I don’t often review plant-based books intended for a young audience. However, this post appraises one such title, The Secret World of Plants by Ben Hoare.
What you get
The Secret World of Plants, which is published by DK Children, is promoted as a “nature book for children ages 7+”. In approx. 180 pages, it packs in a surprising amount of plant biology. Because the publisher’s site for this book doesn’t include a table of contents, I hope this overview will be of value to potential readers/purchasers of this tome.
Setting the scene
Introduction – whose ‘take-home message‘, “Without plants, life as we know it would not exist” (p. 5), doesn’t get any more important than that. There follow four 2-page sections.
World of Plants – a summary outline of the main extant plant groups (covering “around 400,000 species of plant” (p. 6))– which includes green algae – and plant evolution (and also mentions fungi and lichens – because they look like plants, but aren’t).
Leaves – begins with: “Most plants can make their own food [a clear nod in the direction of those plants that don’t – e.g. corpse flower, which is covered by Hoare], and their leaves are the factories [use of which word gives an indication of the audience the book is geared towards] where it happens” (p. 8). The name of that process – photosynthesis – is provided elsewhere on p.8, as is a summary overview of its chemistry.
Flowers – although purists may baulk at labelling what are clearly the sepal equivalents of the lily flower as ‘petals’, the overall information – which includes parts of a flower, male and female flowers, and pollination – seems fine, and is summarised in a way that’s appropriate for the intended audience.
The main text
is packaged primarily as a collection of 2-page items, each of which name a specific plant – with its English common name, and its scientific name correctly italicised – and develop particular aspects of the plant organ under which heading they are included (along with other information such as the plant’s usage by people or its ecological significance). In effect, these items are mini-essays. An indication of their contents is provided below.
Somewhat curiously, this section begins with an entry for phytoplankton. Although they have no leaves [as Hoare acknowledges], it does provide the opportunity to say that “There are so many phytoplankton on Earth, all carrying out photosynthesis, that they release more oxygen than all of the world’s land plants put together” (p. 17). A named desmid, a single-celled green alga (Wim van Egmond), is the featured phytoplankter. This section also includes the highly-modified leaves of the Venus flytrap (illustrating a method by which plants gain extra mineral nutrition), the sensitive plant (and promotes herbivore-defence as the reason for the leaf-dropping behaviour of this plant),* and the great bougainvillea (which provides the opportunity to demonstrate “a special type of leaf called a bract” (p. 45)).
Stems and trunks
Includes: horsetails (and reference to their ancient role in the formation of coal deposits); the tendrils of sweet pea (which always curl to the right, so this is a ‘right-handed plant’…); fire-resistant giant sequoia (whose ripe cones open with fire releasing their seeds into nutrient-rich ash); and the water-storing trunk of the baobab.
Roots and bulbs
Features: the air plant (making the point that not all plants get their water via roots, and gives us a good look at water-absorbing scales on leaves of an epiphyte [which term is used and explained]); the strangler fig (a plant that may kill other plants); cassava (and also stating that potato tubers, although growing underground, are “massively swollen stems” (p. 86)); and nitrogen-fixing nodules on clover.
Begins with seagrass (and a reminder that some flowering plants live not only totally submerged, but also under the sea in this instance as opposed to freshwater lakes or rivers) [this entry is also used to mention the manatee and the seagrass ecosystem to make the important point that plants are not separate entities divorced from an association with other living things in the environment, but it is not clear to me why kelp forest is also included in this entry]; lotus (with appropriate mention of its beetle-trapping flowers, and the plant’s cultural and religious significance); and coralroot orchid (making the point that not all plants use photosynthesis, some are ‘vampires’ – as Hoare calls them – because “they suck out water, nutrients and sugar” (p. 115) from other plants…).
