Here's an assignment for you: write up the history of humans and plants in 250 pages. Oh, and start in prehistoric times. Remember to leave lots of room for full-page botanical plates.
Catherine Herbert Howell has done it, creatively mixing large themes, exciting details and copious illustrations for her successful sweep through the ages in Flora Mirabilis: How Plants Have Shaped World Knowledge, Health, Wealth and Beauty.
Each of the six chapters includes a timeline showing botanical discoveries and innovations, and the unexpected impact on societies. Sandwiched within the text are spotlights on significant plants.
For example, her chapter on the Enlightenment covers human-plant interaction from 1770 to 1840, peppered with quotes from major players. The timeline displays 50 events including the establishment of Kew Gardens for botanical study in England, and the crop failure that led to the French Revolution. Two-page features on the tomato, rose, grape, cotton and apple appear, not necessarily related to the primary text.
Published by National Geographic, the quality is everything you would expect. The illustrations are from the superior collection of the Missouri Botanical Garden and the appearance of the book is so sumptuous as to give the impression of an illuminated manuscript from the Middle Ages. All this for a list price of $35.00.
From its lovely endpapers to its detailed list of illustrations, Flora Mirabilis is a treasure, perfect for savoring at a winter fireside. Your fireside companions will have to get used to spontaneous outbursts of, Isn't this interesting! I recommend it to anyone with curiosity about plants, history or economics.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from National Geographic.
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