ENVIRONMENTALIST AND best-selling author Jonathan Drori says that for him, plant science is fascinating, but it’s truly enlivened when it’s entwined with human history and culture. In his new book, “Around the World in 80 Plants,” the followup to his hit “Around the World in 80 Trees,” he does just that. He enlivens plants both obscure and as familiar as the common potato.
There are many plants we may not know at all, so everything about them is a surprise, of course, when we first come across them. But even commonplace plants like the dandelion have untold stories to share. Dandelions and 79 others are profiled in Drori’s “Around the World in 80 Plants” (affiliate link). Drori is a former BBC documentarian who for nine years was a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is on the board of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, a fellow of the Linnaean Society and more.
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around the world in 80 plants, with jonathan drori
Margaret Roach: Hi, Jon. I’ve been enjoying the book. And as I think you’ve described with your previous book, it’s one that people frequently say they keep at the bedside table and dip back into because there’s all these chapters, which is wonderful.
Jonathan Drori: Yes, so I hope it’s not something that just sort of causes them to fall asleep [laughter].
Margaret: Well, there are plants in it that you note cause people to fall asleep [laughter].
Jon: Absolutely. People have been using plants to modify their view of the world and our place in it for thousands of years.
Margaret: Yes. So you describe the new book as “80 biographies of individual plant species, intertwining plant science with human stories, history, culture and folklore.” What research must have gone into this work!
Jon: I think I probably started my research, without realizing, when I was about nine. And I grew up living near the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and my parents used to take my brother and me around and sort of jollying us along, of course, with sweet treats and whatnot, but also with stories about the individual plants. And I think that that’s probably where my research started.
I remember vividly, actually, my father taking an opium poppy and sort of slicing the seed pod and a little drop of latex coming out. And he said, “Go on. Go on. Have a lick.” And I remember this little drop of opium latex on my tongue, which just made it go ever, ever so slightly numb for a moment, so I hardly felt anything. But I remember the person whose jaw dropped was actually my teacher when I told her. And I think they sent around a social worker to talk to my mom afterwards.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Oh, dear.
Jon: Then more recently, I ended up on the board of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. And I think I was there actually because of my sort of technical background and education and outreach experience that I’d had with the BBC and so on. And it was while I was there that I really learned an enormous amount about botany, from being surrounded by botanists.
And then I realized that my skill perhaps wasn’t necessarily in botany, but was in communicating science to a lay audience.
Jon: And so I started sort of putting away those little stories as I heard them, thinking “Gosh, that’s just fascinating. That’s amazing.” And there was one time when I remember I was up in the Andes on an expedition. I was sort of making a film with Kew. And I was absolutely silent. I was stock-still on this hillside watching this fantastic hummingbird, beautiful shimmering colors and everything. And I called over one of the botanists, and I pointed, and I just said, “Shh, look. Isn’t that amazing?” He said, “It’ll be fantastic when that bird gets out of the way and I can see the plant.”
Margaret: Oh! [Laughter.]
Jon: And I realized that for botanists, of course, they see everything through the lens of plants. And for me, I see the world through a kind of complicated lens, which includes plants, but also includes all those sort of human and animal stories as well.
Margaret: Right, right. Well, what I loved most of all is that—in the book, I mean—is that even the biographies of the most familiar plants are filled with surprises. Things like the revelation that Spanish moss is related to pineapples, things like that and putting these dots together.
So you’re a fellow of the Linnean Society. You’re on the board of the botanic garden at Cambridge University. So I can’t resist saying that I’m completely mad for the kind of garden that most people will never have heard of, in the United States at least, called systematic beds, or more generically “order beds,” and that Cambridge has had one since 1845, I think, I’ve visited it, and it’s one of my favorite places. So you kind of like that stuff, don’t you, too?
Jon: Well, actually, I like both. For my own garden… I’m no great gardener, I have to say, but for my own garden, I love it when plants are all jumbled together, higgledy-piggledy. It’s a very sort of English garden feel that I love. And the more species in there, the better.
But there is a kind of nerdy side to me that when I go to Botanic Gardens like Cambridge or at Kew and I take that step between the conifers and the Magnoliids, the forerunners of the magnolias, which were the first flowering plants, it absolutely puts goosebumps up the back of my neck. When I look at that incredible evolutionary step, it’s just fabulous.
