From award-winning history and science writer Kassinger (Paradise Under Glass: An Amateur Creates a Conservatory Garden, 2010, etc.), an informal, entertaining account of how early researchers discovered how plants work and what scientists are still learning about plants today.
The author combines her lively botanical history with personal anecdotes about her own plant adventures and misadventures, and she also chronicles her visits to universities and nurseries, where accommodating, knowledgeable people shared their expertise with her. It is clear that Kassinger has done considerable research as well, for her account is rich with portraits of men from the 17th century struggling to understand the anatomy and physiology of plants. She writes of the techniques they used, the observations they made, what they misunderstood and what they got right. Other chapters reveal what is known now about the functions of leaves, stems, roots and flowers. She even explores the world of competitive giant pumpkin growing. Along with some tips on how to grow a one-ton pumpkin, Kassinger takes readers to an annual fall festival in Maine, where pumpkin lovers turn them into competitive racing boats. The author also introduces readers to green slugs that can photosynthesize; a “cocktail” citrus tree that bears limes, lemons and oranges; and a fern that can remove arsenic from polluted soil. Kassinger briefly considers the promise of the perennial grass miscanthus as a biofuel and the possible benefits of genetic engineering of food plants. A bonus of the book are the simple line drawings by Eva-Maria Ruhl, which illustrate Kassinger’s lucid prose, making some botanical details even clearer. Especially charming is her drawing of a borametz, a plant that even educated Europeans in the early 17th century believed grew a tiny, living baby sheep on its stalk.
A delightful book, fun to read and share—green thumb not required.