Plant words: A book of 250 curious words for plant lovers, Joe Richomme & Emma Wayland, 2022. Welbeck, in partnership with RBG Kew.
You may be aware of the phenomenon that used to be called ‘plant blindness’ (Ainara Achurra (2022). Front. Educ. 7:963448; doi: 10.3389/feduc.2022.963448). Now renamed as plant awareness disparity [PAD] (Kathryn Parsley, Plants, People, Planet 2(6): 598– 601, 2020; https://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10153), it is the condition in which people don’t notice plant life in the environment. As a consequence, those who suffer from PAD are also likely to be unappreciative of how dependent are humans – and other animals – on plants for their survival. One way of trying to overcome this problem is to get people out into the wild and looking at plants, identifying them, studying them, and generally educating them about matters botanical.*
Another – additional [it should never be an alternative to the up-close-and-personal experiencing of plants ‘in the flesh’] – way is to encourage people to read about plants. Whilst that is fine in theory, in practice another barrier to enhancing the public’s botanical literacy may present itself; there are a lot of technical terms related to plants that may be off-putting to the first-time reader. In an attempt to demystify some of those words and phrases, Joe Richomme & Emma Wayland have written Plant Words, which book is here appraised.
Plant Words is well-written, and abundantly illustrated – but only with black-and-white drawings. Furthermore, none of the pictures have any legends or explanation of what they show. All we are told is that: “All images are taken from the Library and Archives collection of RBG Kew” [the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew] (p. 208). It’s somewhat curious, then, that amongst the Credits is this statement: “Every effort has been made to acknowledge correctly and contact the source and/or copyright holder of each picture. Any unintentional errors or omissions will be corrected in future editions of this book” (p. 208). Not seeing any such acknowledgements in association with any picture, one can only assume that a future edition is most assuredly planned – which would not only provide the opportunity to add those picture credits but also to make necessary amendments in respect of the suggestions contained elsewhere in this appraisal.
Plant Words provides dictionary-like definitions (and frequent notes on etymology), but with more context and interpretation than you’d find in a traditional glossary, for each of its 250 terms. In that way, the book is arguably more user-friendly for its intended audience – and more instructive of the importance of plants to people. Most entries – which can be thought of as ‘micro-essays’ – are about half a page long, but occasionally longer (e.g. full pages, or nearly so, for entries such as Flower, Weeds, Rubber, Fungi, and Photosynthesis). Overall, the book is useful and informative.
What the book aims to do
Plant Words is intended “to try and explain some specialist words concerning plants in relatively simple terms, to convey what they are really about, and to highlight how what they relate to is important. It is an introduction to the vocabulary used by botanists, horticulturalists, and many others who interact with plants on a regular basis” (p. 9). Helpfully, the very short Introduction tells us that the book is not exhaustive; the authors “have picked words that might commonly arise in any discussion about plants, and words that perhaps should be part of the conversation” (p. 10). Although it’s a personal selection, it is one that the plant-minded authors** are likely to have made having regard to their own experiences of explaining plant matters to the general public. On that basis, and given that the declared goal of the book is to ensure that the words chosen are those that will help to educate those deficient in matters of plant awareness, I think Plant Words will achieve that [although it surely also leaves the door open for a follow-up volume of ‘250 more curious words’..?’].
Furthermore, Plant Words is also “intended to show you the way deeper into the world of plants; words are the way into any subject” (p. 9). Whilst this is an admirable ambition it makes it all the more disappointing that no further reading is indicated anywhere in the book [See What about sources? section] for the interested readers to add to their new-found plant knowledge.
What the book isn’t
Plant Words “is not a reference book” (p. 11). “Concepts, proofs and ideas have had to be simplified to stop the text becoming too academic and unwieldy. In particular, several concepts discussed are applicable to a much wider field than just plants but, in the interests of brevity, we have largely restricted those entries to their relevance to the plant kingdom. A great many of the terms discussed have entire books dedicated to them. But we have had to handpick those areas which we think are most interesting, and most likely to make you want to explore further” (p. 11) [Again, this intention is fair enough, but, having done so, it would have been helpful to indicate some of the further reading readers could consider to extend and expand their plant knowledge – and appreciation of plants].
