which is dominated by human activities (Ellis et al., Global Ecology and Biogeography 19: 589–606, 2010). Although, Man’s influence on the planet has generally been regarded with some dismay (after all, have we not become “Death, destroyer of worlds”?…well, so far, just the one, and anyway not necessarily ‘destroyed’, more ‘altered’…), we don’t have it all our own way; Nature fights back, or works around us. Take for example mankind’s impact on vegetation. Whilst we have undeniably ‘modified’ Nature’s verdant mantle – not least as a result of our various agricultural experiments – and plant species have been supplanted and occasionally extinguished, we have also created new environments, which have given the more imaginative flora new avenues for exploitation and colonisation. One of the greatest of those opportunities is human ‘settlements’. And – if proof were needed – this habitat is explored in Kelcey and Müller’s fascinating edited tome ‘Plants and Habitats of European Cities’ [PHEC hereafter].

Despite the antiquity of settled human-plant interactions, PHEC is apparently the ‘first explicit comparative account of plant diversity in several cities worldwide’ (PHEC – back cover) – 16 metropoles on this occasion – and the changes therein as a consequence of urban development (and deserves full credit for that achievement alone!). Interestingly, those 16 cities ‘chose themselves’ (p. xvi), based on two criteria – first, sufficiency and availability of relevant information, and second, willingness of author(s) sufficiently expert to pen the chapter. Such candour/honesty is so refreshing. Equally refreshing – and a fascinating read – is the Preface by Kelcey (“a restless itinerant of Europe” – p. xiv), which covers many aspects of urban ecology and the genesis of the present tome. The volume’s 16 chapters – “a series of individual essays” (p. xvi) – are indeed ‘idiosyncratic’ (the Editors (and Herbert Sukopp)’s word not mine (p. xvi) (but which I’m happy to echo). However, each follows the same overall structure and order – a consideration of natural features of the city (including geology, topography, soil, climate); an account of development of the city (physical, economic and political from settlement to present day); how urbanisation-environment have interacted; an account of the flora (principally angiosperms and ferns), and notes on ‘spontaneous’ plants; and ‘evolution’ of the flora – with discussion on the mixing of native and non-native species. Where available, accounts also include information on algae and bryophytes, lichenised fungi, and fungi. Subsequently, we have descriptions of the plant communities of major natural (! can there really be any that are truly natural and not human-influenced in one way or another?) and semi-natural (more likely..?) habitats, followed by accounts of the plants in more typical urban habitats. And that’s where the accounts get even more interesting – the rich variety of these urban habitats – e.g. road verges, industrial zones, railway land, parks – and the degree to which they’ve been colonised is dramatic testament to the adage that Nature abhors a vacuum. Finally, the chapters end with consideration of environmental planning, protection and education aspects relevant to the particular city, with special emphasis on the European Union Habitats Directive.

No two accounts are the same; no two cities are the same, but each is rich in detail and as much urbanobotanical information as was then known. Generally, there are no references within the chapters (which is a shame), but suggestions of Further Reading/Literature ‘Cited’ can be found at the end of each contribution. Idiosyncratically – certainly, in an academic text – Almeria’s entry includes at least one Wikipedia reference (which is ‘bad’..?), but does – and atypically for PHEC – also include in-text citations (which is very good!). Almost as an aside – but another important example of the refreshing candour and humanity that permeates the tome – is a comment about the chapters’ limited number of items of further reading (p. xvii). This paucity – authors were officially instructed to keep to “about eight publications” – was occasioned by ‘editorial pressure’, and should not be viewed as lack of familiarity of contributor(s) with the relevant literature (!)

As befits a geographically-oriented tome, it is an ‘A-Z gazetteer’ (well, it certainly goes from Almeria to Zurich – although it misses out many cities in between – both alphabetically and geographically…). But amongst such notable featured conurbations as Berlin, Bucharest, London, Moscow, Vienna, and Warsaw, Milton Keynes (MK) stands out because it is NOT a city! Rather, it is “a large town in Buckinghamshire, about 45 miles (72 km) north-west of London”. However, it was “formally designated as a new town on 23 January 1967, with the design brief to become a ‘city’ in scale”. And not forgetting that co-Editor John Kelcey (“not an academic but a practitioner” – blurb on back cover) was appointed the ecologist of Milton Keynes Development. So, MK is OK, then. A nice colour image is strategically positioned at the beginning of each chapter, although usually illustrating a major anthropogenic feature of the city (and seemingly – and idiosyncratically? – all such images seem to have gone to great lengths to avoid any vegetation in the shot). Although contributions are also illustrated, it’s a pity that those images throughout weren’t in colour – especially ones that actually showed some vegetation (the subject matter of the book!).

