A computer generated botanic garden.

100 plants that make the world

The History of the World in 100 Plants by Simon Barnes, 2022. Simon & Schuster UK.

This is an appraisal of The History of the World in 100 Plants [hereafter referred to as 100 Plants] by Simon Barnes, a book which could easily be amended to be one of the best and most wide-ranging contributions to the plants-and-people genre I’ve read.

Mainly objective comments

The meatiest part of Barnes’ botanical book is the 100 chapters that occupy approx. 400 pages. From ‘Strangler fig’ to ‘Dipterocarp’, each one is a mini-essay on its named plant. All chapters are a mix of text and usually one full-page colour illustration. Although, on average, chapters are four pages long, they vary in length from 3 pages (e.g. Brazil nut tree, papyrus, and bodhi tree), to 4.5 pages (wheat, cherry, garlic, grape, opium poppy, pine), 5 pages (Cinnamomum, tobacco, tea, and olive), up to a maximum of 5.5 pages (for lily, grass, and rose).

Each chapter begins with a quote – drawn from a wide range of sources that include: The Lord’s Prayer; ‘Charley’s Aunt‘; Wilfred Owen; Buddha; John Keats; John Paul Getty; Groucho Marx; and William Shakespeare (with 8 entries). Not all of those quotes are ‘serious’; Barnes is well-known for his humour, as exemplified by use of lyrics from ‘Ring of Fire’ (notably sung by Johnny Cash) for the chapter on chillies. The first paragraph of each contribution is often a very summarised version of the complete chapter. Although the book’s subject matter is undeniably biological, no chapter is a treatise on the biology of the plant named. Rather, each essay is a much broader consideration of the role of the plant in human history and development, and the cultural associations of people with the plant. In that regard, each chapter is somewhat reminiscent of a highly-condensed title in Reaktion Book’s Botanical Series of books.

Barnes’ book also has: a single page Foreword, a couple of pages of Epilogue, and approx. 18 pages of 2-col Index (from ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ to ‘zooplankton’). The book is abundantly illustrated with plenty of photographs (often taking up a whole page, and frequently of works of art, which helps to emphasise its plants-and-people credentials). No sources are stated for any of the book’s hundreds of statements of fact. And there are no indications of further reading.

There’s not much science in the book, which means that it should appeal to a broad audience – of intelligent, non-specialist laypeople who are interested in plants and people. However, there is some, and almost inevitably in such entries as the pea (with appropriate mention of Gregor Mendel and the discovery of the basis of genetics – and which chapter’s starting quote is ‘A + 2Aa + a’), and Arabidopsis thaliana (arguably, “the most important plant that has ever lived” (p. 312)). There’s also little use of scientific names of plants – e.g. there’s no mention of any other name than marula [Sclerocarya birrea] in that tree’s chapter, as is the case for kigelia, the sausage tree [Kigelia africana] (Simon Jackson & Katie Beckett), and tobacco [Nicotiana tabacum] (James Edward McMurtrey) in their chapters. The few genera and binomial names listed in the Index give an indication of the paucity of scientific names within the text.

Although organised in a different way, the veritable tsunami of botanical bits-and-bobs in 100 Plants has some similarity to the ‘phytofactfest’ that is John Akeroyd’s Plants & Us. But, although Barnes’ book would make a great question-setter’s handbook for a plant themed quiz, that’s not why it was written. As Barnes tells us in the final words of the Foreword: “we still couldn’t live for a day without plants. Our past is all about plants; our present is all tied up with plants; and without plants, there is no future. Here are a hundred reasons why” (p. 6).

How many plants make 100?

Does 100 Plants actually contain stories of 100 plants? Yes, and no. By reference to the titles of the book’s 100 chapters it is clear that it covers fewer than 100 Plants since nine of those chapters concern fungi [because “in most folk taxonomies and all supermarkets, fungi are considered much the same sort of thing as plants” (p. 6)], and two are devoted to types of algae.* However, looking in more detail at the remaining 89 ‘proper plant’ chapters [which comprise 84 angiosperms, 4 gymnosperms, and an extinct horsetail], the count of 100 is greatly exceeded. Because chapters with such general titles as ‘grass’, ‘orchid’, and ‘bamboo’, each cover many hundreds of plant species – “more than 12,000” (p. 31), “around 28,000” (p. 60), and “around 1,400” (p. 219), respectively.

