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Plant science, the secret’s out!

The Science of Plants: Inside their secret world by Dorling Kindersley, 2022. Dorling Kindersley, published in association with Royal Botanic Gardens Kew.

I had a great sense of déjà vu (Stephanie Pappas) when looking through The Science of Plants by Dorling Kindersley [which book is here appraised].

We’ve been here before

And that sense of ‘having seen it all before’ is well-founded. Because, on page 4 – admittedly in very small text (and in slightly-bigger, but still rather small, text on the back cover just above the price and ISBN) – we are told that the book’s content was previously published as Flora in 2018(!).* Having appraised Flora for this blog site a few years ago, it’s no wonder I recognised the material in The Science of Plants. I can’t deny that I was tempted to reproduce my text re Flora for this review. And, why not? If it’s good enough for a big international publisher, then surely it’s good enough for little old me? Maybe. However, I resisted going down that route, and have tried to make my assessment of The Science of Plants somewhat different from my scrutiny of Flora. It can’t be entirely different because many of the matters noted re Flora will also need to be raised this time round. But, I have tried to produce something distinct and worth reading.

Overview and appraisal

Although The Science of Plants has many features that one would associate with a textbook on botany (and which some potential readers might find off-putting) – in particular lots of technical information and scientific illustrations – its layout is much more akin to a catalogue of plant parts with numerous insights into different aspects of their biology. Such an arrangement doesn’t have the look of a textbook. In that way it has the ability to provide a great deal of technical information in a non-threatening, almost effortless, way. That can only increase its acceptability to a non-specialist audience, whose botanical literacy (Britt Board) can only increase by exposure to the book’s contents.

After a section entitled the plant kingdom, the named plant parts – which are effectively chapter headings – covered, and in sequence within the book, are: roots; stems and branches; leaves; flowers; and seeds and fruits. Each ‘chapter’ starts with a definition of the plant part(s), but provides nothing else by way of context. In the absence of any general introduction to each plant part, its relevance to plant biology has to be gleaned by reading the several entries that support each chapter. For example under leaves, we have consideration of such features as: types of leaf; developing leaves; leaves and the water cycle; drip tips; succulent foliage; variegated leaves; stinging leaves; leaf defences; floating leaves; and leaves that eat. Whilst each supporting item is a fixed two pages long, the lengths of individual chapters ranges from approx. 7 pages for the plant kingdom, to c. 50 pp. re seeds and fruits, and about 102 pp. on flowers. In terms of coverage of types of plant, although mosses and ferns get mentions, the great bulk of The science of plants is devoted to flowering plants (with a decent inclusion of gymnosperms).

Each chapter that deals specifically with plant parts includes at least one ‘Plants in art’ item. Although these pieces – with titles such as ‘impressions of nature’ [with focus on van Gogh, and his ‘tree roots’ painting in particular], ‘ancient herbals’ [show-casing books or manuscripts that contain plant descriptions and information on their properties and medicinal uses], and ‘American enthusiasts’ [which looks at the work of artists in capturing the plant life of the diverse and unexplored habitats of that vast continent during the 19th century] – are nice to look at, it’s not clear why they’ve been included. Maybe it’s to reinforce the idea of science and art being intertwined, especially with a visually-pleasing topic such as plants. Inclusion of an Introduction to the book as a whole and how it’s been laid-out, etc. could have gone a long way to dealing with those concerns.

In respect of the book’s sub-title – Inside their secret world – what plant ‘secrets’ are shared with the readers? Pedantically, one could say that, since this information being disclosed in this book which will have come from already-published sources, it’s not really secret. But, in view of concerns over the degree of botanical (il)literacy (Gordon Uno, American Journal of Botany 96: 1753-1759, 2009; https://doi.org/10.3732/ajb.0900025) (or ‘species literacy’ (Sebastian Stroud et al., Ecology and Evolution Volume12, Issue7 July 2022 e9019; https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.9019)) and plant blindness (Frank Durgan, Plant Science Bulletin 62(2): 85-93, 2016; doi: 10.3732/psb.1600002; Sarah Jose et al., Plants People Planet 1: 169-172, 2019; https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.51) (or plant awareness disparity [PAD] (Kathryn Parsley, Plants People Planet 2: 598-601, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10153)), and overall ‘botanical capacity’ (Andrea Kramer & Kayri Havens, Natural Areas J 35(1): 83-89, 2015; https://doi.org/10.3375/043.035.0112) amongst the general public (Claire Hemingway et al., Science 331: 1535-1536, 2011; doi: 10.1126/science.1196979)), it’s reasonable to acknowledge that much of what’s included in The science of plants is not widely known and therefore has the aura of secrecy surrounding it. Accordingly, some of the ‘secrets’ shared concern: contractile roots; cauliflorous plants; buzz pollination; armoured flowers; and exploding seedpods. All of those topics – and the many more not name-checked here – are hopefully suitably intriguing to invite further study by the reader.

