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You can’t beat a good book

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A Cultural History of Plants* by Annette Giesecke (Anthology Editor) and David Mabberley (Anthology Editor), 2022. Bloomsbury Publishing.

I like books [actually, I love them!]. Almost as much as I’m interested in practically any- and everything to do with plants. I also like sharing my enthusiasm about matters botanical with others. Which is why I enjoy reading books about plants and appraising them for the global audience of Botany One. I don’t like electronic so-called ‘books’ (or ‘ebooks’ – Emma Yates), which is why I use my most charming self to try and secure hard copies of books to review. That’s not because I feel I’m entitled to free books [I’m not that much of a social media influencer (Neal Schaffer; Werner Geyser)], it’s just a lot easier to do the appraisal with the book to hand [plus, a hard copy – especially if it’s a hardback as opposed to a paperback – goes some way towards offsetting the considerable investment of time in reading, researching, and writing my reviews].

What’s my beef with ebooks? They aren’t easy to read [who wants to squint at a screen, especially with aged eyes?], they’re next to impossible to skip easily between pages to check and cross-check facts [which is a very useful facility to have when reviewing], annotating them’s no easy task [the joys of a page margin for writing comments, etc. is something not to be lightly dismissed], and they don’t have the pick-up-and-take-anywhere portability of a normal book [especially if and where there’s no electrical energy to power the device]. But, above all, they just don’t have the look – or feel – of a proper book.

To date I’ve been very successful in my quest for hard copies for review [even if that has meant working with a paperback version rather than a hardback on occasions]. And having the real, non-virtual, actual, physical, honest-to-goodness, proper book before me has allowed me to fully immerse myself in the tome and deliver a pretty complete assessment of the merits – or otherwise – of the title. Sadly, I wasn’t able to secure a print copy of the six volume set of A Cultural History of Plants [hereafter Cult Hist Plants], edited by Annette Giesecke & David Mabberley [which title is here appraised]. I know, I should be grateful for a gratis anything, but the publisher-supplied pdf copies [which, technically, aren’t ebooks] I’m working from – and which are presumably the same as the electronic version of the title that is sold to paying customers – are nothing like as helpful to me in the task of reviewing as proper books would be. My assessment of Cult Hist Plants is therefore likely to have been affected as a consequence (e.g., I’ve been unable to copy text – to get quotations or other wording correct – in this instance), and should be read with that in mind. However, on the plus side, this opportunity has allowed me to experience the joys – or otherwise [most definitely the latter I’ve decided…] – of reading electronic ‘books’.

Mostly technical

Cult Hist Plants aims to present a global exploration of how plants have shaped human culture. In that regard it is potentially the ultimate title in the plants-and-people genre of botanical literature. Focusing on the most recent 12,000 years, Cult Hist Plants boldly claims to be “the definitive history of how humans have cultivated, traded, classified, and altered plants and how, in turn, plants have influenced our ideas of luxury and wealth, health and well-being, art and architecture”. And, within the constraints of the chosen chapter titles, it has made a very good go at that. But, the definitive history is a very bold claim – there will always be more to uncover, and write, about plants and people in times past.

Each volume of the six-volume set of Cult Hist Plants deals with a different historical period, 1 – Antiquity (10,000 BCE to 500 CE); 2 – Post-Classical Era (500 to 1400); 3 – Early Modern Era (1400 to 1650); 4 – the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1650 to 1800); 5 – the Nineteenth Century (1800 to 1920) [I’ve always been amused by historians’ rather fluid concept of what constitutes a century…]; and 6 – Modern Era (1920 to the present). Clearly, the number of years – or centuries – covered by each volume varies considerably, which is probably inevitable as what we actually know about each period will vary [and which therefore leaves open the possibility of adding to, or correcting, experts’ views and thereby justifying revised editions of the title in future…].

In comparison with other collections where contributors will have had free rein to decide what they cover, one of the guiding principles of Bloomsbury’s Cultural History series is to ensure that the chapter titles for each volume of a series are the same (and which therefore also indicates that chapter’s ‘theme’). Thus all six volumes of Cult Hist Plants are divided into the same 8 chapters, named (and presented in this order in each volume): Plants as Staple Foods; Plants as Luxury Foods; Trade and Exploration; Plant Technology and Science; Plants and Medicine; Plants in Culture; Plants as Natural Ornaments; and The Representation of Plants. Which seems a reasonable selection of topics to cover a pretty broad range of plant-people interactions.

In addition to those 8 chapters, each volume begins with a List of illustrations, the Series Preface, and an Introduction by the volume’s editor(s), and ends with Notes/Endnotes, a Bibliography, a set of Notes on the Contributors, and an Index. A List of Abbreviations (of Classical authors and their works) is included at the beginning of volume 1. Volume 6 also has a list of Tables, and volume 3 has an additional Editor’s Note at their beginnings. The full six volumes occupy 1744 pages, according to the publisher’s blurb. However, if you exclude the Notes, Bibliography, and Index, the total of actual text pages, i.e. the real meat of the authors’ narratives, is only 1,168 pages, approx. 200 pages per volume.