More subjective commentary…

Generally, 100 Plants is very well written, with humour, and some lovely phrasing, e.g.: “It was perhaps humanity’s first prayer, and the first prayer to be answered: give us this day our daily bread” (p. 12) (in the chapter on wheat); re Gregor Mendel, a monk born in Brno, “a vowel-deprived town in what is now the Czech Republic” (p. 23);** “Eating chillies is a way of experiencing runner’s high without the actual running” (p. 168); “We may see ourselves as the heirs of a noble race of saints and sages, but to a fungal spore we are much more important” (p. 293); and, most poetically, “Often the colours broke free of the flowers and filled the air, for the place was dizzy with butterflies and other gorgeous pollinating insects” (p. 409).

The text is also littered with cultural references – as I’d expect from Barnes, having previously appraised his The green planet – which are an eccentric and eclectic mix of allusions to literature, films, song lyrics, popular culture, etc. Some of it is ‘tongue-in-cheek’ (Gene Owens), some is deliberately humorous; all of it makes for a highly readable – and enjoyable – narrative. But, although the book takes – of necessity – a global perspective, quite a lot of the humour and cultural references are UK-based and may only be more readily understandable by those with knowledge of British culture. Quite how well they work beyond those shores is something – as a Brit – I can’t express a view upon, nor whether this may limit the accessibility and inclusivity of the writing. Despite its easily-read narrative, there is so much information stuffed in to 100 Plants that it is not a book to try and read in one sitting; rather, it is one to dip into, one chapter at a time. Nevertheless, however you read it, 100 Plants is a wonderful addition to the plants-and-people literature.

In which regard, Barnes’ book now joins several others that tell tales of world- or history-changing plants, e.g. Chris Beardshaw’s 100 Plants that (almost) Changed the World, Helen & William Bynum’s Remarkable Plants that Shape our World, Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws, Toby & Will Musgrave’s An Empire of Plants: People and plants that changed the world, and John Newton’s The Roots of Civilisation: Plants that changed the world.

The selection presented in 100 Plants is a wide-ranging and interesting ‘top 100’ – and I have no problem with the great majority of plants that are included [although it would be interesting to know how those were selected]. For example, Barnes covers such expected ‘world history-changing’ plants as: wheat, rice, maize, sugarcane, barley, cotton (“the most widespread non-food crop in the world” (p. 307), potato, tobacco (“the perfect trading commodity: it offers nothing but the desire for further consumption” (p. 157)), cinchona (“the tree that made empires possible” (p. 37)), papyrus, opium poppy, tea, coffee, and soybean. Other plants, which at first sight may seem to be surprising additions, include: marula, kigelia (“because it allowed humans to take over the planet” (p. 95)), field bindweed, cucumber, eucalyptus, Rafflesia, strawberry, aspidistra, Venus flytrap, cabbage (even though, according to Pliny the Elder, “it would be a lengthy task to list the good points of cabbage” (p. 358)), and Arabidopsis thaliana. However, and whether seemingly curious additions or not, their relevance becomes clear after reading what Barnes has to say about them. The ability to take the unlikeliest of plants and demonstrate their ‘peopleness’ is a great gift: Well done, Mr Barnes!

Whether there is any significance to the order the plants are included in the book, I don’t know. However, there does seem to be a logic to what was covered in the final chapter which is devoted to dipterocarps (JungleBoy; Simmathiri Appanah & Jennifer Turnbull).*** With their buttressed roots, and standing tallest amongst the forest trees to dominate the landscape, Barnes considers them to be the “classic rainforest tree” (p. 405). In addition to their impressive stature, these trees are a colossal resource to many other species of the forest, and are “a central part of the greatest living community on Earth” (p. 406). But, the wood of the dipterocarps has long been exploited by humans, who have also felled the trees en masse to create pastures, make room for crops, or just to provide space in which human development can take place. Barnes ends this chapter in suitably philosophical mood in using the dipterocarp as both a symbol of biodiversity – that should be conserved – and of human folly and excess and unsustainable practices – that should be challenged and curbed. Which is probably as fitting a way as any to finish the book.*** Except, that Barnes is not quite finished. In an Epilogue he waxes lyrical on the joys of a wildflower scene in Armenia and invites us to look at the plants, the unaccountable numbers of plants and thank them because it is to them we owe everything. Hear, hear!