Fruits and cones
Showcases the night-flowering dragon fruit (making the point that not all plants flower during the day, and therefore need nocturnal pollinators such as bats); banana (whose ‘baby fruit’ start out straight but become curved as they grow away from the ground towards the light; and which is also an opportunity to comment upon fragility of food supply since there is a major issue with fungus affecting Cavendish bananas), and lodgepole pine [although most of the plants mentioned in the book are flowering plants, gymnosperms, such as this pine, do get a mention – and there is a 2-page spread devoted to conifer cones in this section].
Seeds and nuts
Wheat begins this section, appropriately enough because it’s stated to be “the first cereal grown by humans more than 10,000 years ago” (p. 163), at the dawn of agriculture. Maize (“a global mega-crop” (p. 166)),** coffee, and coco de mer (with its leaves that catch rain, which is channelled down to the roots along the deep folds in the trunk) are also included. As is dandelion and its ‘clock’. But, do note that the feathery structures released from the clock are actually fruits (George Briggs; Cynthia Kelly et al.), and not seeds as stated in the book.
The plant biology part of the book ends with Plants of the World – a 2-page spread that features a map of the world showing the geographical homes of some of the planet’s “most spectacular and unusual plants” (p. 184) (at least some of which – e.g. heather, Australian Christmas tree, and welwitschia – are not mentioned elsewhere in the book), and a reminder that many countries – but only specified for Canada – have a national plant.
There then follows a Glossary (two 3-columned pages, from ‘alga’ to ‘wildfire’), and an Index (of approx. four 3-columned pages, from ‘acidity’ to ‘yew tree’, via: bark; caffeine; dinosaurs; ecosystem, seagrass; farming, ancient; germination; hemiparasites; insect pollination; Jurassic Period; Khasi people; left-handed plants; mimicry; nectar; oil palm; pollinators, insect; quinine; rainforests; selective breeding; toxins; ultraviolet light; vanilla; and wholegrain bread). There are no entries for ‘X’, so, presumably, there’s no mention of ‘xylem’ in the book [nor is phloem listed under ‘P’], and none for ‘Z’. For plants, common names are listed, but not scientific names (although the latter are used in-text).
The Secret World of Plants concludes with Acknowledgements [in which we learn that Dr Jonathan Mitchley – aka ‘Dr M’ – Associate Professor in Field Botany at the University of Reading, UK, was a consultant for the book].
Almost every page is illustrated – usually with both photographs and beauitiful artwork by illustrator Kaley McKean. There is no indication of where the information presented in the book has come from, nor any suggestions of further reading.
More nuanced assessment of the book
Words and pictures
The author’s enthusiasm for the subject matter shines through the text in the book, which is engaging and well-written (and Hoare’s liberal use of exclamation marks may be seen as both an indication of his excitement with plants, and an attempt to appeal to the age-range of the intended audience whose own literary journeys are frequently littered with these punctuation marks (Joseph Brean; Adam Lusher; Stephen Poole & Neil Frizzell; Florence Hazrat)). Additionally, the book is beautifully – and abundantly – illustrated with many photographs and drawings of plants and plant parts. Text is fairly minimal in relation to the number of illustrations, which can be seen as a good demonstration of the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. On the subjects of images, some of them show very small objects, such as seeds, a 2-page spread of a false-coloured scanning electron micrograph of stomata, and a nitrogen-fixing module on a clover root. Because those structures may be unfamiliar to the readers it would have been helpful if some sense of scale had been indicated (and a statement included that the SEM image had been false-coloured). The highly-magnified wheat grain on p. 162 doesn’t need a scale since its length is stated in the legend.
It’s all in the ‘packaging’
There’s probably no one, ideal way to present plant biological information. The approach used here – based around named plant parts – is probably as good as any. Accordingly, under a plant part – such as leaves, or flowers – we have different aspects of plant biology related to that organ. To do that, each of the 2-page mini essays is based around a named plant – whose English common name and scientific name are given. But, the book doesn’t keep within the rather narrow confines of plant anatomy that the organ-based approach might imply. Instead, each entry takes the opportunity to place the named plant and plant part into a wider biological context. For example, it may talk about plant physiology, pollination biology, fire ecology, plant disease, and alternative sources of nutrients. A lot of plant biology is crammed into this book.