Margaret: Yes. So let’s hear some of the stories in brief from the book. So you say, for instance, you write that “Clovers have truly changed the world.” So how is that possible? How do clovers change the world?
Jon: [Laughter.] Well, it isn’t solely by being sort of the source of good luck in Irish superstitions. The reason the clovers have changed the world is because they’re legumes. So they’re part of the family that includes peas and beans, but also some of the trees, like mesquite and so on.
These are plants that can harbor special bacteria in their root nodules that can fix nitrogen out of the air and turn it into fertilizer. And when people started migrating in Europe between the countryside and sort of settling in cities, all these nitrogen and phosphorus compounds—which are terribly important for plants, but also very, very important for people, because that’s the sort of building blocks of proteins and amino acids—they all got transported to the cities as well, all those nutrients, but they never came back onto the land. Because all of a sudden waste products of human beings, all the poo, didn’t get put back onto the land. It just sort of went into the rivers and back to sea. And that meant that the productivity of the land in the 17th century or so started to really, really plummet.
And it was only when people realized that they could plant clover that would replace the nitrogen in the soil by fixing it out of the air, it was only then that the sort of population of Europe really managed to take off. And between about 1750 and 1900, it tripled, the population tripled. And a little humble clover doesn’t get much credit for this, but people are returning to clover now.
In about 1909, 1910, Fritz Haber came up with a process for artificially taking nitrogen out of the air and making fertilizer with it in something called the Haber process. And he won a Nobel prize for it. The trouble with the Haber process is that not only does it use masses and masses of energy, which is something we don’t want to do, but also one of the ingredients itself is methane. That’s natural gas. So it’s a double-whammy for fossil fuels. It’s really bad.
And so people now are, not only because of saving all the energy and not using methane, but also because of the drift back towards organic farming and so on, the more balanced farming, people are planting clover all over the place. And when I look out my window here in Dorset, in Southwest England, I can see fields and fields of clover that have been planted. And that can either be fed straight to animals, or it can be plowed back into the soil, which makes it much more fertile.
Margaret: And certainly we get some good honey when, as you point out also in the book, the bees appreciate it and get lots of honey from that mass of flowers that it produces as well.
Jon: Very much so. And that association between clover and a sweet life. In England, we have a phrase being in clover, meaning that things are going well. But a lot of European languages have that. And this association between sort of comfort and sweetness and clover is very much part of European culture.
Margaret: So here’s a plant in the book that’s not sweet [laughter]. People will have heard that castor bean seeds are poisonous, but you kind of tell us more about this plant [above]. And it has a surprising quality that I didn’t know, that I’m more familiar with with some of our woodland wildflowers, especially in the Eastern United States, where ants carry the seeds around because of this delicious, lipid-rich elaisome on the seeds and so forth. So tell us a little bit about castor beans or about the plant.
Jon: Well, the castor bean comes from the Horn of Africa, from sort of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland, that sort of area, and was brought to Europe by the Romans. And it’s just a very beautiful plant. You often see it planted around sort of civic gardens and things in London, certainly, and I’m sure I’ve seen them in the United States.
Jon: And its flowers are nothing special. It’s wind-pollinated, so it doesn’t have to do very much to sort of try and attract insects or anything. The seed cases are rather lovely. They go from this sort of green to a lovely vermilion red, and they’ve got kind of pleasing little sort of spines on the outside. The seeds are very distinctive [below]. They have this fantastic swirly pattern on them. They’re about the size of my thumbnail, I guess. And they’re spread by ants with the process, which I just love this name, and unfortunately it’s too long a word for Scrabble, but it’s called myrmecochory.
Margaret: I know [laughter].
Jon: It comes from the Greek for ants and circular dance. And anyway, the ants all sort of carry off these seeds to the ant heap, and feed the lipid-rich bits to their larvae and throw away the rest onto their sort of refuse pile. And it’s the rest, of course, which for the plant is perfectly viable. The ants will just eat those little treats at the end.
And so the seeds get themselves planted underground in a fantastically fertile spot. It’s really clever. And these elaiosomes are actually present probably in about 20,000 different plant species. So there’s trillium, violet, myrtle, hyacinth. They all have these clever little components to them.
