How do plants work?

Beauty is more than skin deep in this book explaining how plants function.

How Plants Work: Form, Diversity, Survival, Consultant Editor: Stephen Blackmore 2018. Ivy Press.


Stephen Blackmore’s How Plants Work* contains 355 pages of illustrated main text, plus a Glossary, a list of Further Reading, and an Index. Of the 8 chapters, the first is devoted to general ‘morphology’ **, there is one each for the vegetative organs of root, stem, and leaf, three for various aspects of reproduction, and the final chapter is devoted to people and plants.

What you get…

The individual contributions of this multi-authored text work well together, such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts giving a good, overall unified feel to the book.

Within each chapter, topics covered are presented as readable, short – usually only 1 or 2-pages – sections. That strikes a good balance between being long enough to be sufficiently informative, but short enough to avoid being unduly taxing to read and understand.

Since plants features prominently in the book’s title it is important to know what is meant by plants here. This is answered relatively early on in a section conveniently entitled “What is a plant?” wherein plants are defined as “multicellular photosynthetic organisms that have adapted to life on land”. For most of the book that is restricted primarily to vascular plants and principally gymnosperms and angiosperms. But, the other phyla of land plants do get a good mention, as do green algae and other ancestral life-forms that helped to give rise to land plants. And that theme of progression and evolution is never far away in considering the development of the organs of a plant.

How Plants Work is abundantly – lavishly! – illustrated, with its 400 or so images in colour. Content ranges from light micrographs to transmission- and scanning electron micrographs, to whole plant photographs, plus drawings. In fact, the images are so gorgeous that many of them would not look out of place displayed on the walls of an art gallery: How Plants Work is a veritable phytophotofest! So much so that one could just admire the pictures and completely ignore the text and treat How Plants Work as a ‘coffee-table’ publication.

But, if you look beyond the pictures – and this I’d strongly encourage you to do – you’ll find that How Plants Work doesn’t attempt to dumb-down the subject matter in terms of the language used. It certainly assumes a literate educated readership. But, nowhere could I find explicit a statement regarding the intended readership of the book. That is important to avoid disappointment for younger readers who might be tempted to read How Plants Work having already been enthused about plants and botany by Dorling Kindersley’s similarly illustration-intensive tome Flora. The last thing a book about plants wants to do is to disappoint aspiring botanists who might then change course to lesser subjects like zoology(!)

What sort of book is How Plants Work?

How Plants Work covers many of the topics that you should expect in a decent botany textbook, but without the great level of detail in such teaching texts as Evert & Eichhorn’s Raven Biology of Plants (2013), Mauseth’s Plants & People (2013), Taiz et al‘s Plant Physiology and Development (2015), and Mauseth’s Botany (2017). In many respects How Plants Work can – should! – be considered as a highly-readable companion text to those more traditional textbooks. Having said that, How Plants Work does include information that I don’t recall seeing in those more typical botany textbooks [see ‘Aha moments’ section below], so it stands on its own merits. Another way of thinking about How Plants Work is that it neatly bridges the ‘gap’ between Taiz et al., Evert & Eichhorn, Mauseth, and Mauseth, on the one hand, and Armstrong’s How the Earth turned green (2014) and Essig’s Plant Life: A brief history (2015) on the other. And, for completeness, compared to Dorling Kindersley’s Flora, How Plants Work has much greater depth.

What you don’t get – yet!

Careful reading of How Plants Work reveals some things that don’t really work. But, rather than treat these as negative aspects of this book that I’m otherwise very positive about, here I very much have in mind suggestions of improvements for future editions of this great book!

More of an idea of scale would be useful

One way to impress upon your readers the majesty of plants is to emphasise how small (or large!) some of their component parts are – especially those with which readers may be unfamiliar. Unfortunately, for the great majority of illustrations in How Plants Work scale bars or indications of magnification are not present. Noteworthy, therefore, are the exceptions which do indicate magnifications: the coloured SEMgraph [the legend tells us this] of mycorrhizal hyphae (p. 82); the photograph [presumably] of ectomycorrhizal fungus on pine root (p. 83); colour-enhanced TEMgraph [the legend states this] of chloroplast (p. 145); false-coloured SEMgraphs [we’re not told this in the legend] of stomata (p. 158); false-coloured SEMgraph [we are told it’s an SEM image] grass pollen (p. 265); false-coloured SEMgraph [but the legend is silent on both matters…] of mixed pollen (p. 275) … and a photograph of seed and cones of giant redwood (p. 279) for which a scale bar is provided.

Challenging graphics

The 6 Kingdom graphic on p. 18 would benefit from some redrawing so it’s clear that the protista are an extant group. As shown they appear just to have been a progenitor of plants, fungi, and animals, and no longer with us [although the main text does make it clear that members of this grouping exist today].

The drawing of the cross section of the leaf of a C3 grass on p. 152 shows veins with xylem inside a ring of phloem cells [my emphasis], and discrete palisade [my emphasis again] and spongy mesophyll layers. Having researched grass leaf structure for many years that arrangement of tissues looks rather odd to me. That may be because I’ve not looked at every grass species, but without an indication of which species is illustrated I’m left wondering how accurate that representation is – it certainly doesn’t look ‘typical’ of a C3 grass leaf (e.g. here, here, and here). The corresponding cross section through a C4 grass leaf (p. 155) retains the ring of phloem cells, but has the expected outer ring of bundle sheath cells, and shows only spongy mesophyll. Neither cross-section shows scale bars nor indicates the magnification.


