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Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History Hardcover – 26 Nov 2010
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I've never been more pleasantly surprised with a "plant book" than this one.--Karen Gallagher"Dayton Beach News-Journal" (04/16/2011)
[For] the historically curious, foodies, reference libraries, schools of hospitality and cooking... Well-priced, and it comes with a ribbon bookmark.--Dean Tudor"gothicepicures.blogspot.com" (03/17/2011)
How wonderful are plants! Attractively illustrated ... This marvelous collection of tales deserves to be read and enjoyed.--Marilyn K. Alaimo"Chicago Botanic Garden" (06/30/2011)
Provides insight into the way plants used as fuel, food, weapons and medicines have had an impact on civilizations.--David Hobson"Kitchener Record" (04/01/2011)
This is a book for the curious sort.--Kylee Baumle"Horticulture" (04/20/2011)
Presents interesting information and impressions about plants.--Joel Lerner"Washington Post" (03/04/2011)
A delight to look at and a pleasure to hold. It is also a pleasure to read... a fine job.--Ann Skea"Midwest Book Review" (04/01/2011)
You might want to pick up two copies of this beautifully illustrated, fun read--one for the gardener...one for you.--Kathy Huber"Houston Chronicle" (12/16/2011)
A perfect book for residents as well as visitors... the short historical articles are beautifully illustrated with well-chosen color artwork.--Clear Englebert"West Hawaii Today" (12/20/2011)
Laws manages to throw in some interesting and little-known history.--George M. Eberhart"C and RL News (Association of College and Research" (10/01/2011) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Bill Laws is a writer, editor and journalist who specialises in homes, gardens and landscapes. He is the author of ten books including Common Losses: Essays and Interviews on Trees, Woods and the Green Man. Bill's work has featured in the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers as well as various BBC publications, Environment Now and Period House. He is based in Herefordshire, England.
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For an unexplained reason, each plant is listed is alphabetical order by Latin name. It would have been better to have a narrative which includes the order of plants, perhaps ordered by why it changed the course of history (economic, medicinal, cooking, type of plant, region, exploration etc). My sense it that it's English history - but it includes bamboo. That said, the Asian and Oriental communities would presumably also have a bit of a say about which products changed their course of history. My irritation was not helped by the referral in the Eucalyptus section where the koala (a marsupial) is called a koala bear which gives the impression that the author hasn't done his homework and neither had the editor.
I think the idea is good but could the next author make an attempt at a coherent narrative of why these plants were chosen so we understand how the plants separately and together changed the world?
Each of them is categorised into whether it has value as an edible, medicinal, commercial or practical use with most of them fitting into at least two of the categories. The entries are ordered by latin name, so Agave is the first and Ginger (Zingiber) is the last, with all kinds of treasures in between such as maize, ferns, English oak, tea, hemp and tulip. Don't worry, you don't need to be a latin scholar to enjoy this book as on the whole greater prominence is given to the more well-known common names.
There's a tiny thumbnail sketch outlining each plant's natural geographical distribution, the type of plant it is and the height it typically grows to. The bulk of each entry (usually a double page spread, but with longer entries for plants such as wheat which has thousands of years of history associated with it) is taken up with the stories and quirky facts which make up the role each has played in our history and culture over many centuries.
Each entry is accompanied by a botanical illustration or a photograph showing the key features of the plant or the component (such as cardamom seeds) generally used. There's also plenty of photographs, quotations, art and drawings to help fill out the story. As well as the main article, there's also separate box(es) featuring some quirky detail: who would have thought that the humble leek would be the vegetable featured in a 4,000 year-old recipe for instance?
Whilst I loved this book on the whole, there's a couple of gripes which stopped me giving it the full five star treatment. Firstly BCE and CE are used instead of BC and AD respectively to indicate dates. It's the first time I'd come across this alternative notation, it wasn't explained in the book and so it jarred with me each time I saw it. I've asked around and most people I know aren't aware of this convention either.
I also believe the book needs to be strengthened with a chapter giving much more historical context. I found the individual stories tended to jump around rather and a timeline representation would have helped to show exactly where each plant fits into our history and also in relation to each other. For example, this would have clearly shown the parallel development of wheat and potatoes as key edible crops on different continents over thousands of years and not just the few centuries the potato has been used in Europe.
On the whole it's an attractive introduction to a fascinating aspect of plant history, which I'd like to study in more detail sometime.
Some of the authors' trains of thought are a little suspect - the pineapple (again, not a plant that I would consider as being a world changer) is directly credited with being responsible for the development of the commercial greenhouse. And the opening section of the pineapple chapter makes a huge and plonking generalisation along the lines of "Look at the suburbs of any northern European city and you will see miles and miles of greenhouses and polytunnels". I think not. Personally, I would have thought it was the orange tree, beloved by the French monarchs who developed the orangerie to protect it in winter, that really started the trend for the modern greenhouse.
Sometimes the tangent is enormous - when discussing pepper, the author briefly mentions the spice (indeed a world changing plant) and then blithely sidetracks to the sweet pepper or capsicum (to which the spice is not related botanically and which has nothing to do with the plant under discussion) and then devotes the rest of that section to it. This is bizarre, to say the least.
Some plants and their histories are given several pages, some only two. The overall style is cursory and somewhat sketchy. There is little attempt at any kind of narrative thread binding all these diverse plants together. The bibliography is extremely thin given the wealth of resources available and it appears that some sections in the book have merely been recycled from other sources.
Having said all this, the book is very accessible for the general reader - far, far more so than Henry Hobhouse's "Seeds of Change" which is probably one of its inspirations but not one which is listed in the bibliography. Those with a somewhat deeper understanding of the issues under discussion will best be served elsewhere, however.
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