How many beans make … 600?

The Book of Seeds: A life-size guide to six hundred species from around the world, Edited by Paul Smith 2018. University of Chicago Press.

The book of seeds: A life-size guide to six hundred species from around the world [hereafter referred to as Seeds] edited by Paul Smith is a visual celebration of the enormous diversity of seeds – their shape, size, colours, etc. Although predominantly culled from the flowering plants, the angiosperms, Seeds also contains entries for seeds of some non-flowering plants (yes, you can have seeds in the absence of flowers…) such as the conifers, cycads, gnetophytes, and ginkgo (which quartet are within the gymnosperm group of land plants).

But why a book devoted to seeds? * After all, we’ve had several on that theme in recent years – e.g. Carolyn Fry’s Seeds: A natural History, Jonathan Silvertown’s An Orchard Invisible, Thor Hanson’s The Triumph of Seeds, and Peter Thompson’s Seeds, Sex and Civilization. If one starts from the position that seeds are the future – in the sense of future food security – and that the survival of humans and their domesticated animals is at least in part dependent upon having the seeds to grow future crops, then the subject matter of Seeds is about as fundamental to human survival as one can get Seeds are therefore a subject that is worthy of such treatment.

And who better to edit such a book than Paul Smith, a senior advisor to the Global Crop Diversity Trust (which manages the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle), former Director of the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, and Secretary General of Botanic Gardens Conservation International [BGCI]? Additional contributors to the book are Megan Barstow, Emily Beech, Katherine O’Donnell, Lydia Murphy, and Sara Oldfield, all of whom have appropriate botanical and/or conservation credentials, and several of whom are members of the BGCI.

So, what do you get in Seeds?

At the front of the book you get a really good summary of seed biology – an admirable account that can be lifted and placed wholesale into a seed biology lecture – and really good justification of the importance of seeds and plants more generally. You also get the all-important reasons why the 600 seeds in the book were selected; which reasons include diversity of colour and form (look at the book cover!), global coverage (although with an acknowledged North America-Europe bias…), human use, curious natural histories (!), and conservation interest (especially those species that are rare or threatened). For each of the 600 you get a standard lay-out of information; plant family, distribution (in text and a map), habitat (and a silhouette of the habit of the whole plant, or an identifiable part thereof), information about its dispersal mechanism (e.g. animal, wind, gravity…), and conservation status (where it is known).

The free-text section beneath this ‘box’ includes information about the plant and the seed, but that’s not restricted to the seed so includes a wide range of material about other parts of the species – especially medicinal/commercial/cultural uses – and insights into the derivation of the plant’s scientific name. There’s a whole host of fascinating facts in that section. There’s also a section about similar species to the one illustrated. Finally, there is a life-size image of the seed (which is vanishingly small in the case of such plants as the Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorchis fuchsii) (p. 134) **. Spoiler Alert: For those of you expecting to see the full-sized seed of Coco-de-Mer (Lodoicea maldivica) illustrated – to provide the life-size illustration the book promises – be advised that only a part of that seed is actually shown at full-size.

As a tome that is intended for a broader readership, Seeds fits in well amongst those other seed books mentioned above, which are also largely intended for a generalist audience. However, those generally explore the subject of seeds and people, Smith’s tome concentrates on the seeds specifically and has more of an encyclopaedic approach to the seeds selected (although it’s not that encyclopaedic since it only considers a mere 600 of the potential 400,000 species of seed-bearing plants that exist!). But, as a rather different entity to those other seed books, this should stand it in good stead, and be a worthy companion to them. Seeds is also a fitting addition to the University of Chicago Press’s other botanical titles in their ‘600 series’ – the books of: Fungi, Leaves, and Orchids.

Given its more general readership, Seeds has to tread that fine line between accuracy and not overwhelming the reader with technical – ‘scientific’ – terms. It seems to do that well and tends to explain the more technical terms in the text where they arise. Usefully, a short Glossary is also included to help with that. It is also comforting to note that a listing of Resources is included: It’s always useful to give interested readers something to go on to once their appetite has been whetted by the book itself. However, there are no in-text citations for any of the great number of facts that are included in the text that accompanies each seed’s entry (but, if a fact is mentioned do make it a complete one: e.g. it’s annoying to read that the Assam Cycas (Cycas pectinata) is the world’s tallest cycad when the height/size is not stated (p. 38)! ***). Whilst I have no reason to doubt the veracity of the information that’s shared, the teacher in me is always uneasy when sources are not stated – I would not like my own students to perpetuate that unsupported statement of facts from other’s work [although, citing Seeds as the source is a partial solution in this instance…].



Editor Paul Smith’s Book of Seeds is an attractive book whose subject matter is of importance to us all. It is, however, probably one to browse rather than read cover-to-cover. But, it is definitely one that is eminently informative, educational and ‘entertaining’. What next for the University of Chicago Press and its ‘600’s? Well, how about a book that celebrates 600 fruits?



* Because “It is no exaggeration to say that the seed is the basis of human civilization” (p. 19).

** But whose page number is missing from the Scientific Names Index – where it is oddly spelt as Dactylorchis fuschii [its common name is listed – along with the page number – in the Index of Common Names…].

*** Although typically 12 m tall, a female of this species has been recorded at 16.1 m, which, apparently, makes it the world’s tallest cycad.

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