And, Hoare doesn’t stop there. He also inserts other information which can only give his readers a better appreciation of plants in a more human context. For example, in the entry for cassava he makes the point that not all plant food is safe, it may need processing to remove toxic compounds – hydrogen cyanide (Joey Kwok; Njoku Damian Ndubuisi & Ano Chukwuka Ugochukwu Chidiebere (2018) Int J Genom Data Min 2018: 118; doi: https://doi.org/10.29011/2577-0616.000118) in this case – from the starch-rich roots. Furthermore, in telling us that “up to 500 million people in Africa depend on cassava” (p. 86) [here is support for that statement] as a staple food source, he introduces his readers to staple foodstuffs beyond those cereals that they may be more familiar with in/from Europe, Asia and North America. The utility of plants – and plants parts and products – and the relevance of plants to people is an important theme that runs throughout the book, and reinforces the message the book begins with “without plants, life as we know it would not exist” (p. 5).
However, trying to constrain commentary to the named plant part is an approach that is not without its oddities. For example, much is said about water-absorption by leaf scales of the air plant in an essay ostensibly about ‘roots’. And the entry on lotus (under ‘flowers’) includes – and illustrates – a major mention about the barely-wettable leaves of this plant. Furthermore, the 2-page spreads that mention several plants that are included under each plant part have some quirks. For instance, under ‘Roots and bulbs’, the Flavourings item includes several which are nothing to do with roots or bulbs, e.g. chillies, sugarcane, vanilla pods, cinnamon, coriander leaves, and saffron (although ginger and garlic do fit in with the plant organ covered in this section). And the spread on Plant products, which includes henna leaves, papyrus stalks, willow bark, sandalwood heartwood, aloe vera leaves, and kelp (which surprising inclusion is compounded by the fact that brown algae seem to be actively excluded from the organisms considered to be plants on p.16!), has nothing to do with ‘flowers’ in which section it appears. The only actual flower included in that selection is dried flowerheads of lavender (and, at a push, one might also accept cotton ‘fibres’ as flower-related). However, rather than make a big fuss about this, let’s recognise that it underlines the difficulties involved in sticking to the topic. And, on the plus side, in the collection of Useful fruits (under ‘Fruits and cones’), all are fruits, and all of the Tasty seeds (under ‘Seeds and nuts’) appear to be seeds.
How many plants..?
The book’s sub-title – Tales of more than 100 remarkable flowers, trees, and seeds – is intriguing for two reasons. First, that trio would appear to exclude all of the tales regarding leaves, stems, roots, etc. Why not replace ‘flowers, trees, and seeds’ with ‘plants’? Second, where does the idea of “more than 100” plants come from? Having examined the book quite thoroughly, I counted 55 plants – 56 if you include the desmid – that were specifically dealt with in the 2-page mini-essays. That is quite a way short of 100. If one added-in plants that are mentioned very briefly in the various ‘spreads’ in each section – and then only by their common names – it may reach the required total. But, any tales told about those are very poor in comparison with the species dealt with in the dedicated 2-page items. Readers expecting 100 plants to be covered in the same level of detail are destined to be disappointed.
Feeding the readers’ thirst for more plant information
For the book’s intended young readership [don’t forget, it is published by DK Children, and is promoted as a “nature book for children ages 7+”], it is likely that very little of its contents will be known to them. It is therefore entirely appropriate that this tome be entitled ‘the secret world of plants’. And at least some of the secrets that are shared – such as parasitic plants, sensitive plants, strangler fig, squirting cucumber, vampire plants, insect-mimicking orchids, flowers that look and smell like rotting meat, and a giant seed that looks like a bare bottom – are likely to capture their attention and encourage them to want to know more. In that way their curiosity about plants will be increased, and, should they go on to find out more about plants, their botanical literacy (Britt Board) can only be enhanced. From those small beginnings [yes, do think ’acorns and mighty oak trees’], we may yet create the plant-knowledgeable people with the requisite ‘botanical capacity’ (Andrea Kramer & Kayri Havens, Natural Areas J 35(1): 83-89, 2015; https://doi.org/10.3375/043.035.0112/) that are needed to ensure proper stewardship of the planet. With that goal in mind it’s a particular shame that there is no indication of: first, the sources of the statements of fact made in the book, and second, suggestions of further reading for those plant information-hungry young minds to go on to.
