The Incredible Journey of Plants (Review)

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Listening to ethics-based vegetarians and animal rights activists extolling the virtues on plant-based diets always leaves me feeling aggrieved in the name of plants. Not that the argument that killing (many say murdering) sentient beings in the name of breakfast-lunch-and-dinner is wrong. Vegetarian talking points are, for the most part, valid. Who wants to be responsible for misery, pain, and torture? Not me.

Yet, the more time goes by, the more botanists are learning that plants have rudimentary nervous systems for feeling, are capable of movement (albeit at a different time scale), can communicate with neighbors near and far, and have actual memory. They’re a far cry from the cardboard photosynthesis factories we imagine them to be.

Now, thanks to Stefano Mancuso’s splendid book, The Incredible Journey of Plants (Other Press), we know that these amazing organisms also have their own narratives that recount their long history on Earth. It’s a revelation that goes a long way towards rectifying the bum rap they’ve been saddled with for centuries. In the book’s Introduction, Mancuso challenges his readers to think different: “We will never be able to understand plants if we look at them as if they were impaired animals. They are a form of life that is different, neither simpler nor less developed, than the animal form/ of life.”

Mancuso_Stefano © Courtesy Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Photo by Alessandro Moggi

Technically, The Incredible Journey of Plants would be considered a botanical survey, only that would be like calling Kevin Durant a capable basketball player. It’s focus is not on a specific aspect of a particular plant. It’s about plants in general. More specifically, it’s about illustrating, for the lay reader, the many marvels of the botanical world on display for anyone willing to open their eyes. (Very few do.)

As the book’s title suggests, the scope of Mancuso’s narrative is global and he takes great pains to map the many routes plants have taken for millenia. It’s a road guided more by serendipity than strategy. Regardless, it’s clear that plants have come out on top and Mancuso could not be happier. His enthusiasm for plants and botanical history is immediately apparent and by the end of the book, infectious. The fact that he communicates the complexities of his field without falling back on scientific jargon certainly helps.

The “journey” begins with readers asked to reconsider an idea somewhat anathema to contemporary conservationists’ mantra against the ecological damage invasive species inflict on local ecologies. Rather than malign them, Mancuso implores us to accept them and celebrate their arrival. Their arrival stands as proof of the constant march of plants across the globe.

Why, then do we insist on labeling as ‘Invasive’ all those plants that, with great success, have managed to occupy new territories? On closer look, the invasive plants of today are the native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today.

As proof, Mancuso holds up maize, tomato plants, and basil as examples of formerly reviled transplants that underwent considerable public opinion make-overs. An even more striking example discussed in the book is that of Senecio squalidus, aka Oxford ragwort. Originally from the steep inclines of Mount Etna in Sicily, the flowering plant eventually made it to England, where it settled on stone walls across the country, including that of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. In time, the plant’s yellow flowers became synonymous with the school, illustrating Mancuso’s point. (Oddly enough, the transformation of invasive species into native plants is a fitting metaphor against the anti-immigrant xenophobia sprouting around the world.)

Science writing can keep readers at a distance; Mancuso’s prose welcomes with open arms.

Mancuso demonstrates how modern plants and their fruit can open a window to the past and offer tangible proof that enormous animals once roamed the Earth. The avocado (Persea americana) and it’s out-of-proportion seed provides fascinating insights into evolution on Earth.

Anyone who has cut open an avocado fruit cannot help but have noticed the enormous seed hosted in its center… An out-of-scale seed. Incomprehensible if we regard it as an instrument for the diffusion of its species. What animal, in fact could ever swallow an entire avocado without damaging the see inside it?

The answer lies more than 13,000 years ago when outsized creatures walked the earth. Back then, the likes of Gomphotherium (an elephant species with four tusks), Glyptodons (a ten foot long armadillo), and Megatherium (giant ground sloths the size of elephants) gorged on the avocado (or a distant relative). When they disappeared, the fate of the avocado should have been sealed. (The avocado is ill-fitted to modern wildlife to ingest and digest.) Fortuitously, the jaguar proved an effective stop-gap measure with its flexible jaws capable of swallowing large pieces of meat. Yet, the story does not stop there. The avocado pulled off a master-stroke of survival. They crossed paths with humans.

Of all the examples cited in The Incredible Journey of Plants perhaps the most profound and enlightening is the sea coconut, aka coco de mer, aka Lodoicea maldivica. Like the avocado, its story unfolds around the seemingly less than ideal form of its fruit.

It produces the largest wild fruit in nature (ninety-three pounds; some domesticated plants, like pumpkins, can produce heavier fruit), the heaviest seeds (up to thirty-seven pounds for a single seed), the longest cotyledon (up to thirteen feet), and larger female flowers than any other known palm.

Obviously, with fruit and seeds so big, the palm tree is an example of a plant that does not employ the more traditional means of dispersal, i.e. wind, ocean currents, or animals. Yet, we soon learn that what appears to be an error in evolution turns out to be perfect. The reason is amazing.

The sea coconut demonstrates a trait once only believed to be present in animals. It has evolved to take care of its offspring. Its fruit is so dense and heavy because they are supposed to stay close to the tree they fell from. While the environment where palm trees live is resource poor, the area directly around the trunk is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. And that is by design. All of the nutrients come directly from the parent plant. Mancuso explains, “To take care of its infants, the sea coconut has developed, through its leaves, a system of funnels and gutters to direct water and nutrients to them.” His makes the arid soil at its base perfect for new trees to grow.

The Incredible Journey of Plants sings. It’s a lean book to begin with but in Mancuso’s hands, the pages disappear and his distinct and passionate voice takes over. Science writing can keep readers at a distance; Mancuso’s prose welcomes with open arms. It’s a rare treat when a writer possesses the expertise, imagination, and story-telling acumen to educate and entertain in equal measure. This book should be required reading for the #scicomm community.

WORDS: Marc Landas (@marclandas)

IMAGE SOURCE: Creative Commons

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