Some Books

Francis Hallé’s Atlas of Poetic Botany is delightful. It’s a botanist’s record of encounters with remarkable life forms, tropical plants that walk, listen, mimic (like a chameleon, yes), among other things.

I hadn’t known that rubber trees were native to the New World. However, they can’t be grown plantation-style in the Amazon because if they’re too close together a parasitic fungus takes them out. The trees need to be separated by at least 300 meters. The great rubber plantations of Asia — Thailand is still the world’s main producer of natural rubber — don’t have this problem. Hallé says the fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) is going to reach them someday.

We don’t even know why rubber trees produce latex? It’s not an insecticide? Do we really need to go to other planets when we’ve hardly gotten to know this one?

This book would make a wonderful gift for a friend who cares nothing for plants or doesn’t bother to notice them. Yes, it is all exotica to those of us in the temperate zone, but it may very well plant some seeds of curiosity.

Or spores. For instance, in a woodland near you, there may be plants whose ancestors reach back hundreds of millions of years, who survived two mass extinctions, and almost got shut out by the shade-stealers angiosperms. Robbin C. Moran delves into A Natural History of Ferns and lycophytes, spore-bearers all. (Consider all the pollen, microbes, spores fungal and pteridophyte, you breath in through the year. Fresh air? Times Square! By the way, it’s the proteins on the surface of pollen grains that are causing your immune system to fire off. Fern spores don’t have surface proteins and don’t make you sneeze.)

Fern reproduction — which has sexual and asexual generations — was figured out late in the game, in the 1840s… I mean, we humans figured out how ferns went about it. The plants have obviously known a very long time. Moran begins with Shakespeare referring to the common belief that ferns reproduced by invisible seeds, fair enough since you need a microscope to get a good look at the spores. The invisible seeds were thought to make you invisible if you managed to get a hold of some.


A perfect pendant to Moran’s collection of essays is Lynn Levine’s Identifying Ferns the Easy Way . This slides into cargo-pants pocket with ease. And it works very nicely.

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