The main part of the book
The 190 pages or so of Plant Words’ main text are divided into 8 sections: Botany (from Bark to Wood – with focus on plant parts); Growing (from Agriculture to Vegetative reproduction – terms related to human interactions and interventions with plants); Plant types (from Alpines to Weeds – entries for different types of plants); History (from Alexander von Humboldt to Wollemi pine – with emphasis on plants-and-people); Documentation (from Arboretum to Type specimen – an important section of how plant information is recorded and used); Environment & ecology (from Algae to Wood wide web – the world within which plants live and their interactions with their environment); Biomes & habitats (from Antarctic to Woodland – places where plants are found); and Science (from Alkaloid to Taxonomy – a consideration of some of the techniques used to study plants, and what scientific enquiry has taught us about plants). The number of entries by section varies, from 21 (for Environment & Ecology) to 42 for History.***
And the Index
The penultimate part of Plant Words is the Index, which comprises 4.5 pages of 3-columned entries, from Acacia to Yellow Emperor. Since neither of those two terms have separate entries in the book, the index is not restricted to just the ‘250 curious words’ of the book’s sub-title. All 250 separate entries are probably indexed (although I’ve not checked that), and page numbers are emboldened for those accounts in the Index. Other pages where such terms are to be found elsewhere in the book are listed without emboldening, so it should be relatively easy to identify the main entry for the term of interest. Some of the most numerous indexed entries are for words such as conservation, flower, habitat, leaves, nutrients, roots, seeds, soil, species, and trees. Although some common names and scientific names of plants are also included here, the index is not a complete listing of all plants mentioned in-text [See What about the plant names? section].
Helpfully, Plant Words includes a lot of cross-referencing between entries in its 250 accounts. But, to find many of the terms, which are emboldened in-text, one needs to use the index as mentioned in the previous section. Trying to find the term’s entry by flicking through the book can be a lengthy task because the terms are presented alphabetically within each of the eight sections, not in the book as a whole. Occasionally, the cross-referenced term is shown in-text with its entry’s page number – e.g. ‘see Inflorescence, page 25’ (on page 17’s entry for Catkin); ‘see Trees, page 89’ within the entry for Wood on p. 36 – which makes the job of finding the other term straightforward. But those instances are few. And something that’s easily addressed in a revised edition.
Another inconsistency is use of both photosynthesize and photosynthesise in the entry for Algae on page 145 – in the same paragraph(!) This inconsistency is compounded by emboldening of photosynthesize – i.e. indicating a term with its own separate entry in the book – because the term that’s actually included as a separate entry is Photosynthesis (on p. 196)…
The definitions for Spice (p. 117) and Saffron (p. 114) need some amending. Under its separate entry, saffron is rightly defined as a spice – indeed, the authors claim that it is the “world’s costliest spice” (p. 114) – that comes from “the brightly coloured stigma and style [i.e. floral parts] of the saffron crocus” (p. 114). However, per the separate definition of these plant-derived food flavourings, we are told that spices are “usually seeds, berries, bark and roots” (p. 117). The book’s definition of spice therefore specifically excludes flowers (and by implication all floral parts such as the stigmas and styles that give us saffron), and is therefore in contrast to herbs, which we are told “are the leaves, stem and flowers” (p. 117). So, is saffron a spice or a herb? Or is it ‘the exception that proves the rule‘ regarding the definition of spice?
What about the plant names?
Although common names appear to take precedence when a specific plant is discussed in-text, scientific names are used in many places. This works most usefully when they are associated with the plant’s common name – e.g. ‘cork oak, Quercus suber’ (p. 13), ‘saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)’ (p. 33), and ‘Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis)’ (p. 165). Which contrast with instances where only the common name is given – e.g. ‘Coulter pine’ (p. 17), ‘London plane and common lime’ (p. 58), and ‘Madagascar star orchid’ (p. 199).
Whilst several common and scientific names are listed in the Index, of those mentioned in the immediately preceding paragraph, there were no index entries for: cork oak (although Quercus suber was indexed), saguaro cactus (but Carnegiea gigantea was there), Antarctic hair grass (however, Deschampsia antarctica was present), Antarctic pearlwort, Coulter pine, London plane, and common lime; Madagascar star orchid, and Colobanthus quitensis were indexed. Which is all a little inconsistent.
Terms old and new…
Botany is an ancient subject and unsurprisingly some of the 250 terms reflect the early days of the discipline. But, botanical knowledge is constantly evolving and it’s good to see the book’s up-to-datedness with entries such as: Permaculture [which “developed in the late twentieth century” (p. 57)]; Forest bathing [which “term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku” (Sunny Fitzgerald)]; reference to newly-named Begonia darthvaderiana, recorded in 2014; Wood wide web [For an even more up-to-date comment on the appropriateness of that phrase, see Melanie Jones et al.], and Astrobotany [“the discipline of botany concerned with interactions between plant biology and space environments”]. Although gene editing doesn’t have its own dedicated entry it is mentioned under the account of GM crops.
