Tag Archives: plants

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.


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Teaching kids about plants

Cattleya walkeriana When teaching about plants, science educators struggle with several problems in science or botany courses. Learning about plants is perceived to be less interesting than learning about animals, photographs of plants in textbooks are less numerous and less diverse than photographs of animals and attitudes toward plants are neutral rather than positive. Students also have serious misconceptions about the physiology of plants, and their abilities to name plants are limited. There is evidence that females have better knowledge about plants than males and that females appreciate plants more than males. A recent paper looks at the best way of teaching students about plants.

The study has several implications that should be taken into consideration in botany lessons. First, visual, colourful presentations of plants should include exposure of their fruits or seeds that promote information retention. In particular, contrasting colours of fruits may increase student’s attention, interest and consequently information retention about these plants. Second, talking about plants should contain survival-relevant information. This information includes plant edibility, the presence of toxic substances, medical importance of plants and incidences that can cause human death. For example, the hemlock (Conium maculatum) lacks any attractive seeds or other features potentially attractive to children, but the story of Socrates who was given a potent infusion of the hemlock and died can positively influence retention of information about this species. Finally, there was some evidence that the children involved in the research associated red colour with a fruit being edible, and black or green colours with toxic fruits, although this was not conclusive. Teachers should teach children that plants, similar to animals, possess aposematic, warning colours, and unknown fruits (with contrasting colour) should not be consumed.



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Blue + yellow = ?

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Keen planet-watchers amongst you will surely know that seen from space the Earth is considered to be a blue planet, dominated as its surface is by water. However, when you combine the blue of life-giving water with the vital, energising quality of the yellow sun you get green plants. OK, a little simplistic, but I hope you get the idea. And one of the great things about plants is that their green pigment – chlorophyll – can be visualised using satellites well away from the Earth’s surface. Now, since chlorophyll is fundamental to photosynthesis, which in turn is the driving force behind primary productivity, and hence the ability of any area to sustain an ecosystem, being able to map its relative concentration across the globe is of major importance to understanding the ecology – and such global concerns as food production – of the oblate biospheroid we call home.

Although the technology may be complicated, the biology behind such mapping is relatively straightforward: various pigments in plant tissues – e.g. chlorophyll in leaves – absorb much of the sun’s visible light (VIS) that they intercept, and reflect much of the so-called near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths. In contrast, poorly vegetated regions – e.g. deserts – reflect both VIS and NIR wavelengths. Thus the different areas can be detected and distinguished. Largely out of sight – but not out of mind – the SUOMI National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite (a partnership between NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA) measured ratios of VIS and NIR between April 2012 and 2013 from across the globe. The results are available to be viewed as a narrated animation that shows how the Earth’s verdant mantle changes from week to week, and features both terrestrial and marine habitats.

Extending the survey timescale a little – from 1889 to 2000 – but focusing on the marine realm, Marcel Wernand et al. have examined worldwide trends in ocean colour and chlorophyll concentration. Using the Forel-Ule scale record (‘a hardly explored database of ocean colourֹ’) instead of satellite data (well, there weren’t (m)any around for most of the survey period examined…), the group provide evidence that changes of ocean surface chlorophyll – and, by proxy, inferences about primary productivity – can be reconstructed with confidence from this record. This is a great boost to ‘old-fashioned’ – i.e. traditional – scientific approaches, and neatly extends such data far beyond the ‘satellite period’ giving an all-important historical dimension to those much more recent data sets. Interestingly, their analysis did not reveal a globe-wide trend of change in chlorophyll concentration during the past century; rather, their study suggests that explanations of chlorophyll changes over long periods should focus on hydrographical and biological characteristics typical of single ocean regions, not on those of ‘the’ ocean. Nice to see that both large-scale, hands-off, high-tech approaches AND small-scale studies are needed to give the big picture!


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Competitive neighbours? That may depend on who they are….

A competitive environment: a dense stand of Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera).

A competitive environment: a dense stand of Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). Photograph by Cathy Shields.