In common with many other ‘urban’ activities, urban botany has a language all its own – e.g. anecophytes (p. 68 – “taxa that have evolved in secondary habitats of cultural (man-made) landscapes”); anthropophytes (p. 641 – “plants growing in artificial habitats (e.g. segetal [“plants associated with cereal crops in a wider sense growing in arable land” – p. 647] and ruderal [not defined in PHEC] species); alien species not indigenous to a given territory”); anthropochory (or hemerochory) (p. 644 – “plant dispersal by human-related activities”); ergasiophygophytes (p. 643 – “cultivated species that have temporarily escaped from present-day cultivation”); stratiobotany (or polemobotany)(p. 647 – “botanical discipline dealing with the destructive effects of war on plants”); and urbanophilous (p. 648 – “species that have a preference for urban ecosystems”) – with a predictable high proportion of terms prefixed with ‘anthropo-‘, or otherwise with a human dimension/definition! But once you get used to that, it is still proper botany/ecology, it’s just in a landscape that’s both familiar but a little out of the ordinary. But, it’s certainly a legitimate subject for study, and may even become a life-saver if the FAO’s ‘greener cities’ initiative takes off world-wide with its emphasis on urban and peri-urban horticulture. In fact, far from being merely ‘academically interesting, but not-mainstream’, knowledge of the urban ‘vegescape’ may turn out to be crucial to our survival as the human population continues to become increasingly urbanised!

There is an enormous amount of information in this tome’s 685 pages (which has the feel of a real labour of love); certainly, too much to take in at one sitting. But that’s not what it is for: This is a resource to be referred to, considered and evaluated and used to inform further work – both in the 16 cities covered, and maybe – hopefully! – to provide a template for other cities to be covered in future tomes. Still, every time you delve into the text you find fascinating nuggets and I learnt many interesting facts from PHEC – some of them botanical (although one of my favourite was the rather non-floristic one that the Parliament Palace in Bucharest is the second largest building in the world – p. 171). For instance, 2% of Augsburg’s area is sports fields (p. 44 – I don’t know how high that is, or how well used those facilities may be, but arguably the good inhabitants of Germany’s ‘oldest city’ ought to be a very fit lot!), which contain the lowest number of species (probably a result of their intensive use and management, but which also generate considerable selection pressure for those species that survive there). Since the late 18th Century 2,178 species have been recorded in Berlin, 1,392 were still present in 2000 (a rather high rate of ‘extirpation’ [a term not defined in PHEC]..?), almost 20% of which were ‘non-native’ (p. 53). Railways account for 3% of Moscow’s urban area (p. 353), and represent an ‘open, pioneer habitat’ on which 432 plant species have been recorded (which is only 6 more species than recorded in that city’s 59 cemeteries with a combined area of 1,000 hectares – p. 355, and which is a tiny fraction of the city’s 1996 area of 944 km2!). And I think we can surmise that Plantago major has now lost its dubious honour as the “white man’s footprint” because it is listed in only 12 of the 15 cities (MK excluded for this Annex – pp. 594-595). It seems that title must now pass to either Poa annua, or Polygonum aviculare agg., which are found in 14 of the 15 (even though neither looks much like a footprint!).

Importantly, PHEC, which can be viewed as a manual for this nascent science of ‘anthrobotany’, and its subject matter of ‘metropoflora’ (no doubt with its soon-to-be-coined sub-branches urbo-flora and suburbo-flora…), is more than just a catalogue of plants that share our ‘habitats’, it is a barometer of so many sociological, psychological, anthropological, and other -logical – and not so logical – issues that mark out some of the idiosyncrasies of the human condition. As the publisher’s blurb has it, “The book has been written and edited to be accessible to a wide range of interests and expertise including academic botanists and ecologists, landscape architects, planners, urban designers, ordinary people with an interest in natural history in general and botany in particular, undergraduates and other students not only in Europe but throughout the world”. And it would certainly make interesting reading for the botanically-inclined before they next spend time in any of the cities covered in PHEC. Indeed, PHEC may even be the excuse you need to visit some of them!


Kelcey and Müller’s ‘Plants and Habitats of European Cities’ is a truly impressive tome that presents a fascinating glimpse into urban ecology in Europe. Let’s hope this inspires similar accounts for cities in other continents (and a few more European ones, too!).


