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Pollination by Timothy Walker – Book Review

A scientific text book on pollination that will interest students of biology or anyone with an interest in conservation and the natural world. Reviewer Rory Dusoir is a Kew-trained gardener.

POLLINATION: THE ENDURING RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PLANT AND POLLINATOR
by Timothy Walker
Princeton University Press, £25
ISBN 978-0691203751

Pollination has long been an object of fascination for biologists, especially since Darwin studied and wrote about it. His confident postulation of the existence of a moth that could reach the nectaries of the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale, requiring an absurd proboscis some 45cm long, was vindicated by the discovery after his death of Morgan’s sphinx moth. This and other well-known examples of intricate relationships between plants and animals are described and beautifully photographed in this book.

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There are scarab beetles that spend their entire lives foraging and copulating within the heated flowers of the giant water-lily Victoria amazonica, to be turfed out at a moment of their hosts choosing and ushered towards their next lodging, a fresh flower with its stigma ready for pollination.

There are orchids where nectar is fermented to become alcoholic – the insect imbibers of this brew are liable to tarry longer and so easier to hitch with the all-important parcel of pollen.

Lurid and Byzantine examples of these extraordinary relationships abound, but in his comprehensive work the author is at pains to point out the importance of seemingly more prosaic means of pollination such as that by wind, or by generalist pollinators, stressing that the more elaborate pollination syndromes are only one strategy among many for plants to proliferate, and do not necessarily imply a higher level of evolution.

Walker is quite clear that for all our study, what we do know about this subject is vastly overshadowed by what we don’t, and by what we may never know before it is destroyed.

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The book concludes with chapters on the importance of pollination to humankind and on its conservation. But the purely descriptive chapters of the book, which point again and again at the fragile intricacies of the natural world, offer the most eloquent argument for conservation of all.