A visit to the plant museum…

Botanicum by Katie Scott and Kathy Willis, 2016, Standard Edition.* Big Picture Press.

botanicumcoverBotanicum is big. Really big. At 38 cm tall and 28 cm wide, it certainly stands out from any crowd (as if the riot of colourful and beautiful plant pictures that adorn the book’s front and back covers don’t do that on their own). But, it has to be big because it’s a … museum(!). As befits the museum emphasis on displays, approximately half of its 100 pages are crammed full of colourful drawings of plants (or algae or fungi…). But, maybe best of all – and probably a nod in the direction of one of its main audiences, families – there is a golden ticket on the front cover. So, those who handle a copy of Botanicum might feel a little like the chosen few who were admitted to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory in Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, to see the wonders within that magical venue. I also think that the pair of authors’ names – Scott and Willis – is reminiscent of famous explorer duos of old on an epic quest. Which indeed they are, to take the readers on a voyage of discovery in the world of plants that’s housed within this particular – and peculiar – museum.

So what’s within Botanicum? After the Entrance, which explains the museum’s purpose [to “discover the strange and wonderful kingdom of plants in all its colourful, surprising majesty”, p. 1], there is a 2-page stylised tree of plant life. Sadly, that isn’t labelled as such on the pages, and may be missed in one’s eagerness to enter the first Gallery (into which units the book is organised). Gallery 1 has an important role to play – so I do hope visitors start there! – as it talks about the Earth’s first plants giving a plant-evolutionary slant to this section. Algae are the first series of exhibits, appropriately enough since they are stated to be the first plants on Earth (p. 8) (but which statement is a little over-simplified?). This exhibit is followed by Bryophytes, and by Fern-allies, and Ferns, which is reasonable considering the evolutionary path you tread in this gallery. However, amongst those sections is one on Fungi and Lichens. Although the authors acknowledge that these are not plants, its inclusion is justified on the grounds (which are not unreasonable) that these organisms were instrumental – vital is the word actually used (p. 12) – in helping plants gain a hold on dry land. Curiously, what’s not mentioned here is the intimate association that exists between some fungi and plant roots [mycorrhiza] that is considered to have been a very important step in fungi assisting plant’s colonization of land (and persists to this day). An opportunity missed? Gallery 1 concludes with an environment section showcasing the Carboniferous forests, a timely reminder of the tree-like grandeur of fossil plants from times long gone.

Each series of exhibits is complete with scientific names and some botanical information (the equivalent of labels on the specimens themselves). And each collection of exhibits has contextual narrative which goes more into the biology of the organisms, and quite often their human resource value/significance as well. One of the great components of Botanicum is undoubtedly the images; they are large and rather pleasing to the eye, and appear to be accurate enough to permit many of the plants to be recognised and identified if seen in the ‘wild’. I’d also like to think the pictures alone may prompt conversations about the various plant parts and what they do, and how they may be different between different types of plants…

Space does not permit a fuller analysis of Botanicum, but Gallery 1 seems to be the most clearly organised – of the book’s 7 sections – in having a clear theme. Although Gallery 7 comes a close second in highlighting plants adapted to various environments (or lifestyles as seems more appropriate to parasitic plants that are included herein), e.g. succulents and cacti, aquatic plants, carnivorous plants (and parasitic plants). Galleries 1 and 7 contrast markedly with Gallery 3 Palms and Cycads, which pairing – of monocotyledonous angiosperms and a Division of gymnosperms – seem to me to make for rather strange companions. They may be perfectly reasonably united, but nowhere is that justification made clear. Similarly, Gallery 6 Orchids and Bromeliads – are they just united because many members of each group are epiphytic? This reviewer would like a bit more of a story to appreciate why the plant groupings that are included are so combined.

As one who recognises the need to ensure that people are made (more)aware of the importance of plants, Botanicum is a welcome addition to that goal. By targeting a family audience [it’s “perfect to explore as a family – ”], it is presumably hoping to tap into the nightly ritual of some households wherein bed-time stories are read to the little ones before they go to sleep (and in the spirit of catch ’em whilst their young and instil an appreciation of plants from a young age). And, if that also involves sharing the delight in looking at the pictures in Botanicum and talking about the plants and how important they are to humanity, then that’s great. Whether Botanicum will work in that way remains to be seen. But, you’ve got to give all involved in the project full marks for trying!

However, how does Botanicum fare – and as intended – as a ‘museum’? Although it might encourage conversation about the exhibited plants, mightn’t it perpetuate the notion that plants are themselves merely museum pieces? Oughtn’t we to be encouraging a more realistic experience of, and engagement with, plants? Plants belong outdoors, beyond the confines of any museum. But, plants are threatened and disappearing from the wild, and humans are reducing the amount of habitat where they can live (as reported in the 2016 State of the World’s Plants publication from Kew, where author Willis is Head of Science). I can’t help but have some of the words of Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” in my head at this point: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum”. If we don’t appreciate trees and all the other plants, but instead continue to undermine their very existence on this planet, then maybe museum curiosities is all we’ll have left. So, let us hope that, and rather than be a mere inventory of what we’ve lost from nature and stuffed into some museum, Botanicum acts more like an I-spy book, an introduction to plants of the world, encouraging its readers to venture outside of the museum and discover plants in the wild. After all, that is arguably the greatest adventure of all, and a fitting legacy to the efforts of Scott and Willis.

Certainly, Botanicum is worth a visit. And, if your museum visit inspires you – and the rest of your family – to get outside into the big outdoors and discover some of those plants yourself, then that’s got to be a good thing. So, if Botanicum does its bit to foster a better appreciation of plants, then it’s a ‘thumbs up’ from me.

* Two other editions of Botanicum are also available; the Limited Edition (same price – £20 – as the Standard Edition, but it’s not clear to me what’s different to the Standard Edition I reviewed), and the Collector’s Edition (which is £50.00, boxed, includes 10 “stunning prints from the book”, and signed by the authors).

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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