Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review: Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

As gardeners, we think of the connections between plants and people all the time. But unless you're a full-fledged farmer or international aid worker specializing in famine zones, it's difficult even for us gardeners to appreciate the impact plants have had on human civilization. That's why Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws is a valuable read for any plant lover. It illustrates how peoples' uses, and at times abuses, of plants are inextricably linked to the ups and downs of our society.

Arranged alphabetically by Latin name, Laws' selections encompass cereal grains, medicinal plants, garden flowers, and trees and shrubs that have impacted humanity by providing us with a product or benefit. Entries typically consist of a few pages, thereby providing a brief yet informative glimpse at how, say, black pepper drove international trade from the Late Roman period through colonial times.

Laws effectively places plants in their historical context: for example, he ties the rubber tree to the rise of the automobile, the poppy to the Opium Wars and their impact on Chinese history, and tea to British colonialism.

While a few aesthetically pleasing and benign plants make an appearance (roses, cilantro), the list of significant plants reminds readers how, all too often, the cultivation and use of plants has been tied to human suffering (cotton, sugarcane, tobacco). Laws does not preach or demonize groups of people, or plants for that matter, but the conclusion is unfortunately inescapable.

At times Laws jumps between eras within the same chapter, which is disconcerting. The information in each chapter can also be rather cursory, so if you're looking for an in-depth exploration of mulberry and the development of trade along the Silk Road, look elsewhere.

But if you'd like an intelligent and breezy look at the way plants and people have interacted, you'll enjoy Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. It shows us how our past, present, and future are intrinsically connected to our relationship with plants.

(Photo from Amazon)

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