Plants most often live side-by-side with other plants. Neighbours compete locally with one another for light, water and soil nutrients. An individual plant may find itself alongside members of other species, “strangers” of its own species, or its own close kin (parents, offspring or siblings). There are two main schools of thought on how related neighbours should respond to one another: these are kin selection and niche partitioning. A team at McMaster University in Canada have reviewed empirical studies testing these hypotheses.

Kin selection predicts that relatives should cooperate with one another e.g. by competing less over limited resources. This is because genes encoding traits or behaviours that cause an individual to favour its close kin at some expense to its own fitness can still spread, because the genes are likely to be shared between those related individuals. The converse view, niche partitioning, is that neighbouring relatives will compete with one another even more fiercely compared with neighbouring strangers, because there is more overlap in how they access and use limiting resources. This is also descriptively referred to as the “elbow room” hypothesis. An example in plants is rooting depth, where non-related individuals would be more likely to tap resources at different levels in the soil.

Straight away, we can see that these two theories predict opposite outcomes when siblings grow side-by-side. Kin selection would predict that groups of altruistic siblings should grow better than groups of strangers, whereas niche partitioning says that groups of strangers, who exploit local resources in slightly different ways, should perform better. Intriguingly, different studies of kin competition have come up with varied results. Of the experiments reported on in the review, most found no difference in performance of related/unrelated stands of plants, nine found that groups of siblings outperform groups of strangers and 11 found the opposite situation.

The review authors point out that plant responses to kin depend on which resource(s) are limiting in the environment of a given species. Indeed, some sand dune plants growing in water- and nutrient-limited environments allocate more resources to their fine root systems when growing with strangers, compared with when they are alongside siblings. Another species (Impatiens pallida) growing in the forest understorey (where light is a limiting resource) boosts allocation of resources to shoots when growing among strangers, compared to when it is surrounded by siblings. There is also the important factor of whether plants can detect nearby kin. Several studies have proven root-to-root interactions between plants, including recognition of strangers/kin within a species. Even if kin are not directly detected, if it is likely that an individual plant will find itself in close proximity to siblings (e.g. if its seed dispersal mechanism ensures this, or if the environment is densely populated), the evolution of indiscriminate altruism to neighbours could be favoured.

Overall the authors dissuade experimenters from expecting the same response to kin proximity in all plant species, and even within a species under different environmental conditions. They also criticise the premise of many studies, which searched for either kin competition or kin cooperation, and argue that the reality of plant interactions is more complex. The full article is available at: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/279/1727/209.short

Image: A competitive environment: a dense stand of Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). Photograph by Cathy Shields


File A.L., Murphy G.P. & Dudley S.A. (2011). Fitness consequences of plants growing with siblings: reconciling kin selection, niche partitioning and competitive ability, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279 (1727) 209-218. DOI:

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The bibulous botanist

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Phytology’s very own alcohol aficionado, Amy Stewart, has lots to write (and say!) about the role of plants in the history of alcoholic beverages in her latest book, The Drunken Botanist, which tells the tales of ‘the plants that create the world’s great drinks’. It’s a great read, and a brilliant chaser to her previous publication, Wicked Plants, which features ‘the weed that killed Lincoln’s mother and other botanical atrocities’. Both tomes will provide excellent plant-based items to enliven your botanical lectures (what better way to ‘get down wiv da kids’?) and are a great way for your students to imbibe essential plant-based knowledge. But you don’t need me to publicise these literary works – Amy Stewart is more than adept at doing that herself via her Twitter account and blog and is currently touring, talking (and maybe even tippling…?) her way around the USA to promote The Drunken Botanist as I write/you read. Cheers!

And if you should over-indulge in alcoholic potions (which is neither advised nor condoned by Mr P. Cuttings or his various bosses), then you might have need of a cure for the consequent hangover. One that is plant-based was allegedly developed by the Americans fighting in the Korean War and contains beef, pork chops and boiled eggs. Eh, where’s the plants? Oops, sorry, it also features … noodles (‘a type of staple food made from some type of unleavened dough…’). Known as ‘old sober’ (or Ya-Ka-Mein), this ‘medicine’ apparently works(!), as soberingly discussed at the 245th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society in their ‘Chemistry of the Bar’ symposium. However, whether that will be enough to treat the global headache currently caused by North Korea’s nuclear-sabre-rattling only time will tell. And, if it doesn’t, anybody for alcohol-fuelled Armageddon? [Or, we may all be on our way to hell in a hand-cart, but as long as we leave some room for the booze, WTF! – and that’s the World Taekwando Federation, whose skills we may yet need if it all goes pear-shaped – or … gulp! … mushroom-shaped…].