One of the ‘old-fashioned’ words it was nice to see was Hormones (p. 191) [but it’s a word that’s often considered ‘inappropriate’ (Jonathan Weyers & Neil Paterson, New Phytologist 152: 375-407, 2001; https://doi.org/10.1046/j.0028-646X.2001.00281.x), and its days are probably numbered under the threat of replacement by a term such as ‘plant growth substances’]. However, it was a little surprising to note that, of the ‘five classical plant hormones’ (Hans Kende & Jan Zeevaart, The Plant Cell 9(7): 1197–1210, 1997; https://doi.org/10.1105/tpc.9.7.1197), or the so-styled ‘big five’ (Rob Nelson), only ethylene**** was mentioned. The only other ‘hormone’ specified was the jasmonates (Antoine Larrieu & Teva Vernoux, BMC Biol 14: 79, 2016; https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-016-0308-8; Minora Ueda et al., Int. J. Mol. Sci. 2020, 21, 1124; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21031124). Why, for some sense of completeness on this topic, was there no inclusion of auxin, gibberellin, cytokinin or abscisic acid? Or, at least of auxin, which is a notable ingredient in rooting powders that might be familiar to at least some of the book’s gardening-minded readers? It was instructive, however, to read that the word hormone is derived from the Greek verb ‘ormán’, which means to set in motion.
It’s not just definitions
In addition to the definitions of terms, the book contains lots of interesting botanical titbits, e.g. that: Benedict Cumberbatch consulted Darwin’s letters to Joseph Hooker – one-time director of RBG Kew – when the actor played the role of the latter in the film Creation; “Finding correct and universally applicable names for plants was an early preoccupation in the educated Muslim world, allowing for a standardization in medical and scientific writing” (p. 100) [something I don’t recall having been made aware of in discussions of Linnaeus and binomial nomenclature – and which the book’s entry for Carl Linnaeus (p. 95) doesn’t mention]; there were miniature mobile greenhouses in the Roman Empire that could be wheeled inside to avoid the cold (p. 104); Theophrastus’ name is actually a nickname which translates as “phrased in a godly way” (p. 120), a reference to describe his way of speaking and which was bestowed upon him by Aristotle; Britain’s first public park was Derby Arboretum (p. 125); the name ‘lichen’ comes from the Greek ‘to lick’ (p. 159); and that Miombo is a biome of tropical and subtropical grass and scrubland in Africa (p. 174). For this reason, the book is more readable than Enid Mayfield’s Illustrated Plant Glossary. By which I mean that Plant Words is more the sort of book one may be inclined to sit down and read, rather than just consult for the meaning of a plant-related term, as with Mayfield’s tome.
What about sources?
For all of its statements of fact, no references or sources are given for any of the information presented, nor is there any indication of where that information might have been taken from. In the Introduction the authors assert that “Great care has been taken to maintain the accuracy of the information contained in this work” (p. 2). Whilst such a declaration is somewhat reassuring, I would have much more confidence in that statement if the sources consulted were also declared, and ideally cross-referenced to the relevant statement(s).
Similarly, “Every single one of these entries merely scrapes the surface of a fascinating topic. Each should be seen as a gateway – there is much more to learn than what is contained within these pages, and equally there are many more terms and concepts which branch off from the ones we have chosen, and which are equally fascinating. While we hope that our selection will equip you with some key words to help you talk about plants in more detail, it is intended above all as the start of a personal journey, inspiring you to search out more information about these fascinating organisms upon which we rely so heavily” (p. 11). Having presented the readers with these gateways, it would help to have some sign-posting of the direction in which to continue one’s journey. That’s where carefully-chosen suggestions of further reading would come in very handy.
Some of the information that I found particularly interesting in Plant Words, and for which sources would be essential were I to consider using the material in my own work are: switching-off of the wound-healing gene in dandelions; the average global rate of energy captured by photosynthesis being 130 terawatts; and the claim that there have been more than 5 billion species alive at some time or other during Earth’s 4 billion years of life. I didn’t have the time to run-down sources for those items to see if the statements held up. However, one piece of information, that sugar cane is “the world’s most grown crop measured in tonnes, with a total of 1.9 billion tonnes produced in 2020” (p. 117), is one I have a source for from another project I’m working on. And I’m happy to confirm that Richomme & Wayland are correct, per page 14 of the FAO’s World Food and Agriculture – Statistical Yearbook 2022. For completeness, the context for this is: “While a large number of crops are cultivated and harvested around the world, just four individual crops accounted for half the global production of primary crops in 2020: sugar cane (20 percent of the total, with 1.9 billion tonnes), maize (12 percent, with 1.2 billion tonnes), wheat and rice (8 percent each, with 0.8 billion tonnes)…”. Pleasingly, a 100% record of factual correctness for the one fact I fact-checked.
