It’s fair to say that Jonathan Drori, who has spent his life involved with plants and is now a member of the Council of Ambassadors of WWF and The Woodland Trust, has a real place in his heart for the simple and overlooked. In Around the World in 80 Plants, it is more often than not the plants we walk past all the time, or those that form the basis of our food, clothing and domestic gardens that get space to shine.
Perhaps this is because, as Drori writes: ‘For me, plant science is fascinating, but enlivened when it is entwined with human history and culture.’ As a result, it is coffee, hemp, seaweed, potato, opium, tobacco, hops, maize, nutmeg, nettles and sugar cane that are revealed to be so much more than we might think. Take the dandelion – a common weed in English landscapes, but did you know that dandelion stems and roots contain sticky white latex that coagulates to seal wounds from infection. Dandelion latex is also remarkably similar to that found in rubber trees. With pressure on tropical forests impacting the rubber industry, recent research in Europe and the USA has focused on breeding high-yielding dandelion. Tyres of dandelion rubber are already on the market. And then there’s cannabis, whose strong fibres ‘powered the fleets of empires’. It was so important that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I ordered landowners to grow it.
And yet there is another side to this compendium too, away from humans’ rapacious needs. Drori describes plants almost lovingly, allowing space for their beauty and ingenuity. Take this particularly appealing description of the nutmeg plant: ‘Girdling the shiny nut is a succulent, lacy layer, an utterly sensual blood-red aril, or seed covering, which is itself surrounded by a fleshy husk.’ Such descriptions are complemented throughout by drawings of each plant from illustrator Lucille Clerc; combined, they make for a beautiful book that can easily be dipped in and out of as the fancy takes you – perhaps next time you walk past that pesky dandelion, thrusting its yellow head up to the sun.