Pleasingly I noted very few, but ‘phosphorous’ (p. 167) stood out. I also wonder about the spelling of the specific epithet of Dianthus caryophyllous (p. 337); should it be ‘caryophyllus‘. But, and this is very much on the plus side, throughout How Plants Work scientific names are correctly italicized, and ‘sp.’ and ‘spp.’ are left unitalicized, which textual correctness is always nice to see.

Questionable statements

“The two leaves [my emphasis] that form the trap of the Venus flytrap…” (p. 166). The trap is a highly modified – 2-lobed – structure at the free end of a single leaf (e.g. here, here, here, and Guo et al., 2015. J R Soc Interface 12: 20150598;

“and the higher levels of oxygen produced through respiration…” (p. 60). As far as I’m aware respiration famously is a process that consumes, rather than produces, oxygen. Was photosynthesis the name of the intended process? Or, should the gas mentioned be carbon dioxide..?

“…potato blight (caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans)…” (p. 350). P. infestans is NOT a true fungus, it is a member of the Oomycota or Peronosporomycota. Although this is easily corrected by calling it fungus-like..?


At only 2 pages – even though each is 5-columned, it is a little on the short side, and probably should have some more entries. Suggested additional entries, which are not defined or explained in-text are: ray parenchyma (p. 115), peripatetically (p. 279), stochastic (283); boreal (328); homoeotic mutation (337); and cerrado (p. 341).

Further Reading

Of the 36 items included, the majority are books, and 5 are scientific papers. But, it’s not always obvious from their titles to which Chapters they relate. Inclusion of that information would be helpful for those who want to know more about particular chapters or topics to pursue their interest. This would be also be useful in overcoming the absence of in-text references.


Consists of 8 pages of 5-columned entries. One could always expand an index – e.g. by addition of ‘boreal’, ‘cerrado’, ‘homoeotic mutation’, ‘peripatetically’, ‘ray parenchyma’, and ‘stochastic’ – but a line has to be drawn somewhere…

There are many ‘Aha!’ moments…

I’m sure everyone who reads How Plants Work will have their own moments of revelation, whether that’s to have discovered something new, or been reminded of something long-forgotten. Some of my such moments were the two-pages of “A short history of plant morphology” (pp. 34/5); seeing LM images of an isobilateral leaf of Eucalyptus (p. 40), and Geraldton wax flower’s needle-like leaves with a ‘circle’ of palisade mesophyll (p. 41); reading about stomatal function in roots (p. 61), and O2 flow in water-lilies (pp. 122/3); being reminded that moss leaves having no air spaces because all cells are in contact with air, and an absence of cuticle which facilitates direct absorption of nutrients (p. 136); now appreciating the etymology of Papilionaceae (an old name for the pea family, the Fabaceae) from ‘papilio’, the Latin word for butterfly (p. 48), which some of the flowers resemble; being introduced to the word Taraxagum (a ‘brand’ of latex from Taraxacum (p. 324); finding out about NCC, nanocrystalline cellulose (p. 328); and learning a fascinating snippet of botanical history – the tale of Henri Ernest Baillon (p. 143) and the evolutionary relationship between the lotus and the plane tree. If any botanical educators are looking for additional items to add to their lectures, they’ll find many in How Plants Work.

A word about all of the contributors

Although the official ‘author’ associated with the book is Stephen Blackmore, the bulk of the writing has been contributed by an impressive team of 6 botanists. So that the contributions of all authors are acknowledged in this appraisal, their names, contributions, affiliations, and links to more information about them are as follows: Chapter 1 An Introduction to plant morphology, Andrew Drinnan, University of Melbourne (Australia); Chapter 2 Roots, Taryn Bauerle, Cornell University (USA); Chapter 3 Stems, Jarmilla Pitterman, University of California (USA); Chapters 4 Leaves, 6 Cones and flowers, and 7 Seeds and fruits, Timothy Walker, University of Oxford (UK); Chapter 5 Plant reproduction, Frederick B Essig, University of South Florida (USA); Preface and Chapter 8 People and plants, Stephen Blackmore, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (UK).

A final comment on writing style…

As stated above, overall, this is a very well-written, thoughtful book. In particular I’d like to applaud the writing style of Chapter 4 on leaves, and Chapter 6 on cones and flowers (both penned by Walker) – look especially at the ‘job description’ of a flower, with essential, and desirable duties clearly laid out (p. 227). But, although highly readable, How Plants Work does include the occasional very technical statement, e.g. “how geometry alters bending resistance away from the geometric centre, a property known as the second moment of area” (p. 120). The level of prior knowledge needed to understand that statement leads me – again – to wonder who the book’s intended audience is. For completeness, we also get the occasional ‘poetic’ phrasing such as: “inside these organs [leaves] the silent hum of photosynthesis powers most of that life” (p. 135). While purists may cringe at such ‘unscientific’ phrasing, it does make for text that is nicely readable and understandable.


If you want to know more about how plants work, you can’t do much better than to dive into How Plants Work. All the contributors to this tome are to be applauded for their scholarship in producing an important contribution to the plant science literature.

* In case anybody is wondering, the web site entitled How Plants Work curated by Dr Richard Stout, is not – as far as I know – connected with the book of the same name, although, and like the book appraised in this blog item, it also provides lots of great information about how plants work(!)

** It is worth pointing out that in How Plants Work plant ‘morphology’ is defined as the ”study of plant structures and their functions”.

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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