One area that requires tidying-up…
Although mentioned under Succulents (p. 88), the book is silent on CAM [Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (Ian Gilman & Erika Edwards, Current Biology 30: R51–R63, 2020; doi:10.1016/j.cub.2019.11.073) as a variant of photosynthesis. Rather, Plant Words defines it as “a biochemical pathway that allows gas exchange to take place only in the cool of the night, reducing the amount of water lost by opening the leaf’s pores (stomata)” (p. 88). Although that definition has relevance to the book’s entry for which it provides some context, it’s a little economical with the truth. Certainly, CAM is a biochemical pathway, but it’s one that primarily elevates CO2 concentration within the plant’s tissues so that the normal – C3 – pathway of photosynthesis is favoured over the non-photosynthetic, oxygen-consuming pathway of photorespiration (Christoph Peterhansel et al., The Arabidopsis Book, 2010(8): (2010); https://doi.org/10.1199/tab.0130). The CO2 enters the plant through the stomata which open during the night, and is stored as part of an organic molecule – malic acid (Klaus Winter & Andrew Smith, New Phytologist 233: 599-609, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.17790). The stored CO2 is subsequently released within the plant to be incorporated into the photosynthetic pathway during daylight. The associated daytime closure of stomata by CAM plants, which are often found in high temperature environments where water is usually in short supply, reduces transpiration [which term is not included anywhere in the book] and therefore water loss by the plant. This water-saving behaviour increases the chances of the plant’s survival and consequently plants with CAM have an advantage over non-CAM plants in such habitats (Asad Khan).
The Introduction tells us that “Concepts, proofs and ideas have had to be simplified to stop the text becoming too academic and unwieldy” (p. 11). And that is a good idea – why scare away plant-curious readers with overly-technical accounts? After all, the book aims to inform such an audience and increase their understanding and appreciation of plants not achieve the opposite. However, it seems that in the case of CAM the authors may have oversimplified it, and potentially misled the reader. In that respect, the sage advice – attributed to Albert Einstein – that one should “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler” (Garson O’Toole) has not here been heeded. Maybe wisely, so as not to cloud the notion of photosynthesis for the book’s intended readers, neither CAM nor C4 photosynthesis have their own dedicated entries [and C4 isn’t even mentioned in the book].
A few more – but unintended? – curious words…
Although generally fine, some comments on word choice are necessary. In Plant Words, the latex from spurge is described as ‘viscose’ (p. 113). I’m guessing ‘viscous’ [“having a thick or sticky consistency”] was intended. Viscose is “a smooth material similar to silk but made from cellulose”. And regarding the statement that both giant hogweed (Helen Keating) and Japanese knotweed “spread voraciously” (p. 91), I wonder if ‘vigorously’ is better – although maybe not even that term in the case of the knotweed which “spreads slowly but adamantly” according to Samantha Subramanian? Voracious means “very eager for something, especially a lot of food”.
Plant Words: A book of 250 curious words for plant lovers by Joe Richomme & Emma Wayland is a charming book that should inform and entertain all who are interested in finding out more about plants and the words used to understand our green neighbours. It’s a relatively undemanding read which should help its information to be readily absorbed by those whose minds are open to botanical improvement. But, you’ll need to do your own searching to find further reading to move on to.
* Which education should begin as early as possible in one’s life. For inspiration on how to get youngsters involved with plant-appreciation, SAPS [Science And Plants for Schools] has produced a number of school-targeted resource packs (e.g. their Gardening for Primary Schools series of investigations, freely-downloadable here – that could work as well at home as they do in school). More SAPS’ teaching resources – aimed at children from ages 4 – 11, and which include activities, pupil sheets, teacher guidance, and inspiration for your primary teaching – can be found here. And, for some sort of completeness, SAPS also has resources for teaching children from ages 11 to 16, and beyond, accessible here.
** Both authors have strong horticultural credentials. Joe is based at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and has particular responsibility for its living collections of grasses and peonies. Emma is part of the team of volunteer tour guides at Kew, and for the past 15 years has helped to interpret the Gardens for visitors. Prior to that, and as Emma Townshend, she spent 10 years as the gardening columnist for the UK’s Independent on Sunday newspaper. [Information gleaned from the book’s cover.]
*** If you’d like a full listing of all the terms included in the book, that can usefully be found here, under ‘Table of Contents’, and that also confirms that there are 250 entries [but where the book’s title is shown as ‘Plant Words: 250 terms for plant lovers’, which is a little curious…].
**** In contrast to my disappointment with Dorling Kindersley’s The Secret World of Plants, I was delighted to see that Plant Words used the more familiar – if traditional and old-fashioned – term ethylene (Francis Carey) for the plant hormone that I’ve always known as ethylene (e.g. Hans Kende & Jan Zeevaart, The Plant Cell 9(7): 1197–1210, 1997; https://doi.org/10.1105/tpc.9.7.1197), rather than ethene (Simon Cotton).