Margaret: It’s estimated in Eastern North America, in our deciduous forest, it’s estimated that it may be as many as 35 percent of the herbaceous understory species rely on that ant-plant mutualism that you just described.
Jon: It’s a lovely process. And it’s a very nice example of something called convergent evolution, where all over the world plants have evolved to be this way, even though they’re not related. There’s obviously such a big advantage that when there was one mutation that led to this, then it got kept.
And the castor bean itself, it has this wonderful kind of camouflage pattern on it, which is probably there to deter rodents back in the Horn of Africa. But it contains one of the most deadly poisons that we know, called ricin. And that poison was actually used by a murderer in 1978 in London, who used an adapted umbrella to inject a dissident called Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident, with a tiny, tiny amount of this chemical, probably one two-thousandth of a gram. So that was just an absolute minuscule speck of an amount, and it killed him. But the castor bean is also used for oil. You’ve probably heard of castor oil.
Jon: And when you make the oil, that nasty, nasty, horrible ricin is destroyed, and instead you just get left with this oil, which it sort of tastes like a cross between soap and petroleum jelly and lipstick [laughter]. It’s really disgusting.
Jon: But parents used to give it rather lovingly in Victorian times to children as a sort of mildish laxative. So it’s also been used as the basis of a motor oil called Castrol that is still actually produced.
Margaret: Yeah. I mean, some of the other stories just… Like the artichoke [above], the fact that it doesn’t exist in the wild as such is just fascinating because of course I should know that. And I didn’t think about that.
Jon: Well, it’s interesting. There are several of these plants actually that don’t exist as far as we know in the wild. So ginger is one. And artichoke, as you say, that was bred in the Middle Ages from cardoons, which were essentially large thistles. And it’s got this lovely Latin scientific name, which is Cynara. And Cynara is named for actually what turns out to be a non-existent Greek myth involving a woman called Cynara.
There isn’t a Greek myth involving Cynara, but whoever dreamed up this name decided there was. And so the story supposedly was that Zeus, the god, turned Cynara into a vegetable for some sort of usual piffling transgression that they turned women into vegetables for [laughter]. But in 1948, guess who became honorary artichoke queen-
Margaret: This cracked me up.
Jon: Yeah. Yeah, she’d just been renamed, or just renamed herself, and it was Marilyn Monroe, was the first artichoke queen.
Margaret: Of the State of California?
Jon: Yeah. Well, of Castroville.
Margaret: Oh, of Castroville, California, right.
Jon: And do you know Castroville still calls itself… I love this… the artichoke center of the world. And if you drive around artichoke… Sorry, if you drive around Castroville, you could be forgiven for thinking that because it is fields and fields and fields of artichokes, but Italy actually produces eight times the crop of the entire USA. So I’m afraid that Castroville isn’t necessarily the artichoke center of the world, though it is a perfectly nice place to go to.
Margaret: Yeah. Dandelions at this time of year here in the northern part of the United States, it’s a scourge of many a gardener. But they made the book. What makes them so special?
Jon: Well, dandelions are I kind of one of my favorite plants really perhaps for the fact that people hate them [laughter] and regard them as weeds. And I think we should be a bit more kind to dandelions and look on dandelions in our lawns with a bit more sympathy.
So dandelions, in common with lots of other plants, need to have defense mechanisms because they can’t up sticks and run away when something’s eating them. And dandelions have in their roots a sort of reasonably poisonous, not terribly poisonous, latex that deters insects. It’s a sort of milky substance if you break the root.
And so it turns out that latex is rather similar to another latex, which we’re all familiar with, which is rubber. And during the war, Second World War, when supplies of rubber from the far east were being interrupted, the American government, along with various Eastern European governments, experimented with planting large fields of dandelions and extracting the latex from them to make rubber. And they were sort of reasonably successful. They weren’t fantastically successful, but they did a lot of dandelion breeding, especially with something called the Russian dandelion, which to you and me looks exactly the same as any other dandelion, I have to say.
Jon: And eventually after all this breeding, they managed to get something which was sort of almost economically worthwhile, but then the war ended, and of course, supplies from the Far East got reinstated, and everyone sort of put away that idea. But just recently, people have been experimenting with this again, and now the yields are high enough that there are already tires on the market that have a substantial component of dandelion rubber in them. And I think one of them is made by Continental.