Each of the book’s approx. 333 pages of main text is abundantly-illustrated with a great ratio of text: images: white space. In terms of overall impression, it’s the illustrations one is so impressed with. Primarily photographs. they are superb! Indeed, the text is comparatively minimal, the pictures really do most of the ‘talking’. This book is a profusely-illustrated. carefully-chosen and curated collection of botanical insights with an abundance of examples e.g. of different compound leaves, or leaf shapes, or types of bracts, or types of inflorescence.

Immediately after the main text is 6 pages of 4-columned Glossary, with entries from Abaxial to Zygomorphic [Pleasingly, The science of plants respects its readers and doesn’t shy away from using proper botanical terms]. Thereafter, approx. 8 pages of 4-columned Index, from Abutilon sp. to zygomorphic flowers, via such entries as: allelopathic plants; betalains; CAM; daisy family (Asteraceae); epiphytes; fish; glochids; Hanging Gardens of Babylon; Indian Ocean painted in Benares, McEwan; Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum); kaffir lime** (Citrus hystrix); lenticels; mesophyll cells; nectar; obovate leaves; parasitic plants; Quercus sp. (oak); Renaissance artwork; seeds; thigmotropism; urceolate flowers; van Gogh, Vincent; waxy surface; xylem; yellow pigments (carotenoids); and Zea mays (corn), completes the technical content of the book.

Visually very attractive, Dorling Kindersley’s The science of plants appears about as educational as it can be given its intended broad audience of adults and youngsters.

Who has written The Science of Plants?

With no named author(s) declared for The Science of Plants one has had to use the publisher’s name. But, the book is not ‘anonymous’, its content has been provided by people. And those contributors (which are the same as those listed for Flora…), named on p. 5 of the book, are: Jamie Ambrose; Dr Ross Bayton; Matt Candeias; Dr Sarah Jose; Andrew Mikolajski; Esther Ripley; and David Summers. All of whom have backgrounds in botany, natural history and/or editing/publishing – per their very short ‘biographies’ in the book – which is clearly good to know. However, what would be even more interesting is to know which sections each contributed, so they could get the credit and appreciation from this reviewer as appropriate. But, we’re not told that, so we must thank them en masse for a great ensemble production.

Where has the text come from?

We now know the contributors, but where did they get their information from? We do not know because no sources are indicated, either in-text or listed at the end of the book. This therefore means that we have to take on trust all of the facts stated in the book. One always feels uneasy about that. What if the author misread the information, and it’s now wrong in print? Without an indication of the source, the sceptical reader has no way to check. Not that we’re necessarily expecting contributors to get things wrong, but that possibility exists. The ability to go to the source to check is therefore an important part of the ‘contract’ between writer and reader. It shows the faith that the writer has in his/her scholarship, that they are prepared to stand up and have their work subjected to scrutiny by the reader. Knowing the sources are there to be checked if desired inspires some extra confidence in the reader that what is being read is solid information. Furthermore, there is not even an indication of items of further reading for interested readers to pursue their new-found botanical interests. And that’s a great pity because it’s an added opportunity to educate the public that’s been missed.

Spot the difference***

The Table of Contents, main text, Glossary, Index, List of botanical art, and Acknowledgements in the two books – Flora, and The science of plants –appear to be identical. The principal difference in content between them is the author – and text – of the Foreword. In the present book it’s been penned by Prof. Alexandre Antonelli (Director of Science at RBG Kew). Flora’s was provided by Prof. Kathy Willis (former Director of Science at Kew). Although the words used are different, the overall message of each is similar, an aspiration that the book will help to impress upon readers the importance of plants, and the debt owed to them by people. Additionally, the set of four charming botanical prints included with Flora is absent from The science of plants.

Something else that hasn’t changed…

In my previous review of the book’s content, I made some suggestions of ways the content could have been improved. It was therefore disappointing to see that nothing had changed in that respect in this version.****

So, here are some – repeated – suggestions to make future versions/editions/retitlings* of the book even better [primarily summarised from those I previously made]:

Why not include page numbers in the Glossary for the image(s) that illustrate the various definitions?