Almost error-free…

As far as I can tell in the absence of sources, 100 Plants appears remarkably error-free [which is always nice to see]. However, there are two matters that need to be mentioned. Barnes only acknowledges the existence of three eukaryotic Kingdoms – Plants, Animals, and Fungi. For completeness [and although it is acknowledged that there are many ways that eukaryotic lifeforms can be divided into more than four kingdoms (Alastair Simpson & Andrew Roger)], it should be pointed out that there is a widely-recognised fourth eukaryotic kingdom, the Protista (Laurence Girard). Mention of this kingdom is of more than academic interest because 100 Plants contains dedicated chapters for algae and phytoplankton, both of which are traditionally members of the Protista (Regina Bailey). And, there’s a ‘typo’ that needs correcting. The scientific name of the sunflower is incorrectly shown on p. 41 (and in the Index on p. 417) as Helianthus annus. The specific epithet of that plant’s binomial should be ‘annuus’.

Gone but not forgotten…

All bar one of the book’s chapters deal with plants that are generally still with us in 2023 (although some – such as the  dipterocarps – are under threat). The one plant that’s definitely extinct is Calamites. However, although it may no longer be with us, its presence is still felt all around. Indeed, in Barnes’ opinion, had these plants not existed, “the course of human history would have been very different. They – quite literally – fuelled our shift from a mostly agricultural species to a mostly industrial one” (p. 71). If you haven’t yet guessed what Barnes is talking about, it’s coal, the product of incomplete decomposition of ancient plants, such as Calamites, millions of years ago (Ben Slater, Palaeontology Online 1: 1-9, 2011). Some plants have brought great benefits to humanity, but others have been detrimental – and examples of both abound in 100 Plants. And arguably, some plants – such as Calamites – have been both good and bad as far as humanity is concerned. But all the showcased plants – and fungi and algae – have their own stories of how they’ve interacted with, affected, and been exploited by, humans: 100 Plants is not just a very good book about plants, and people, it’s great story-telling more generally.

Breadth rather than depth

Undeniably, 100 Plants doesn’t provide the depth for any of its named plants that you’d find in other specialist publications – e.g. Adam Alexander on vegetables, Nicholas Money for yeast, Henry Hobhouse on quinine, sugar, tea, cotton, potato, and coca, William Bryant Logan on oak, John Reader regarding the place of the potato in world history, or Rose by Catherine Horwood. But, what it lacks in depth is more than made up for in its tremendous range; every chapter is stuffed full of fascinating facts, any and all of which can provide starting points for further discoveries. And there is more – much more – to be said about the plants in Barnes’ book; hopefully those who read it will be suitably enthused to pursue their botanical interests further in other publications. As a demonstration of how information in 100 Plants can be a starting point for further discoveries, etc. I offer this.

100 Plants, a departure point not a destination…

Tapioca [a dish made from cassava (Hector Rodriguez)] is mentioned in the chapter on cassava. Usually served as a dessert, it is one I recall eating – like Barnes – during my days of school dinners (Catherine Balston; Tony Trainor). Whilst reading about this foodstuff, the song snippet “tapioca I ate ‘till I couldn’t see straight” came into my head. Knowing of Barnes’ penchant for citing songs – where appropriate – throughout the book, I was surprised to see no mention of this particularly apt lyric. Suitably intrigued, and with that tapioca ‘ear worm’ (C Philip Beaman, Auditory Perception & Cognition 1: 42-65, 2018; doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/25742442.2018.1533735) firmly lodged in my head, I did some Googling. Apparently, the lyric comes from a song sung in the 1954 film The siege at Red River [per Joe Offer’s contribution here].

