Plants & Us: How they shape human history and society by John Akeroyd (with Liz Cowley and Donough O’Brien), 2021. GB Publishing Org.
For anybody who’s ever been fascinated by books that are stuffed-full of facts, and to all who are interested in plants, Plants & Us by John Akeroyd, Liz Cowley and Donough O’Brien [which title is here appraised] will be right up your street. Quite simply this book is amazing. There, that’s it, that’s the book review. I know, uncharacteristically short and to the point for me. For a little more in-depth comment, read on…
With approx. 400 pages of main text, Plants & Us is a most impressive catalogue of plants and peopleness. Grouped into 13 Chapters, with titles such as: Plants as Heroes, Plants as Villains, Plants in War, Plants in Peril, Plants and Places, Plants and Money, Plants on Parade, and Screen, Stage and Sound Studios, its breadth is breath-taking (as it needs to be if it is to have any hope of encompassing the myriad ways plants have affected people). And, in order to cope with such a dazzling array of facts, it should come as no surprise that its 3-columned Index* extends to almost 21 pages (and contains entries for every letter of the alphabet). In addition to its words, Plants & Us is also profusely illustrated in colour, both of which media of communication help the book in its aim to “draw attention to some of the wealth, variety and consequences of the extraordinary contributions of plant life to human history and existence” (p. xiv). It’s also as up-to-date as its late 2021 publication date permits, with mention of covid-19 lockdowns and November 2021’s COP26 gathering in Scotland. Additionally, several books in its Selected Bibliography are very recent publications – e.g. Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled life (2020), Liz Cowley’s Green fingers (2019), and William Dalrymple’s The anarchy: The relentless rise of the East India Company (2019).
In the belief that the best person to explain what a book is about is the book’s author(s), here’s Akeroyd et al. on Plants & Us: “This book is neither a botany textbook nor a plant identification guide (…), and it does not pretend to be comprehensive. It takes a broad sideways look at plant life, why it matters and how it has affected so much of human existence, past and present. We have concentrated on the Flowering Plants, …, but we have further included some so-called ‘lower plants’, such as ferns, mosses and seaweeds. We have also taken the liberty of including some fungi** “ (p. xvi).
Although one doesn’t know what text was contributed by each of the three authors, it is clear that Plants & Us was written by true plant enthusiasts, with style and humour, and a great sense of respect and admiration for the plants. For insights into Akeroyd’s ‘joie de plantes’ it’s worthwhile listening to the radio interviews in which he shares his knowledge of and love for plants (and which are available to listen to on the publisher’s web site).
Plants & Us is an extraordinary achievement, an unapologetically exuberant celebration of plants and all things planty, but with a people connection. Rarely, in the field of botanical education, have so many plant facts been assembled for the benefit and education of the public at large by so few. If the authors got as much enjoyment out of compiling the book as this reviewer got from reading it, it must have been a great project to have been involved with. [Can anybody else imagine the book’s content could be set up as a website that continually expands as more plants-and-people connections are added as new ‘pages’? A sort of Wikiplantipedia? Wicked!]
A botanical cornucopia
In some respects Plants & Us is a difficult book to characterise, because it contains contributions from botany, history, geography, politics, health studies, nutrition, sociology, poetry, literature, music, social commentary, the visual arts – and more. However, its unifying theme or focus is embodied in the book’s sub-title, how they [plants] shape human history and society. In that respect, Plants & Us is the latest addition to the ‘plants-and-people’ genre. It, therefore, takes its place alongside several other books that develop various aspects of the plants-and-people story. For example, Stephen Harris’ What have plants ever done for us?, 100 plants that almost changed the world by Chris Beardshaw, Bill Laws’ Fifty plants that changed the course of history, Remarkable plants that shape our world by Helen & William Bynum, Seeds of change, and Seeds of wealth by Henry Hobhouse, Christopher Cumo’s Plants and people, Plants for people by Anna Lewington, Why people need plants by Carlton Wood & Nicolette Habgood, Michael Balick & Paul Cox’s Plants, people, and culture, Judith Sumner’s Plants go to war, and Plants & people by James Mauseth.
With such a list of plants-and-people books already, do we need another one? If so, what makes Plants & Us different? Indeed, is it different? Yes, it is needed, if only because it is different to what’s gone before. Akeroyd et al’s book can be distinguished because it effectively cherry-picks [a phrase for which we have to thank plants…] the best bits from books such as those listed and presents us with an incredibly highly-concentrated catalogue of plant ‘accomplishments’. But, in doing so, they’ve avoided restating much of the more obvious material (and the in-depth analysis of authors such as Hobhouse). Instead, they’ve focussed on unearthing the odd, the off-beat, and the quirky – and the numerous snippets of information provided are all the more memorable as a result. So, in its own way Plants & Us adds to what’s already on the bookshelf for this topic. For those unwise enough to attempt to read the book in one sitting, it would be a far-too-intense experience. Far better to savour the book slowly – but often – dipping into it as-and-when you want to be reminded of the debt we owe plants. In turn, we owe a great debt to Akeroyd, Cowley and O’Brien, for producing Plants & Us.
