Triple Book Review: Richard Mabey and a cavalcade of plants

“The Cabaret of Plants. Botany and the Imagination”
Richard Mabey
Profile Books, October/November 2015
Hardback, 24.2 x 16.8 cm (9.5 x 6.5 in), 374 pp., £20.00/$29.95
ISBN 978 1 8619 7662 8
Available for Kindle (£11.04/$16.69) and in the iTunes Store (£16.99).

“The Nature of Crops: How we came to eat the plants we do”
John M Warren
CABI, April 2015
Paperback, 21 x 14.9 cm (8.25 x 5.8 in), 183 pp., £19.95/$39.95
ISBN 978 1 78064 509 4
Available for Kindle (£15.56/$23.71) but not yet in the iTunes Store.

“Mabberley’s Plant-Book. A Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses”
David J Mabberley
Third Edition, Cambridge UP, 2008
Hardback, 23.5 x 12.5 cm (9.2 x 4.9 in), 18+1023 pp., £59.99/$99.99
ISBN 978 0 521 82071 4
Available for Kindle (£51.29/$78.15) and in the iTunes Store (£50.99).

Everyone in the world has a relationship with plants, even if it is only to eat them. But for a great many – farmers, dressmakers, brewers, and of course innumerable gardeners – it is a very intimate relationship. These three books are each in their own way fascinating explorations of those relationships.

The Cabaret of Plants

I first came across Richard Mabey when I devoured his first book, Food for Free, shortly after it was published in 1972. It was a book of its time, teaching us how to live off the land before the late twentieth century all but destroyed it. Then almost 25 years later – having read some of his intervening books – I lapped up his Flora Britannica, a far cry from the diagnostic floras of Clapham, Tutin and Warburg, or even most lately that of Stace. He thus has previous – a lot of wonderful previous, and for me, very fond memories.

This Cabaret is, to a degree, a book of his memories, but is neither biography nor simple reminiscence. At first its chapters seem a bit like a luxury physical blog – the book is beautifully-produced on heavyweight paper which gives it a real heartwood feel. But as you become engrossed in them, his artfully-woven thread becomes more clear.

Don’t skip the introduction, or its opening essay, How to See a Plant, as they lead you into this thread. There follows two prefatory chapters, examining the earliest human representations of plants, and an elegiac memory of working with a great photographer, and even greater plants. After these have got you into the right frame, Mabey tours the world of trees: yews and their mythology, remarkable baobabs, and the heart of oak.

Mabey knows how to pace his writing to great effect. No chapter is too information-dense, neither are there even momentary thickets in which he abandons the reader. Illustrations are perhaps a little too occasional, but where we are treated to them, they are magnificent on the fine quality paper.

He downsizes from trees to the hazel, in turning to crops like cotton and maize. He then takes us off the beaten track, for a fascinating account of ginseng and its role as a medicine. This is both wise and balanced: he does not dismiss the Doctrine of Signatures or the powers of shamans out of hand, but sets them in their cultural and anthropological contexts, avoiding the popular sin of condescension too.

Mabey’s cabaret is very personal, and at the outset we learn of one of his foibles, for marsh samphire, a strangely neglected delicacy which I too have enjoyed. This is also the perfect link to his Food for Free, and a sequence of chapters about the evolution of the apple, oxygen and photosynthesis, the carnivorous ‘tipitiwitchet’ (Venus Flytrap), and the flowers of Wordsworth and Keats.

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890), Olive Grove (1889), oil on canvas, 73.03 × 92.08 cm, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. Wikimedia Commons.

The next set takes us to the furthest corners of the earth with the botanist-explorer Francis Masson and traders of the East India Company, to the Mediterranean for Vincent van Gogh’s olive trees, and the gorges of Crete. A short interlude explains the Victorian fascination with glasshouses, in preparation for a set including decorative ferns, the foul-smelling Titan Arum, and sexual mimicry and pseudocopulation (yes, really) among orchids.

Mabey rounds off this wonderful book with some of its finest chapters, which discuss the most intricate relationships of plants. Starting with Margaret Mee’s discovery of the Moonflower in Brazil (illustrated by one of her gorgeous paintings of the plant), he then looks at bromeliads in the tropical rain forest canopy, and evidence of sensory abilities in plants such as the commonplace mimosa.