Having satisfied my curiosity about the song, I was eager to know if there was any connection between consumption of tapioca and visual impairment. Whilst I couldn’t find anything that suggested tapioca was a vision-affecting substance, I did find reference to other cassava-derived food stuffs which were. In particular, gari [“fine to coarse granular flour of varying texture made from cassava roots”], high consumption of which is apparently connected with visual disorders (Olufola Ige; AZ Yusuf et al., African Journal of Food Science 8(1): 25-29, 2014; doi: 10.5897/AJFS2013.1093).**** Whether this sort of link to cassava has anything to do with consumers of copious quantities of tapioca not being able to ‘see straight’, as immortalised in the song, I do not know. But finding that out is just one example of the many particular journeys that are suggested by material in – or that pops into one’s head when reading – 100 Plants.

Material that’s new to me…

With so many statements of fact in 100 Plants it’s almost inevitable that – however well-read in the plants-and-people topic area one may be – there will be new facts to discover. Some of the ones I learned include the following.

The story of the invention (a word that Barnes uses a lot throughout the book, e.g. in regards to canning, and agriculture) of wine.

The notion of ‘American grass’, which has its own chapter. This vegetation is a legacy of US involvement in the Vietnam War in which large areas of forest were ‘removed’ by use of chemical defoliants – including the notorious Agent Orange (Blake Stilwell). What grew back in place of the trees were thick, tussocky growths up to 3 m high, of mostly two grass species, Imperata cylindrica and Pennisetum polystachion. This ecocidal campaign, known as Operation Ranch Hand, was apparently ‘borrowed’ from the British who had previously used this approach during the ‘Malayan Emergency’ from 1948 to 1960.

The fact that rice, although usually grown as an annual, can be treated as a ratoon crop (Neha Grover; Amelia Henry; Weiqin Wang et al., (Advances in Agronomy 159: 135-167, 2020; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.agron.2019.07.006). Ratooning is where a second crop is produced on shoots that regrow from the roots left from the first harvesting.

And that ‘bollockwort’ is a Middle English (David Crystal; Philip Durkin) word for orchid (Justine Hausheer).

… and new insights into familiar material.

In addition to material that was entirely new to me, 100 Plants provided opportunities to question what I’d previously thought to be true. An excellent example of that is Barnes inclusion of the river Nile in his definition of the Fertile Crescent [also known as ‘the cradle of civilisation’] (Tori Lee)] on p. 13. I was surprised at this apparent extension of the region beyond the rivers Tigris and Euphrates because they were the only waterways named in the definition of this important region with which I was familiar. Where two ideas are seemingly in conflict, resolution is necessary, which is why I did some research.

Although the Tigris and Euphrates are mentioned as the two most prominent rivers in the region known as the Fertile Crescent (Jan van der Crabben; Tori Lee), there are several sources that also admit Egypt and the Nile into that region’s definition (Joshua Mark; NS Gill) – although some of them almost grudgingly (Tori Lee). A better understanding of the geography of the Fertile Crescent is something I gained as a result of reading 100 Plants: Thank you, Mr Barnes.

Conspicuous by its absence…

Although I accept that the choice of what to include – and therefore what to exclude – is the author’s decision, I do wonder why yams are missing from 100 Plants.

As the original source of compounds for synthesis of the mammalian hormone progesterone, exploitation of Mexican yam (Dioscorea sp(p). (Lorena Villanueva-Almanza)) led directly to the creation of the oral contraceptive for women known as ‘the pill‘ (John Mann; Bertie Atkinson). Made widely available in the early 1960s, this medicine not only gave women the power to control their child-bearing, it also provided them with the sort of sexual freedom previously only enjoyed by men. Availability of this little pill has been connected with the so-called ‘permissive society’ (Katy Maydon) that emerged in the 1960s (Vicky Iglikowski-Broad). Although that phenomenon has been considered more of a sexual evolution rather than a revolution by Vanessa Lace, Mexican yam nevertheless is at the root of a major societal shift in the second half of the 20th century, and surely deserves its place in 100 Plants. Interestingly, condoms – primarily a contraceptive used by men – is included in 100 Plants, but is mentioned only in passing in the chapter on rubber, and is not listed in the index. Maybe yams could provide the starting point for a follow-up volume, The history of the world in another 100 Plants? I’d certainly be keen to read Barnes’ take on those – especially if he addresses my major concern [coming next] about the present book.