Credit where credit’s due (but where’s it due..?)
Full credit must go to Akeroyd et al. who have collated this curious compilation of ‘plantabilia’. It is a most impressive achievement with numerous items of plant ‘trivia’ on every page. Except that none of these plant facts are trivial. Dealing as it does with the varied interactions between plants and people, the information assembled in Plants & Us is important – and serves to underline the inter-relatedness of people and plants.
But, although the book’s authors are rightly credited with assembling the facts, ultimate credit must be due to all of the people who generated that information in the first place. Sadly, we’ll probably never know which snippet of information they each supplied. Why? Because none of the sources of the statements are stated in the text. True, there is a ‘Selected Bibliography’, 2.5 pages of books***, which presumably are the sources for at least some of the book’s material, but which? How can one relate a ‘selected’ source to a specific statement(s)? It won’t be easy. Does this matter? Yes(!), it is important to be able to give due credit to those to whom it is owed [for more on the importance of showing your sources, see here, here, and here]. And that’s about the only substantive negative thing I can say about Plants & Us.
Some insight to the facts within…
To give some idea of what the book covers, I’d be hard-pushed to do better than emphasise some of the book’s own publicity material in providing the following ‘teasers’. So here goes. If you’ve ever wanted to know how: horse chestnut ‘conkers’ created one nation, and tulips wrecked another; America’s timber was worth ten times more than her ‘gold rush’; plants helped noble Romans to kill Emperors, and Marie Stopes [Scottish-born palaeobotanist, sex educator and eugenicist] (accidentally) to kill ‘Scott of the Antarctic‘ [doomed British polar explorer]; coffee created two global financial institutions; five major crops relied on the evils of slavery; bark helped to create the mighty Roman Army; Capability Brown [celebrated 18th century English garden designer] got his nickname; or why: Spain’s Armada was told to cut down trees; ‘Popeye the sailor-man‘ [impressively muscled cartoon character] didn’t need to eat spinach; grapes led to Emperor Domitian’s assassination; Oliver Cromwell [regicidal British political figure] transported Irish people and failed to take his ‘Catholic’ medicine; rhubarb and watercress had their own trains; George Washington [1st US President] couldn’t tell a lie, and Donald Trump [45th US President] could; or what: Jamie Oliver [British celebrity-chef and food campaigner] tried to persuade children to do; wheat-based food Sophia Loren [Oscar-winning Italian actress] attributed her figure to; plant origin inspired bungee-jumping; botanical source was behind the Platanenmuster camouflage pattern on the Germany Army’s uniforms in the Second World War, then Plants & Us is the book for you!
Plants & Us by John Akeroyd, Liz Cowley and Donough O’Brien deserves to be widely available and widely read. It’s a great book that unashamedly celebrates plants, highlighting, in particular, the myriad ways that they’ve influenced people and societies ever since humans first interacted with them. It should be essential reading for everybody – not just those who create plant-themed quizzes – whose appreciation of plants can only be improved as a result.
* For the benefit of future editions/revisions of the book, a bit of tidying-up would be useful in the Index: e.g. correcting the font issue re ‘Chlorophytes (Green Al-‘ (at the bottom of p. 399); replacing the string of umpteen? under ‘Pine, Pines’ with page number(s); including a separate entry for quinine – rather than ‘hiding’ it behind ‘quinquina’; and World Health Organization should be spelt with a ‘z’, not an ‘s’ as shown (although that incorrect spelling is consistent with its usage in-text on p. 65). And whilst I’m in proofing mode, the BSBI is no longer the Botanical Society of the British Isles (as stated on p. xi), but the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland [see ** item in this Botany One post]. This correction ought to be made if only to avoid embarrassment to John Akeroyd who is a former vice-president of that august organisation and a former editor of Watsonia (the journal of the BSBI before its own name change to the New Journal of Botany).
** Although it should be pointed out that potato blight (Jean Ristaino et al.) is not caused by a fungus (pp. 102, 312), but an oomycete (Amy Rossman & Mary Palm) – which could be described as fungal-like (Lida Derevnina et al., Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 371: 20150459 20150459; http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0459).
*** And one suspects that many of the books listed in that bibliography (which is described as ‘selected’ and therefore is not a full list of sources used?) are – at best – secondary sources for the information reproduced in Plants & Us because most of their authors will have drawn upon other – primary – sources (which may or may not be cited in their own publications) for their content. From a completeness point of view I should also point out that at least two items are missing publication dates in the bibliography, Heuvelmamans, and Sykes.