Margaret: Oh, amazing. So many things I didn’t know that are in this book. And so hops [above], the hops vine is related to Cannabis. I mean, that’s kooky.
Jon: Yeah, it’s sort of kooky until you start thinking the Cannabaceae, which are hemp and cannabis and hops, when you sort of smell hops, you think there is something a bit cannabis-like about this. And the way that hops have been regarded for hundreds and hundreds of years as being a plant that can sort of modulate our mood.
George III, towards the end of the 18th century, Mad King George, he obviously had quite a lot of mental health issues. And he used hops as something to calm him down.
And you can still buy… In Germany, they’re quite popular… you can buy hop pillows that are basically a cotton bag stuffed with hops. And I remember trying one once, and I certainly slept very well. I mean, this is non-random sample of one person on one occasion [laughter]. So I don’t know whether that’s very scientific or not, but I can tell you it was kind of quite sort of heady, and I had a good dreamy sleep.
Margaret: Huh. Yeah, it’s crazy. I mean, I just didn’t know—and I suppose if I had thought back into the archives of my brain, I would remember the taxonomic relations, but it surprised me when I read it.
Jon: I like the way that hops, their Latin name is Humulus lupulus, which I love. And the lupulus bit refers to Lupus, the wolf. And these hop plants perhaps have been named for that because they just go ravaging across other plants, rampant.
Margaret: And that you point out that because they grow so tall, traditionally men on stilts tended, I guess, and harvested them, right? They used stilts to get up there?
Jon: That’s right. And if you look back to sort of photographs in the 1920s and ’30s, there’s something kind of really alien about hop fields because you’ve got these guys on stilts—it’s always guys—on these really high stilts, like 20-, 30-feet-high stilts. And they’re doing their bit with the hops at the top and tying them on and so on. And then at the bottom, you’ve got people picnicking, because this was quite a popular thing to do for the working classes in the East End of London. They would go to Kent, which is maybe sort of another 20 or 30 miles to the southeast, and have hop-picking holidays, for which they got paid a sort of tiny, tiny pittance, but it was a sort of outdoor fun with lots of families, probably quite a lot of drinking beer, I should think.
Margaret: Huh. And there were so many other great things. I mean, you have Equisetum [above], one of my favorite plants, though I don’t wish for it to invade my garden, the horsetail, or horsetail rush, a living fossil. And potatoes and, oh my goodness, so many things.
But maybe we should finish up with… You made the point at the start of the book and elsewhere in the book, especially in the amaranth entry, that half our calories that we consume come from three crops only. And then in amaranth, you suggest maybe this should be another one that should get a little more exposure. Want to talk about that in the last couple of minutes?
Jon: Sure. I mean, humanity as a whole gets half its calories from wheat, rice, and as you call it, corn. We call it maize in Europe. And that’s really not a good idea. It’s not good nutritionally, and it’s not good for the environment, because you get these vast mono-cultures and those plants become very vulnerable to do pests and diseases and so on, which means we have to flood them with chemicals to prevent them.
So there are other plants like amaranth, for example, which the Aztecs in South America had developed very, very good ways of cultivating, which contain a much broader range of nutrients for us. There’s a lot of proteins and vitamins even in the leaves. And the seeds are a sort of very nutritious and very tasty grain that we could be using. The Aztecs mixed the dough made out of amaranth seed with agave syrup and made them into idols, which represented different deities, and then they ate those deities and took on the attributes of the gods.
And when the Spanish arrived, they thought that seems like a very, very bad thing to be doing. Obviously, they saw a sort of odd resonance with communion, and they banned people from growing the crop. And it’s taken about 500 years to recover, but it’s now being used both as a staple crop for eating and also in various festivals, like the Day of the Dead and so on, where they mix the grain with… They sort of pop it like popcorn and then mix it with honey and make little figures out of it.
Margaret: Well, the book is “Around the World in 80 Plants,” and Jonathan Drori, it’s fascinating, and I promise not to fall asleep while dipping into it on my bedside table. I promise to stay awake because it is, it’s fascinating, and it’s enlivening. It’s not sleep-inducing whatsoever. And I’m glad to speak to you. And I hope I’ll speak to you again. Thank you.
(Illustrations from Jonathan Drori’s book are by Lucille Clerc; used with permission.)
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