Barnes’ book, brilliant but blighted…

This is a wonderful book, but it has a major flaw, it is silent on the subject of sources for statements – all of which are presumably factual – made in text. That is always a bad thing for a fact-based book. Authors should acknowledge the words and ideas of others that they’ve incorporated into their work (e.g. Josh Bernoff, here, and here). Absence of sources can be a source of ambiguity or confusion [and of outright annoyance] for the reader who wants to benefit from the hard work that the author has otherwise put into writing the tome, particularly if s/he is aware of ‘alternative facts’ from other sources.

Although Barnes acknowledges the help he received in producing the book, and is deeply grateful to Sara Oldfield for “casting an expert’s eye over the manuscript” (p. 430), there is no mention of any of the sources consulted for the book’s content.***** Without that declaration by the author, we don’t know where he got his information from, and are therefore unable to assess its reliability or veracity. I’m not saying Barnes is wrong, we just don’t know if he’s right.

Maybe not disclosing sources is a reflection of the author’s many years’ experience as a journalist, practitioners of which profession we may vaguely recall are allowed not to disclose their sources. Maybe. But in that regard it’s only the confidential sources used by journalists that have the privilege of non-disclosure. Evidence – sources – used to support statements of fact in a non-fiction book needs to be publicly-accessible [i.e. non-confidential] so that it may be checked. So, whether written by a journalist or not, the readers really do need access to the evidence used for facts stated in Barnes’ book.

Summary

Simon Barnes’ The History of the World in 100 Plants has all bar one of the hallmarks of a brilliant book about plants and people. If only its sources were stated, it would be a job very well done!


* For completeness, the fungal chapters cover: yeast, Penicillium, magic mushrooms, edible mushrooms, toadstool, mycorrhiza [with mention of the ‘wood wide web’ (Katie Field & Emily Magkourilou)], Candida albicans (which includes Aspergillus, as another example of fungi that are harmful to humans), truffles, and dry rot. Although I’m happy with the inclusion of fungi, their presence does rather undermine the book’s title of 100 plants. The algal chapters are: number 96 ‘Algae’ [because these are the ancestors of plants, and without them there’d be no crude oil], and number 97 ‘Phytoplankton’ [“the planty part of plankton” (p. 393), which, although representing only approx. 1% of the planet’s biomass, account for about 50% of its photosynthesis, and therefore 50% of its production of oxygen].

** Although, by the time this post is published, Brno will probably be in what we should now be calling Czechia (Ed Cunningham; Sarah Pollok). Whilst some readers may point out that the Czech Republic has been known as Czechia for several years (Jessica Donati & Drew Hinshaw), it seems that even the Czechs hadn’t widely adopted that name (Robert Tait). However, maybe now that the name Czechia has been recognised by the Eurovision Song Contest (Nick van Lith), all will be sorted..?

*** How timely that, as I pen this piece, The Red List of Dipterocarpaceae has just been published, which has assessed the status of all 535 species in this family. Highlights of that report are that: 357 (67%) species of Dipterocarpaceae are Threatened in the wild, 70 species are assessed as Critically Endangered; and one species, Hopea shingkeng, is already assessed as Extinct.

**** Interestingly, this paper was subsequently retracted by the journal, at the request of a gari processing company because “it is crumbling their business inputs to their competitors leading to a drastic reduction in customers and consumers hence affecting their productivity and profitability”. Retraction of a paper for purely commercial reasons was described as “jaw-dropping” by the good folk at Retraction Watch who monitor such events. It should be noted that retraction of a scientific publication for commercial considerations does not appear to be a legitimate reason for this action per guidance from COPE [the Committee on Publication Ethics]. Although it is worth noting that some of the comments in connection with the retraction on the Retraction Watch site [here] suggest there are a number of concerns about the research that was published (including suggestions that the paper shouldn’t have been accepted for publication in the first place…), and which may have justified retraction according to COPE’s guidelines.

***** The only exception I’ve noticed – so far – is on page 109 where Barnes states “a website I consulted in the course of researching this chapter [redwood] added gratuitously, ‘people are jerks’”. However, the name of that website is not disclosed. Pity, it sounds ‘interesting’. I do wonder though if it’s Melissa Beyer’s article – found by Googling “people are jerks and redwood”?

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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