Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Book Review: Flora Mirabilis
I had the chance to review a copy of Flora Mirabilis: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth, and Beauty, a collaboration between National Geographic and the Missouri Botanical Garden written by Catherine Herbert Howell. While there are a number of reasons to read this book, notably its plant profiles and resplendent illustrations, the foremost is its focus on the significance of plants to human civilization.
Flora Mirabilis summarizes the use of plants through history, from the domestication of cereal crops thousands of years ago to the modern utility of rubber and cacao. It explains how people have employed plants medicinally, gastronomically, economically, and culturally, and this book highlights 27 particularly important plants, such as wheat, rice, cotton, and orchids. With intellectual yet readable prose, Howell describes how plants drove the age of discovery and sustained international trade long before "globalization" was a household term. For example, the desire for black pepper (the seeds of a vine) fueled Columbus's voyage, and sugarcane maintained the triangular trade of sugar, rum, and slaves between the New and Old Worlds. The terrible consequences of such botanical commerce are not overlooked, and neither are the social changes engendered by the spread of plants now consumed worldwide, including potatoes, tobacco, and coffee.
Howell focuses most of the book on the pre-modern era and moves fairly quickly through the last two centuries. This is understandable, as synthetics have increasingly replaced the original botanical sources of food and medicine, but it changes the pace and focus of the narrative. Conservation, ethnobotany, and the cut flower industry become the emphasis of later chapters. However, the evolution of botanical illustration is an additional subplot woven throughout the book. It not only complements the beautiful illustrations but also rounds out the rich history of humans' relationships with plants, which was much more intimate and complex before the Industrial Revolution.
I have been gardening since childhood, but my true passion (and educational background) is history; therefore, this book spoke to my two favorite interests. It is not a traditional gardening book or a how-to, and it may not appeal equally to those less enamored with the study of history. But if you enjoy exploring the ways we use, periodically abuse, and interact with members of the plant kingdom, then Flora Mirabilis will be intellectually invigorating and visually stimulating.
This book is, as they say, "available wherever books are sold." Happy reading!
Dear FTC: I was provided a free download of a pdf version of Flora Mirabilis. I did not receive any other compensation, nor was I directed/asked/cajoled to provide a favorable opinion. I am a subscriber to National Geographic, but that is paid for with my own hard-earned cash. Thank you.