Nigel Chaffey

(currently not far from Bristol – a real city in the UK that was not covered in this edition of PHEC…)

Blurring the boundaries between plants and people

The title of Matthew Hall’s 2011 tome, ‘Plants as persons’ may not give that much away (controversial and challenging though it is!). However, its sub-title, ‘a philosophical botany’ provides an inkling of what lies within. Further, as a volume in the SUNY [State University of New York] Series on Religion and the Environment you begin to get an idea of the focus of this contribution. It is certainly philosophical – probably more so than most of us are used to in the botanical texts we might read – but at its heart it has a very botanical subject. And for anybody who admits to more than a passing interest in matters botanical, it is certainly worth delving into. But, be warned/advised, it can make for slightly uncomfortable reading; not because of the subject matter (it does us no harm to re-evaluate out relationship with plants and maybe view them in a different light than merely as natural creations put on Earth for human exploitation), but because of the terms, concepts and language used and developed in its 235 pages. In that latter regard it is a very philosophical tract indeed with phrases such as ‘meta-narrative’, ‘post-modern deconstructionist’, ‘psycho-optical prejudices’, and ‘ecofeminist theory’ liberally sprinkled throughout. But, try not to let that put you off! Fortunately, the Prologue outlines the contents and main thesis of the book and provides a better idea of what each of the main chapters deal with. As a botanist, the one I found most interesting was Chapter 7 “Bridging the Gap” (which deals with the concepts of plant intelligence (which is quite a ‘hotly debated/contested area’ of plant science – e.g. Alpi A, et al. (2007) Plant neurobiology: no brain, no gain? Trends in Plant Science 12: 135-136; Trewavas A (2007) Response to Alpi et al.: Plant neurobiology – all metaphors have value. Trends in Plant Science 12: 231-233)). I know, at the very mention of plant intelligence – PI? – I expect some of you will by now be choking on your muesli. Sorry. But differences of opinion are good, if they foster debate and encourage further research, and ultimately help to move the subject forward.

Throughout its 7 chapters Hall explores the manifold ways in which humans have viewed plants, which of necessity considers historical, philosophical and religious/’belief systems’ dimensions. It is acknowledged that nowadays (and as in times gone by!) there are many – often highly-polarised – views of plants and their place in some ill-defined ‘order’ of the natural world. So, some put plants at the bottom of a pyramid of ‘sentience’, others accord them a much higher placement, whilst others park them somewhere in between. Wherever plants are positioned (and if at the bottom of the pile they are actually doing a very important job in supporting all that gets heaped on top of them…), at least they are being considered – and not completely ignored! Ultimately, however, one must concede that plants are not people and we will probably always regard them as some sort of ‘outsiders’ and treat them differently, probably despite attempts by some national governments to enshrine in law ‘rights’ for plants (e.g. the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH)’s publication “Moral consideration of plants for their own sake” – Abbott, 2008: Swiss ‘dignity’ law is threat to plant biology. Nature 452: 919). Nevertheless, we should try and respect all life forms. After all, as occupants of planet Earth the future of all of us is largely bound up with the future of all other living things in one enormous highly-complicated, multiply-intertwined and interdependent ecosystem.

Whilst I can’t pick fault with the philosophical viewpoints explored in the book – that comes down to personal preferences, etc, despite the many differences of opinion explored by Hall, I think there is only one correct way to spell phosphorus (and it’s not phosphorous – p. 152). I can also raise a few questions about the botany contained therein. Thus, I was a little surprised to read on p. 138 that Grew and Malpighi ‘discovered’ cells in plants (intriguingly, neither of those plant anatomists of note – nor cells – are mentioned in the Index…); what happened to Hooke and his observation of cells in plant-derived cork? In note 59 re Chapter 1 on p. 175 Hall states that plants exercise control of the water entering the root by the water-proofing Casparian strip. Well, it’s really differences in water potential that determine whether and in which direction water moves. So, a little bit of ‘short-hand’ used there? Minor points, I know – and ones which well may have philosophically-robust counter-arguments – but…

To repeat, plants are not people – which notion the book wisely avoids in the title by considering them to be ‘persons’; they are just different to us: Differently constructed, differently nourished, differently intelligent… But, sadly, they are often treated in the way humans so often treat other living things that are different or little understood – badly. Whatever may be the rights or wrongs of Hall’s view of plants, they are undoubtedly complex ‘creatures’ capable of an astonishing range of often complex phenomena and behaviours and should be respected as such. Intelligent plants? OK, we may not get a potato or a petunia in the White House, but we’ve had two bushes there in the past…

Do give Matthew Hall’s “Plants as Persons” a go. You will (hopefully) not look at plants in the same way again. Or is that what you might be afraid of..?