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What do you know about leaves???

Nature’s Fabric: Leaves in Science and Culture by David Lee, 2017. University of Chicago Press.

Ever so occasionally one comes across a book that makes one think, “That’s the book I’d like to have written”. Well, for me, David Lee’s Nature’s Fabric: Leaves in Science and Culture [hereafter referred to as Lee’s Leaves], is just such a book. Simply put, it’s a celebration of all things leafy. But, it’s not just leaves as major photosynthetic organs of plants. Certainly, as a book on leaves written by a Professor of Botany, a good chunk of the text is devoted to aspects of leaf biology such as chapters on leaf economics, metamorphosis, architecture, shapes and edges, surfaces, and veins, but in those chapters – and elsewhere in the book – there’s also a lot about the role of leaves in a wider ecological context, and in relation to mankind.

Although, Lee’s Leaves could be considered the sort of thing an emeritus professor of botany might be expected to produce after five decades of intensive and extensive study of the book’s subject matter, it goes beyond the traditional and ‘obvious’, straitened treatment of leaves in considering nature and art, culture, global environmental concerns, etc., etc.… Lee’s Leaves is clearly a case where familiarity engenders much respect.

Because of its broad approach to the subject of leaves, it’s hard to say exactly what Lee’s Leaves is. One way to get a good idea of the scope of a book is to have a look at the Index: After all, if a subject is important enough to warrant a mention there, then it’s important to the book. With that in mind I’ve done some perusing for you and choose these Index entries to give you a flavour of Lee’s Leaves (and the sort of book you can expect): ADHD; Arthur, King; beltian body; Buddha; cantilevers; cellulose; Drosera; druid; ebony; Everglades National Park; facial recognition; flatulence; Gandalf; golden ratio; Harvard Forest; Hurricane Andrew; India; Islam; jackfruit; Jolly Green Giant; kale; Kermit the frog; latex and resin; leaf aerodynamics; maidenhair fern; mosses; Neolithic; nicotine; Obi-Wan Kenobi; osmosis; palm; phyllotaxis; Qur’an [the only entry under ‘Q’]; radiant energy; rowan (oak); sassafras; sucrose; taiga; Torah; Ur; UV protection; vein; volcanism; warming (global); window plant; xylem; Xyris (leaf epidermal cuticle); yerba maté; Yggdrasil; Zimmermann (Martin); and zooxanthellae. Wow, now there’s breadth for you! And, as befits such a photogenic subject matter, Lee’s Leaves is abundantly illustrated throughout with images – including several using various forms of microscopy to allow you to get even closer to the subject (and Lee takes his illustrations very seriously – there are c. 17 pages of notes about them…).

Lee’s Leaves is written with humour and knowledge, but – and above all – passion for the subject matter. The style is highly personal and that helps the reader to really appreciate what Lee finds so interesting about leaves, and helps to draw the reader into the world of these botanical wonders. That style will probably be familiar to those who’ve also read Lee’s 2007 book, Nature’s Palette: The science of plant color. This personal style is one I first encountered when reviewing How the Earth Turned Green: A brief 3.8-billion-year history of plants by Joseph Armstrong. Also published by The University of Chicago Press [UCP], Armstrong’s book marked a major departure from the rather staid style of more traditional textbooks (although I acknowledge that Lee’s Leaves is not necessarily a textbook) and it is one for which the publishers should rightly be applauded. But, why shouldn’t specialists in a topic be allowed to let their full enthusiasm for the subject come through in their writing style? After all, if the writer can’t be enthusiastic about his subject, why should anybody else care about it? So, big thanks to David Lee (and Joseph Armstrong), and to the UCP!

As is a common issue amongst botanically-minded folk, Lee is concerned about where the botanists – and other phyllophiles – of the future are to come from (which to some extent are concerns about plant-blindness, although that phrase is not mentioned by name in the book). His personal recollections of Prof. Martin Zimmerman give some ideas on how the current generation of botanists can help to influence and enthuse the next.

Although the chapters themselves are devoid of in-text references (which would interrupt narrative flow in a book whose intended audience is wider than just undergraduates), there are extensive notes for each chapter – almost 80 pages of them(!) – giving information on sources, etc. for follow-up and further study. And to further help with enthusing the next generation, the Appendices contain such teaching aids as ideas about use of leaves for science projects, and details of drying and preserving leaves for craft projects (everybody can benefit from allowing a little more leafiness into their lives…).


David Lee’s Nature’s Fabric: Leaves in Science and Culture is a wonderful book. If you don’t know leaves at all, you’re in for a treat! If you do think you know leaves, you’re in for a treat – and an eye-opener – as Lee goes well beyond the obvious leaf facts of the biology lesson. And it’s that going-beyond-the-obvious-botanical-nature-of-leaves that I really like about this book. David Lee has the knack of explaining botanical phenomenon to those who aren’t necessarily that familiar with them, and making them comprehensible. As an interpreter of botanical phenomena for the non-specialist, Lee can be considered the People’s Botanist.

So, what’s next? Well, the world awaits a scholarly (and/but accessible…) text that looks at roots – and other subterranean organs – in a similar view. And why not also a book devoted to stems? Both topics are worthy of the treatment so well exemplified in Lee’s Leaves.

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 international plant science journal for almost 10 years. As a freelance plant science communicator I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Plant Cuttings [https://plantcuttings.uk] (and formerly at Botany One [https://botany.one/author/nigelchaffey/]). 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. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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