Ensure scientific names are displayed correctly – and consistently. Although correctly shown italicised in the book, only the first letter of the first part of the name – the genus – should be shown in upper case, not the whole binomial (as we have on, e.g. pp. 12, 120, 231, 288…). Rather irritatingly, and inconsistently, the scientific name Cibatium glaucum is shown both correctly AND incorrectly on p. 121.

For a highly-visual publication one would like to think the readers will get the most out of the illustrations. To help with that, it would be a very good idea to include some indication of the true size of the features that are illustrated. Such an indication of scale is particularly important – albeit missing – for the micrographs, e.g. stems on pp. 60/1, pine trunk on p. 83, and fern sorus on p. 339. It’s also important to state that some images have been false-coloured – for whatever purpose – e.g. the SEM [scanning electron microscope] images of ‘inside foliage’ on p. 112, and pollen grains on p. 198 (and all of which also need scale bars…).

And there’s no indication of any further reading to take one’s interests … further [see also Where has the text come from?]. Whilst the publisher might – understandably – be averse to being seen to promote the publications of other publishers, there’s a whole treasury of plant books out there for those whose botanical interests have been awakened, and who desire to take their interests further. Why not list some? The ’brownie points’ gained from such a charitable act that serves the public good surely far outweigh any commercial concerns about gifting book sales to another publisher.


Like its previous incarnation, The Science of Plants by Dorling Kindersley is a stunning piece of work. I’m happy to recommend it to all who know very little about plants but would like to know more. But, if you already have a copy of Flora, there’s no need to get this edition of The Science of Plants.

* When I queried the reason for this with the publisher I was advised that “The book’s content is the same as that for Flora because it is a retitling of Flora”. Although you will find that out when you have the book in front of you and look in the right places, I couldn’t find this same information publicised on the publisher’s site for this book, which source you might look at in deciding whether or not to buy the book. Neither does this retitling appear to be disclosed on the publisher’s American site for the book. I’m still no wiser as to why Flora has been retitled as The Science of Plants… although, on the plus side, it does give the contributors two book publications to their name for the ‘price’ of one.

** I was surprised to see this common name used because it has unpleasant associations with the apartheid regime of South Africa (LV Anderson), where the word kaffir is used as a racial slur. The origin of the word kaffir has been discussed at length by such commentators as Khalil Akhtar, Veronica Vinje, Maryn McKenna, and Tyler LeBlanc, and it may originally have been Arabic for infidel or disbeliever. However, regardless of its ultimate etymological origin, its modern-day use in a racially derogatory way justifies its status as a term that should be avoided. In that regard it is noteworthy that its use has been discontinued by organisations such as the UK supermarket chain Waitrose (James Briggs & Jack Guy), which now refers to the fruit as makrut lime.

Interestingly, although both the common name and scientific name is shown in the book’s Index, p. 115 – to which that entry refers – just has Citrus hystrix. We therefore have the unusual situation where a term that’s present in the Index isn’t in the text (at least on the page indicated – I’ve not checked all of the book’s text for the common name), which raises a question about how an index is compiled. I assume an index is put together on the basis of entries in the final version of the text. If so, then it looks like the plant’s common name was removed from the text after the indexing had been completed. One is then left to wonder, were the contributor(s) aware of this problematic common name and shunned its use in-text, unlike the person who compiled the index..? We also have the odd situation where a term that’s present in the Index isn’t in the text…

*** An additional 80 pages of material is available in the version of the title that’s sold in the USA and features a “catalogue of plant families and explanations of botanical names”. Having seen proof copies of some of those additional pages I can confirm that they are a stunning set of images and summary descriptions of plant families, and add considerable value to the book. Although the official explanation I’ve been given is that “there is more demand for longer books in the US, and shorter ones in UK”, it’s seems a great pity that purchasers of the UK version should be disadvantaged in this way. Are aspiring UK botanists any less deserving of botanical knowledge than their American cousins? Anyway, we are where we are. But, I suppose a way around this issue is for UK readers to get hold of the American copy of the book and so be able to access the full version of the text. As an aside, there’s no obvious mention of RBG Kew on the front cover of the American book, unlike its UK incarnation [see cover image above]. Instead, the American version’s cover appears to be promoting an association with The Smithsonian Institution

**** Publishers are usually aware of published reviews of their books because they are quick enough to pick up on appreciative ‘sound-bites’ therein and to use those as endorsements to promote their products. Since I’ve not seen my appraisal of Flora used by Dorling Kindersley, maybe they were unaware of it – and the suggested improvements it mentioned.

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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