In the March issue, writer and garden historian Ambra Edwards delves into the world of Bizarre Botany - it's the Gardens Illustrated book of the month.
by Christina Harrison and Lauren Gardiner
Kew Publishing, £10
An intriguing A to Z of botanical enquiry, packed with astonishing facts from the world of plants – and far beyond.
Reviewer Ambra Edwards is a writer and garden historian.
‘Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us,’ wrote the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak. In which case, being a botanist at Kew must be the richest life on earth: every page of this intriguing book is packed with wonder. Did you know, for example, that six ginkgo trees continue to grow just a mile from the centre of Hiroshima, having survived the atomic blast? Or that some plants add caffeine to their nectar, to help honeybees remember where to find them? That there are plants that feed on worms, and others pollinated by gerbils? Who would have thought that a leaf could live for 500 years?
Information ranges far and wide, taking in baking (how gluten affects the rise of bread), to ethnography (poisons, penis gourds and the origins of gin and tonic). ‘Going to Scarborough Fair’ turns out to be a euphemism for fornication. (A decoction of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme was believed to induce abortion.) While a strand on Botany Heroes adds lesser-known female names, such as Harriet Margaret Louisa Bolus and Lilian Suzette Gibbs, to the roll call of the greats. This is a book that will delight not only plant lovers and naturalists, but quizzers, and collectors of wondrous new words (zoophilous, herbivory, pyroclastic, ultramaphic) – or indeed anyone over the age of ten with an enquiring mind.
There is in-depth science here (the writers have drawn on the expertise of their colleagues at Kew), made briskly accessible in a tone that offers clarity without condescension. The alarming facts of how climate change and environmental degradation are decimating the plant kingdom are presented urgently, but without drama. So there is seriousness and scholarship in this book too.