Mostly appraisal

Formulaic layout

The editorial [or Publisher’s?] constraint of using the same chapter titles in each volume serves to ensure a high degree of uniformity of coverage by the different authors who contribute the same-named chapter in each of the separate volumes. This format therefore allows the reader to follow the development of a particular theme across history by reading the relevant chapter in each of the six – or to just read about a specific period in one of the volumes: Well done, Bloomsbury. Although most volumes follow the chapter titles to the letter, more variety has managed to creep into some volumes with the addition of chapter sub-headings. For example, volume 6 in particular where most chapters have a sub-heading, e.g. 1 Plants as Staple Foods: Feast and Famine in Global Food Systems, 2 Plants as Luxury Foods: Affordability in an Environmentally Uncertain Future, 3 Trade and Exploration: The Impact on Plant Diversity, 4 Plant Technology and Science: Advances in Crop Improvement, and 5 Plants and Medicine: From Imperial Divergence to Global Convergence. Whilst this is useful in giving a little more information about the chapter’s focus, it also emphasises the limitations of that chapter – and highlights the scope for other interpretations of the main chapter heading which remain to be explored, maybe in a future edition, maybe by different authors.


According to the publisher’s blurb, Cult Hist Plants contains ‘343 B/W’ illustrations. Believing that this meant that all of the images were in monochrome, I was pleasantly surprised to note that many of the illustrations are in colour [and I made a note to always double-check what publishers say in their marketing material…].


Although somewhat curiously these are called ‘Notes’ in volumes 1 – 5, but ‘Endnotes’ in volume 6, per the publisher’s information, they are consistently stated as Notes within each volume [which caused me to underline my note to check the accuracy of publisher’s statements…]. Identified by numbers within each chapter’s listing in a given volume they provide additional material to support information provided in the chapter. However, I didn’t manage to find the numbers within the text of the relevant chapter [whether that’s down to trying to read the pdf version of the text, or their absence, I don’t know…].


These are integrated within the text, as ‘author-and-year’ citations rather than as the super-scripted numbers one might have expected. But, that’s fine, I’m used to that style from my own scientific writing and reading and it does emphasise that this is an academic collection. Plus, it’s always good to see sources stated(!) However, it should be noted that references are not always listed in the – respectful and priority-acknowledging – chronological order where more than one source is cited, e.g. p. 51 in volume 1 “(Crawford 2011; Matsui and Kanehara 2006)”. Whilst this may be down to the citation style approved for the series – e.g. APA or Chicago which prioritises author-alphabetical over publication date-numerical ordering – it always looks ‘wrong’ to me.

Scientific names

The series Preface by Giesecke & Mabberley – helpfully reproduced in each volume – states that Mabberley’s Plant Book (4th edition) was used throughout Cult Hist Plants for plant names. It also advises that, where discussed, common names are used, but the scientific name is given on the first mention of a plant in each chapter. Inclusion of the scientific name is much appreciated, and should remove any doubt over which plant is intended if only common names were mentioned. Notably, the Authority (Ashley Aragon) for the scientific names has been omitted, “as is recommended for general works such as this” (e.g. p. xii Volume 1). Whilst it’s good to see the rationale for such a decision, this also gives a clue to the intended readership of Cult Hist Plants – according to the collection’s co-Editors.


All of a volume’s references – from the chapters and the Introduction – are brought together in one listing at the end of the volume. This can make for quite a substantial collection – e.g. approx. 40 pages’ worth in volume 1, and 34 pages in volume 5. Cult Hist Plants is clearly therefore a compilation of scholarly texts with attention having been paid to the works of others whose insights, etc. have contributed to the development of these important tales about plants-and-people. I haven’t checked to see if the listing only includes sources cited in the chapters (i.e. it is a true reference list), or whether it also includes sources used by the chapters’ authors in preparing their accounts but not cited in-text (i.e. it is both a reference list and a bibliography [or if it is just a bibliography…]).

Notes on Contributors

These paint petite pen portraits of all those who’ve contributed to each volume’s chapters and are always worth reading to get some idea of the academic credentials of those whose words we’ve read. Of the contributors I’m familiar with, there’s a nice one from Mark Nesbitt on Trade and Exploration in volume 5, a chapter on Plants in Culture (also in volume 5) by Roy Vickery, and an account of Trade and Exploration in volume 1 by Laurence Totelin. As far as I can tell, all of the contributors are a very good mix of individuals who bring a wide range of expertise and insights to their topics included within Cult Hist Plants.


