Plants in print: Books about botany

There’s always more to learn and say about the vegetable kingdom. Here are some recent worthwhile books:

The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior by Stefano Mancuso
Plants can learn, remember, and innovate, Mancuso says. Unlike animals, who often try to avoid problems, plants are rooted in place and must solve them. He suggests that one key to their problem-solving ability is decentralization: plants respond to their environments with their whole bodies. In fact, he says, some of their solutions could help us solve our own problems.

Sex on the Kitchen Table: The Romance of Plants and Your Food by Norman C. Ellstrand
Plants have sex in a lot of ways, some of them complex. Ellstrand tells his tale with five foods: tomato, the plant sex manual; banana, a life without sex; avocado, timing is everything; beet, philander and philanderer; and squash and more, sex without reproduction. Each chapter is followed by a recipe.

Flora Unveiled: The Discovery and Denial of Sex in Plants by Lincoln Taiz and Lee Taiz
We now know that plants have sex, but it took a long time to figure it out. The authors document that discovery from the Paleolithic Age to the 19th century, covering fields as diverse as history, archaeology, linguistics, and comparative religion. The idea of plant sex was finally put forward in the late 17th century, and then ridiculed for 150 more years. Why was it so hard? Plants were all considered female.

Weird Plants by Chris Thorogood
In their relationships with animals, plants will eat us, trick us, kill us, kidnap us, or hold us subservient. Plants can be mean to each other, too — and do unexpected things, such as serving willingly as a toilet. Consider this: there’s a plant named “devil’s guts,” a tough name to acquire. Tales of plant oddities are accompanied by the author’s oil portraits of the weirdness in question.

The Overstory by Richard Powers
This novel, which has won accolades and prize nominations, examines relationships and conflicts between humans and trees. The first nine chapters capture an event in which trees changed the life of a person in different places and times. The second half of the book tells how those people fight to save trees. “If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us?”

The War Between Trees and Grasses by Howard Thomas
Over time, trees, grasses, and humans have evolved together, but not always in harmony. The creature most changed has been ourselves. An appendix summarizes the geological timelines of the millions of years that have brought us timber and food — and famines of both. We humans have a dog in this fight, but we might not know when and if we’ve won.

Plants That Kill: A Natural History of the World’s Most Poisonous Plants by Elizabeth A. Dauncey and Sonny Larsson
Lots of colorful illustrations introduce us to the murderers of the vegetable kingdom: rincin, henbane, and aconite, among many others. But as the refrain says, the poison is in the dose. Many of these poisons can also cure us: colchicine for cancer, galantamine for Parkinson’s disease, and curare to relax muscles for surgery. Plants’ defenses can turn them into our allies.

The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectorsby David George Haskell
With lyrical prose and almost spiritual reverence, the author visits a dozen different trees around the world to capture their ecological aesthetics not as individuals but as part of the same web of life we humans belong to.

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