[And for some more drink-based, academic insight, may I recommend Brendan Oberlin et al.’s ‘Beer flavor provokes striatal dopamine release in male drinkers: mediation by family history of alcoholism’, whose take-home message according to Sabrina Richards is that ‘beer tastes intoxicating’? Who’d have thought it? Bottom sup! (yes, sic…) – Ed.]

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Reasons to be cheerful (Parts, 4…)

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Backward-looking retrospectives [is there any other kind? – Ed.] are great. And that from the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University is one of the best. Annually, it publishes its list of the Top 10 new species discovered in the preceding year. Whilst this column has previously bemoaned the paucity of plant-based entrants in prior year’s lists, it is pleased to share news that there are four botanical worthies in the 2012 listing. And the list’s pedigree is unimpeachable because the committee members – who pick the ten – were ‘free to use any criteria they wished, keeping in mind the purpose of the Top 10 is to draw attention to biodiversity and the science and institutions engaged in its exploration. They were also encouraged to pay attention to taxonomic, geographic, and natural history diversity’. Their Top 10 includes Viola lilliputana, known from a single locality in the dry puna grassland ecoregion in the Peruvian Andes. At barely 1 cm (10 000 µm!) tall, the Lilliputian violet is a tiny miracle of nature and hard to spot, which may help to protect it from the over-zealous attentions of ‘collectors’ and agriculturalists who have all but extirpated the African violet from the wild. Also in the list is Eugenia petrikensis from Madagascar, whose uniqueness is ‘its rare occurrence, a large shrub with its beautiful bunch of flowers hanging on its branchlets’. However, I think it’s there because its leaf venation is brochidodromous*. Also in the list is Ochroconis lascauxensis which was isolated from ‘black stains’ in the Lascaux Caves in south-western France. Yes, I know it’s not a plant – it’s a fungus – but since fungi are non-animals, that’s good enough for this column (and, anyway, fungi are covered by the same ‘taxonomic code’ as plants; so, Botanists: 3, Others: 0, I think!). Finally – and I know all true botanists will appreciate this – also claimed for us chlorophytes is Juracimbrophlebia ginkgofolia, a new fossil species – a ‘hanging-fly’ – from Middle Jurassic deposits in the Jiulongshan Formation (in China’s Inner Mongolia). Yes, I know it’s an insect, but it was found with preserved leaves of a ginkgo-like tree, Yimaia capituliformis (presumably not Y. juracimbrophlebia-similiformis since I expect the plant was named first…), which it looks remarkably similar to (hence its specific epithet…)! What, an insect that wants to be a plant? How cool is that! And therefore thoroughly deserving of the honorary plant status I’m happy to accord it. What of the other organisms in the 2012 Top 10? Just some animals – sorry. However, what about a ‘spective’? A look-forward, where we second-guess the weirdest organisms we can imagine being discovered in 2013 (or beyond). What sort of plants would you propose? But if a single year’s list is too tame for you, you might like to know that the RHS’s (the UK’s Royal Horticultural Society) Plant of the Centenary is Geranium Rozanne (‘Gerwat’).

[* This sounds much more impressive than it is; brochidodromous venation means that ‘with a single primary vein, the secondary veins not terminating at the margin but joined together in a series of prominent upward arches or marginal loops on each side of the primary vein’, i.e. second-order veins are joined (there’s a good diagram thereof in Fig. 2A of Anita Roth-Nebelsick et al.’s 2001 review of the evolution and function of leaf venation architecture). And, yes, I know Saintpaulia isn’t a true violet, but it’s ‘literary licence’; so, no letters telling Mr P. Cuttings off, please! – Ed.]

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Focus on transfer cells

Image: Kelvin Song/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Kelvin Song/Wikimedia Commons.

