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Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

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There’s nothing like making a bold claim to grab one’s attention. Well, Bill Laws’ Fifty plants that changed the course of history (hereafter referred to as 50 Plants) certainly does that! Is it justified? I think so: Manners may maketh Man, but plants and our symbiotic relationship with them have arguably made Mankind what it is today. In using the term ‘symbiosis’ I am mindful that it covers a wide range of interactions, from parasitism to mutualism, which embraces the variety of ways in which Mankind has used – and abused – the plant ‘resource’. And all aspects of that ancient – but enduring – association are covered in the book’s 224 pages.

Probably wisely, the 50 plants featured (which, with one exception – the ferns – are all flowering plants) are not ranked in order of importance. Instead, they are arranged alphabetically, by scientific name: from Agave spp. to Zingiber officinale. Interestingly, Arabidopsis does not get a mention (but wild cabbage gets four pages): clearly, this plant has not changed the course of human history as much as those who work with it may think. However, as the model plant upon which a great deal of modern-day plant enquiry is based, it may yet prove to be one of the most influential of all angiosperms. No doubt other writers would have chosen a different selection of plants, but that’s not the point: rather, the point is that there are so many plants that have had a major impact on human history. Certainly, plants like rice may feed the greatest number of people, but plants do much more than provide food. And it is these other aspects that are so dramatically brought out in Laws’ book. That is why we have stories with such intriguing titles as ‘the versatile narcotic’ (hemp), ‘cure of the century’ (tobacco), ‘gum to dynamite’ (cotton), ‘Stalin’s golden gift’ (sunflower), and ‘white death’ (sugar).

In some respects 50 Plants covers ground that will be familiar to readers of the wonderful books by Musgrave and Musgrave (2000), Hobhouse (2003, 2005) and Lewington (2003), all of which authors are mentioned as further reading by Laws. But 50 Plants still manages to provide new snippets of information, which is telling in itself – there is probably still a lot more that could be uncovered and said about this most enduring of human relationships.

One of the nice aspects of 50 Plants is that it encourages you to ‘browse’. Each chapter – which is more of an essay – is between two and eight pages long and is complete in itself. The longest entries – each of eight pages – are for such major movers-and-shakers as wheat, tea, sugar, potato and grapes. Perhaps surprisingly, coffee only gets four pages, whereas chocolate merits six, as do hops(!), rubber, cotton and barley (which, when added to hops, makes 12 pages on a beer-related theme!!). Whatever your particular favourite food, drug, drink, spice, herb, etc, 50 Plants will certainly generate lots of useful tit-bits to insert at the appropriate point in any number of botanical lectures to help maintain student interest.

50 Plants is abundantly illustrated with images and quotes, and is highly readable. Its sweep is vast, embracing politics, medicine, mythology, history, geography, science, herbalism, religion, politics, etc. 50 Plants is one of those books you can open on almost any page and find something new and/or interesting (and often both). Whilst the book’s premise that certain plants have changed history may seem a little sensationalist, the tales that accompany each plant’s story arguably bear out that claim. And any book that lists amongst its further reading items such as ‘Global trends in the condom industry’, along side ‘The world book of whisky’ and ‘infantile scurvy’ is certainly deserving of a closer look!

50 Plants makes a great companion volume to Why people need plants (Wood and Habgood, 2010; see preceding book review) – the former emphasising the intimate relationship between plants and major events in human history, the latter providing a more straightforward, factual dimension to the same story. It’s oftentimes been remarked that you wait ages for one bus and then two or more arrive together: 50 Plants and Why people need plants can be viewed in a similar vein, as it’s been some time since the last major book on the plants-and-people theme (Lewington, 2003), now we have a pair of them. And what a nice pair they are!

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该日志由 agrisky 于2016年09月19日发表在 默认 分类下,
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