A short epilogue brings Mabey to state: “the message of this book has been that plants are never simple victims, passive objects, but vital, autonomous beings”. He puts that across eloquently, convincingly, and with all the entertainment of a cabaret. But in doing so, he has also – perhaps sub-consciously – written a profoundly perceptive chronicle of human relationships with plants.

He provides a valuable list of additional references and sources, and the book has an excellent index.

I hope that by this stage you have already ordered your copy, and perhaps a couple for presents too.

The Nature of Crops

John Warren’s book looks more modest in stature, a small and relatively thin paperback with a few (rather pleasant) line drawings. What he lacks of Richard Mabey’s polished writing style, he makes up for in the fascination of his topics, and of their more immediate importance.

Despite our heavy dependance on plant crops, most of us are woefully ignorant of what we eat. Apart from a half-remembered (and thoroughly inaccurate) story about the introduction of the potato or tomato into Europe, and strong views about the dire consequences of diminishing bee populations on the pollination of our crops, we are hard put to say anything meaningful.

Warren’s straight writing – with a little gentle and entirely appropriate humour – will put you right. He starts from the insight that our food crops are derived from only a tiny fraction of the plant species, and that the species on which we now depend are often odd choices.

Take the cacao bean, the vital ingredient for our most popular luxury foodstuff, which actually grows better in the wild than when domesticated. Or the fig, with a sex life so complex that it was not properly understood until the twentieth century, in spite of being a staple food in ancient Greece. Or the 31 different sexes of the papaya.

This book is not, though, some Ripley’s Believe it or Not of our crops. With each of Warren’s absorbing vignettes, there is real understanding and insight. Once you know that the potato and tomato are close relatives of highly toxic species like the Deadly Nightshade, Warren explains why such valuable foods should run us close to danger, and illustrates this with a major crop which few of us will have much experience of, cassava, which has to be detoxified during its preparation.

There are some informative glimpses into a world which few of us will experience. Having delved into the tragic history of potato blight, Warren tells us that world research into more resistant strains is based in Peru, where the threat of terrorism has brought double barbed-wire fencing and security guards.

Crops are a matter of life and death to us all, as well as the basis of gourmet pleasure. This gripping little book will make you much wiser about what you, and others, eat. I strongly recommend it.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters (1565), oil on panel, 119 x 162 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Mabberley’s Plant-Book

If you have never come across this Wisden of weeds, cyclopedia of Compositae, and Larousse of legumes, then you need to. Written by one of the world’s leading botanists, it is an encylopaedic dictionary of plants and plant groups.

Take hollies, for example. If you cannot remember the botanical name for their genus (Ilex), just look holly up, and you are pointed at not only that genus of true hollies, but strays in naming, such as the holly fern, holly grape, holly oak, sea holly, and Singapore holly.

The entry for the genus Ilex (hollies) then gives the family name, how many species there are worldwide, their favoured climatic zones and distribution, their likely origin or interesting palaebotany, a shortlist of monographs about them, and a succinct botanical description (“often evergreen trees”). Major species are then summarised, with fascinating remarks about their use by humans.

For example, Ilex anomala is found in Hawaii and Tahiti, and its wood is used for saddle-trees, canoe decorations, and anvils for kapa beating.

Major species, such as the European Ilex aquifolium, are treated to brief coverage of vernacular names, and in this case some notes about their Roman use in Saturnalia, which were then adopted for Christmas, hence the Holly and the Ivy. There is a little about their role in Tudor gardens, and the fact that 150,000 holly trees were felled in 1802 in the Needlewood Forest, England, to provide bobbins for the cotton mills in Lancashire. Their use for winter fodder and the bleeding of chilblains is also mentioned.

Appendixes provide an overview of plant taxonomy, a long list of sources, and a complete list of abbreviations used (necessary in order to shoehorn all the information into the book’s pages).

If you have the slightest interest in plants, this book has to be on your bookshelf. It is a unique reference which will help you around botanical gardens, arboretums, and the more interesting gardens. When you travel with your Kindle or iOS device, make sure that you have added it to your library there too.