These are 2-columned, and quite substantial – e.g. approx. 10 pages in volume 1, and includes scientific names of plants (although listed there under their common names…). However, somewhat curiously, although both scientific and common names are included in the 10 or so pages of index to volume 5, they are shown separately. Certainly for consistency, it’s probably a good idea to show both names together within the Index. Even more curiously, the Index to volume 6 only includes common names – e.g. maize, coffee, although the scientific names (Zea mays, Coffea spp., respectively) are included in-text. More consistency across all volumes in indexing would be appreciated.

What is the book’s readership?

This is not stated in the publisher’s blurb for the book, which only tells us that the pack is a Bloomsbury Academic imprint. So, presumably the publisher considers Cult Hist Plants to be an academic tome. Whilst this is consistent with the academic nature of the series’ content and layout, it seems a little at odds with the comment about Authorities to scientific names (above), penned by the Editors, where it states that Cult Hist Plants is a ‘general work’. Can a title can be both academic and general?

Series’ Editors’ credentials

The two Editors of Cult Hist Plants are Annette Giesecke and David Mabberley. By reference to the publisher-produced biography, we learn that Giesecke is the Elias Ahuja Professor of Classics in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Delaware, USA. She has a wealth of experience in the area of botanical writing having previously authored The Mythology of Plants: botanical lore from Ancient Greece and Rome (2014), The Epic City: Urbanism, Utopia, and the Garden in Ancient Greece and Rome (2007); and co-authored (both with Naomi Jacobs), The Good Gardener? Nature, Humanity, and the Garden (2015), and Earth Perfect? Nature, Utopia, and the Garden (2012). She is therefore well-placed to provide an overarching guiding hand to all six volumes of Cult Hist Plants, whilst her particular interests in the ancient world lead her naturally to act as sole editor for volume 1 A Cultural History of Plants in Antiquity. Aside from general editing responsibilities – which includes penning that volume’s Introduction, she also contributes to two multi-authored chapters in volume 1 – Plants in Culture: Botanic Symbols in Daily Life and Literature (with Mechthild Siede), and The Representation of Plants (with Allison Thomason and Joanna Day). Along with Andrew Dalby, Giesecke is also co-Editor of volume 3 A Cultural History of Plants in the Early Modern Era in which she contributes to that collection’s Introduction.

Consulting the publisher-produced biography for Mabberley, we are told that he is a renowned Botanist and author. Although based in Australia, where he is Adjunct Professor at Macquarie University, he is also Emeritus Fellow at Wadham College (University of Oxford, UK), and Emeritus Professor at the University of Leiden (The Netherlands). He has written many books on botanical art and science (e.g. The Extraordinary of the Apple (with Barrie Juniper), and Joseph Banks’ Florilegium (with Mel Gooding, and Joseph Studholme)). However, arguably his best known publication is Mabberley’s Plant-book: A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses (Ed. IV, 2017), which is used throughout Cult Hist Plants for plant names. In addition to writing, he has carried out extensive botanical fieldwork across Africa, Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and South America. Mabberley has been President of both the Society for the History of Natural History and the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and was Keeper of the Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. With such a distinguished botanical pedigree (and whose writing is always a joy to read) it may be a little surprising to note that, apart from overall co-editing responsibility for the collection, and acting as sole editor for volume 5 A Cultural History of Plants in the Nineteenth Century, Mabberley’s only explicit written contribution to the collection is the Introduction to volume 5.

With Giesecke and Mabberley at the helm, readers are entitled to feel assured that the curatorship of the collected volumes that comprise Cult Hist Plants is in good hands.

It takes its place in the publisher’s developing multi-volume series

Cult Hist Plants is one of several titles in publisher Bloomsbury’s multi-volume Cultural Histories series, which is “designed to survey the social and cultural construction of specific subjects across the same six historical periods, Antiquity, The Medieval Age, The Renaissance, The Age of Enlightenment, The Age of Empire, and The Modern Age” [interestingly, these names aren’t volume titles for Cult Hist Plants]. Those other sets have covered subjects such as Hair, Shopping, Peace, Genocide, Fairy Tales, Democracy, The Sea, Dress and Fashion, Sport, Objects, Education, The Home, Work, Comedy, Disability, Marriage, Tragedy, The Emotions, Western Empires, Theatre, The Senses, Food, Gardens, Women, Human Body, Sexuality, Childhood and Family, and Animals. Cult Hist Plants is an obvious addition to that growing collection.


A Cultural History of Plants Edited by Annette Giesecke & David Mabberley is a  most impressive collection of plants-and-people interactions from the beginnings of agriculture to the present day. I’d encourage anybody interested in the connections and interconnections between plants and people to give it a go, but I’d recommend that you get access to a proper book version.

* This collection should not be confused with the single text The Cultural History of Plants, by Ghillean Prance & Mark Nesbitt.

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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