I love transfer cells. They are plant cells (which is great), but with a difference; they are ‘specialized parenchyma cells that have an increased surface area, due to infoldings of the plasma membrane. They facilitate the transport of sugars from a sugar source, mainly leaves, to a sugar sink, often developing fruits. They are found in nectaries of flowers and some carnivorous plants’. Those plasma membrane infoldings are the result of cell wall ingrowths and transfer cells (TCs) appear to have been present in angiosperms for over 50 million years.

The term ‘transfer cell’ was coined in recognition of proposed general functions in transferring solutes between interconnected protoplasts (symplast) and non-living spaces (apoplast) in or surrounding the plant. TCs are found in many widely dispersed plant types and their importance probably lies in their role in nutrient distribution, as they facilitate high rates of transport at sites that might otherwise present ‘bottlenecks’ for apo-/symplasmic solute exchange; e.g. crop yield in many species may ultimately depend as much upon proper functioning of internal TCs as it does on externally applied fertiliser(!). So, the more that is known about development, etc, of TCs the better for all of us. Well, good news then that Kiruba Chinnappa et al. have developed phloem parenchyma TCs in Arabidopsis as an experimental system to identify transcriptional regulators of wall ingrowth formation. Exploiting this system, they’ve so far identified ‘master switches’ that respond to various inductive signals to co-ordinate wall ingrowth deposition in TCs. Ultimately, the hope is that manipulation of this process may provide new opportunities for improving crop yield. I’m sure we can all wish them well in that noble endeavour.

[Ed. - And, if your appetite for TCs has now been whetted, these curious cells will feature in a future Research Topic in Frontiers of Plant Physiology to be edited by David McCurdy and Gregorio Hueros. But, if you can't wait until then, Felicity Andriunas et al.'s article "Intersection of transfer cells with phloem biology—broad evolutionary trends, function, and induction" is available now...]

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Algae found under teenager’s bed…

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Shock, horror! But no surprises there you might think. After all, teenagers’ bedrooms are notorious ‘no-go’ areas for their parents – and others of a sensitive nature – and anything can develop (even new life forms!) in the insalubrious environment contained therein. But this is no ordinary tale of teenage grot. Rather, it is a carefully planned experiment carried out by 17-year old Sara Volz who was trying ‘to use guided evolution, so artificial selection, to isolate populations of algae cells with abnormally high oil content’.

Entitled ‘Optimizing algae biofuels: artificial selection to improve lipid synthesis’, her investigation used the herbicide sethoxydim to kill algae with low levels of acetyl-CoA carboxylase (ACCase), an enzyme crucial to lipid synthesis. Under this strong environmental pressure, the remaining artificially selected algae cells revealed significant increases in lipid accumulation. If those cells can be sustained, artificial selection could be used to increase microalgal oil yields and make algae biofuel viable. Well, her inquisitiveness within an imaginative laboratory setting(!) earned Sara (representing Cheyenne Mountain High School, Colorado Springs, USA) top prize in the Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS), ‘the nation’s [i.e. USA’s] most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors’. The US$100 000 scholarship should go a long way to funding her studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA) where she is destined this autumn. As will what remains of the US$50 000 Davidsons Fellowship Scholarship Sara won in 2012 for a project entitled, ‘Enhancing algae biofuels: investigation of the environmental and enzymatic factors effecting algal lipid synthesis’. More usually employed as a post-emergence herbicide to control grass weeds in broad-leaved crops, sethoxydim apparently also has ‘indoor uses’. However, one imagines that the good people at Cornell didn’t envisage such an indoor use!

[Now, I don’t want to be picky, but to subject these claims to proper scrutiny, etc, we do need to know what the algae were. So, I did my own research, and eventually managed to find that Sara has ‘worked with several different strains – the ones I use currently are Chlorella vulgaris and Nannochloropsis salina…‘. But that information seems to predate the 2013 Intel STS project. So, we’re still uncertain of the species. Nevertheless, this young scientist is definitely one to watch! And not just because she was listed as one of the top 10 teen inventors in the USA by Popular Science magazine as far back as September 2011 – Ed.].


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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!


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