Around the World in 80 Plants

By Jonathan Drori

Laurence King Publishing, 2021; 216 pages; $24.95

Jonathan Drori’s botanical odyssey, a follow-up to his Around the World in 80 Trees, is a welcome anodyne for cabin fever. Starting in the UK and moving roughly eastward in longitude, Drori offers up short essays on distinctive local plants, describing their appearance, reproductive strategies, ecological connections, and cultural relevance for each country he passes through. Luminous graphics by French artist Lucille Clerc fill the facing pages and spill over into the margins, providing explicit visual commentary on the text.
   Some of the entries, profiling rare native plants, might prove informative in identifying exotica when we are able to venture abroad. Those leathery leaves radiating from what looks like a disk of charred compost on the floor of the Namib Desert in Angola is a tree tumbo (Welwitschia mirabilis), characterized by Darwin as “the platypus of the plant kingdom,” adapted to sustain itself on moisture absorbed from fog and able to live over one thousand years. That massive rust-red flower in a Borneo jungle, a yard in diameter and reeking of rotten flesh is rafflesia (Rafflesia arnoldii), a parasite, living off nutrients supplied by a forest vine called Tetrastigma, and pollinated by carrion flies.
   Yet, most of the flagged plants bear familiar names, and are associated with a particular country primarily because they have cultural or commercial resonance with the region even if their roots lie elsewhere. Tulips mark the Netherlands, of course, though we learn that they are imports from Turkey and take their name from the Persian word for “turban.” Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are featured in Estonia, where industrial plantations provide rubber from the latex that oozes from their stems (see “Rubber Dandelions” by Katrina Cornish, Natural History, October 2019). Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) appear in the entry for Italy, which produces eight times the crop of the United States, although Castroville, California bills itself as the “Artichoke Capital of the World” and is home to the world’s largest concrete artichoke.
   Drori, like an expert tour guide, offers up plenty of tidbits and trivia that make even the quotidian seem worthy of notice. Mangoes, he notes, are cousins to cashews—and also to less palatable species, such as poison ivy. Coconut water is so sterile that, in a pinch, it can be used as an intravenous drip. The stems of the Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris) all lean to the south in California, to the north in Australia, and hardly at all in Hawaii; it is the only species that seems to orient itself globally toward the equator. Giant timber bamboo (Phyllostachys reticulata) yields an opalescent powder called tabasheer, which is used in Eastern medicine as an aphrodisiac. The first drafts of the Declaration of Independence were written on paper made of hemp (Cannabis sativa), the same species whose sweet smoke is an increasingly popular intoxicant in the United States. Whether you take in all this information in one sitting, or savor a page a day before bedtime, Drori’s smartly crafted itinerary is a trip well worth taking.

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