Take a tour around the world in eighty plants
- Credit: Lucille Clerc
With its fascinating blend of the cultural, historic and scientific, Jonathan Drori's Around The World in 80 Trees led readers on a global tour telling the stories of people and plants.
Now, Around the World in 80 Plants (Laurence King £20) reprises the winning formula with a botanical travelogue ranging from the edible - tomato, vanilla, cacao, artichoke - to the religious - myrrh, lotus - and species such as the opium poppy or sugar cane which have dominated whole economies.
Fortunately, most of Drori's research to botanical gardens around the world - including Kew where his botanist father often took him as a child - was completed pre-pandemic.
The ex BBC producer (he worked on the likes of Tomorrow's World), is married to Girl With A Pearl Earring author Tracey Chevalier so I imagine their Dartmouth Park home as a hive of research and tapping keyboards.
Narrowing down 450,000 plant species to 80 says Drori was hard enough.
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"Then there's knuckling down to write the thing. Without an act of parliament forcing me to my task I wouldn't have finished it, so there was a silver lining to the first lockdown."
The success of the first book came as "a bit of a surprise".
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"I did it partly as a hobby, to write something that I wanted to read. There was a good amount of science, history, folklore, ethnography which I wove together so people coming from any of those interests would find something new."
Its clear explanation of conservation issues saw companies mass buying 80 Trees to make employees think about the environment. It even convinced a book group of diehard Kansas Republicans of the reality of climate change.
Alongside the biology, Drori seeks out "the human angle" "looking around the world at how humans have interacted with plants."
"Without plants we wouldn't live and throughout the ages there's been the most extraordinary relationships, funny things like when pineapples first came here in the 18th century only people with money to burn on heating glass houses could afford them and they became an accessory to take to parties."
And while it's "well known" that the Dutch traded Manhattan with the English for the nutmeg rich Run Island, it was when Drori read that Malcolm X used nutmeg to get high in prison that he had a fresh angle.
The Buddha is depicted with a lotus flower he explains: "Because of the way the leaves clean themselves of dust, the surface structure makes water roll around like mercury. It makes the leaf more efficient to interact with sunlight and the globule of water looks like a jewel which symbolically represents spiritual enlightenment."
Colonialism inevitably looms large: "The history of sugar, tobacco and maize is one of Empire and slavery. The national flower of Barbados the Peacock flower is bright red and yellow but its seeds were used by enslaved people to abort the children they didn't want to bring into a life of captivity."
He adds: "Kew's purpose was to work out which plants would be economically useful for the British Empire, take them from one place in the world, work out how to propagate them, and plant them somewhere else in the colonies. It's a history that Kew is dealing with in their own positive way but there were serious downsides to taking species from one place and dumping them where they hadn't co-evolved with natural predators that keep them in check. It can become invasive, destroying whole economies, like the water hyacinth clogging African waterways, or the prickly pear cactus from Mexico which without the moth that keeps it in check has overrun parts of Australia."
Many plants are used medicinally. Sphagnum moss' absorbent, antiseptic qualities made it useful for dressing wounds in World War I, and wormwood's journey from Chinese anti malarial to Bohemian absinthe addicts and back to medicine is a fascinating one.
"For most drugs the difference between medicine and poison is the amount you take."
He adds: "We associate the Opium poppy with the illegal trade, but huge plantations are needed to make legal drugs like Fentanyl. When I was nine I remember being at Kew Gardens with my dad. He picked a little seed nicked it with his knife and I dabbed the white latex on my tongue to feel it go slightly numb. The affect on my teacher when I told this story was rather comical."
There are numerous enjoyable stories, of self-flagellation with stinging nettles, poisonous honey made from Rhododendron nectar that floored the invading Romans, using seaweed to predict the weather, and how flax made the sails for ships, the oil for artist's paints and gave us the source of words such as line and lingerie.
Drori is personally astonished by plants' survival instinct. "They do all the things that humans do, they lie, cheat, have affairs behind their partner's backs. They impersonate other plants or alter the make up of their nectar to manipulate the insects and birds to take their pollen. It's fascinating."