As a ‘children’s book’ – although a factual one – one doesn’t necessarily expect to see indications of sources, either in-text or at the end of the book. But, that’s only because one is used to not seeing this done [it’s not done in a lot of fact-based books for adults, but that’s another story!] in books aimed at children. But, there’s no reason why there can’t be some acknowledgement of where the author has got his information from – even a ‘bibliography’ would be helpful for that. And, since one of the aims of the book is to inspire its readers to find out more about plants (Author’s Introduction on p. 5), providing details of other plant-relevant books to take their interests further would be a great service to the young readers. As author Hoare acknowledges, the plant kingdom is vast. On its own, this book will not do it complete justice; suggestions of other books to look at next will only be of benefit. And one such book that could be promoted here is Dorling Kindersley’s very own The Science of Plants. Another I’d recommend is How Plants Work by consultant editor Stephen Blackmore.
DK versus the BBC
In 2022 I reviewed The Green Planet by Simon Barnes – the book of the BBC TV series of the same name. I also appraised The Green Planet by Lisa Stewart-Sharpe & Kim Smith, which also presents “stories from the iconic BBC TV series” (according to the sticker on the book’s front cover). The latter title was essentially a version of the former that was tailored for a much younger audience. In many respects Dorling Kindersley’s The science of plants [appraised earlier in 2023] and Ben Hoare’s The Secret World of Plants [also published by Dorling Kindersley] can be viewed in much the same way. However, and although both Stewart-Sharpe & Smith’s The Green Planet and Hoare’s The secret world of plants are intended for a young readership, with its numerous photographs, glossary, index, and a more adult text, Hoare’s book should also appeal to older readers as well.
Ben Hoare’s charming book – The Secret World of Plants – covers a good deal of plant biology and ecology and a decent amount of plants-and-people material in a way that’s appropriate for its intended readership. However, although aimed at a young audience, it doesn’t dumb-down the science, and uses technical terms*** where necessary. If parents, or other grown-up family members, read this book with the youngsters, both adults and the F1 generation can learn lots from this lovely publication.
** Having included wheat and maize in this section, it seems a little bizarre that there’s no separate entry for rice. As a cereal that is a staple for approx. 3.5 billion people, one-half of the world’s population (Deepa; Naomi Fukagawa & Lewis Ziska, J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo) 65(Supplement): S2-S3, 2019; doi: 10.3177/jnsv.65.S2), which has some noteworthy features of its biology [e.g. flooding-tolerance (Demilade Fayemiwo] and culture (Michael Bryan), great relevance to genetic modification of plants [think ‘golden rice’], and lots of people-relevance [e.g. it was the other major crop – along with wheat – that was significantly improved during the Green Revolution (Grace Brewer; Amanda Briney)], it would seem to be a suitable candidate for inclusion in the book. Instead, it’s only mention appears to be as one of the ‘Tasty seeds’ in the 2-page spread of that title.
*** Readers of a certain age – those considerably older than 7+ – may be disappointed (but not entirely surprised?) to learn that the name ‘ethylene’ (Francis Carey) is now officially no more; it’s called ethene (Simon Cotton) – and only ethene – in the book. When I was being introduced to plant physiology the five classical plant hormones (Hans Kende & Jan Zeevaart, The Plant Cell 9(7): 1197–1210, 1997; https://doi.org/10.1105/tpc.9.7.1197) were called auxin, abscisic acid, cytokinins, gibberellins, and ethylene. Having to now call the fifth one ethene will be hard to do, and accept…