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What Have Plants Ever Done for Us? Western Civilization in Fifty Plants


What Have Plants Ever Done for Us? Western Civilization in Fifty Plants by Stephen Harris. Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford; 2016. Hardcover, 264 pages. ISBN: 978-1851244478. $25.00.

Stephen Harris is the Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria and a university research lecturer. In this book, he has written an excellent and lively set of fifty essays, deftly and artistically weaving scholarly research with ancient and modern botanical history. Contributing new information on old plants is a feat in itself, and  Harris has managed to do so in an inviting, conversational style. His objective is to show a wide range of potential readers that plants matter to all life forms, even in the most modern urban settings.

The point of view is Western, as indicated in the subtitle. Harris cites the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, not the Chinese Pen Ts’ao or documents from Indian Ayurveda, though the narrative ranges globally in the story of ethnobotany. In an impressively slim volume, Harris covers five major arenas in which plants have had indispensable effects on humans: in history and trade, as food, in the politics of empires, as medicine, and in industry. As one who studies history as well as herbal medicine, I expected some of the “mainstage players,” as Harris describes them in his table of contents. Some choices will be well known to many readers, such as wheat (Triticum aestivum, Poaceae), sugar (Saccharum officinarum, Poaceae), coffee (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae), tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae), corn (Zea mays, Poaceae), and rice (Oryza sativa, Poaceae). What grabbed my attention was how odd other choices seemed at first: “Thale cress?” I wondered. It was a pleasure to discover why his 50 favorites made the cut.

Harris begins with an introduction suitable for his intended wide audience, many of whom may not be familiar with the ways plants have influenced the way we live. There is a brief, yet accessible, introduction to how plants are studied and how their names reveal much. He draws the reader into a cozy chat about broad swaths of human uses of plants. The introduction is followed by profiles ranging from barley (Hordeum vulgare, Poaceae) to, yes, thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana, Brassicaceae). These fifty chapters, each three pages or so, will deepen readers’ understanding of ethnobotany, but Harris is not always focused on medicinal uses. This is not another herbal or how-to book.

Each chapter opens with the common name, scientific nomenclature, family, and a fine black-and-white line drawing. The plant profiles are supported by extensive references, 491 in all, ranging from John Gerard’s 1597 Herball and earlier, with many 18th, 19th, and 20th century treatises, letters, and texts, through to an abundance of research from 2000 to 2014.

The story of coffee begins with the legend of its discovery by goatherds, though not the often-cited first use in Coptic monasteries. Harris explains how the Dutch traded the island of Manhattan for nutmeg (Myristica fragrans, Myristicaceae) and other commodities, but he does not mention nutmeg's medicinal applications. The book also features graphical depictions of evocative quotes. For example, a quote in the chili (Capsicum spp., Solanaceae) section reads: “chemical pain has become organoleptic pleasure.” The discussion of its constituent capsaicin offers good historical information from the Americas, yet Harris omits chili's use for pain and as a styptic (i.e., a type of antihemorrhagic). Having previously published on grasses, Harris brings his passion for them to the page in several chapters. He writes of the way meadow grass (Poa pratensis, Poaceae) changed the evolution of Europe over 5,000 years, exemplifying the crux of our dilemma between feeding increased populations while losing biodiversity.

A brief section titled “Further Reading” includes gems such as Seeds of Change (H. Hobhouse, 1999), Guns, Germs and Steel (J. Diamond, 1998), and The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire (J. Jackson, 2008). The reading list alone is an intriguing window into the way humans view plants, from Queen Elizabeth I to those involved in contemporary debates over biofuel. The index that completes the book manages to be both concise and comprehensive, considering the range Harris successfully covers.

As a clinician who uses medicinal plants, I appreciate Harris’s scientific precision, but I would have liked more information about the plants' health-related properties. For example, the chapter on grape (Vitis vinifera, Vitaceae) focuses on wine rather than resveratrol, a widely studied chemical component of wine. Discussion about the current trend toward medicinal applications of cannabis (Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae) is absent, though Harris presents information on its ritual use and the importance the plant fiber had for navies. Entries in which the medicinal use was one of the chapter’s primary emphases include opium poppy (Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae), Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia, Taxaceae; which produces the anticancer compound taxol), and species of the genus Cinchona (Rubiaceae). The bark of some Cinchona species is the original source of the antimalarial compound quinine. This chapter is a good example of why this book is such a fine addition to botanical libraries; rather than recounting the familiar stories regarding “Jesuit’s Bark” (the genus of which was named after the Condesa de Chinchón), Harris offers a highly entertaining anecdote about a possible link to Oliver Cromwell's death from malaria (Hint: Cromwell had a hostility to anything Catholic). There are also discussions about the players who were determined to obtain quinine for over two centuries, who profited from trade secrets, often illegally, and who murdered indigenous Cinchona experts (allegedly the Bolivian government).

Eight of the 50 plants examined include some reference to genetic engineering. In the chapter on the “democratization” of pineapple (Ananas comosus, Bromeliaceae), Harris describes how the selective breeding of the fruit to fit in cans transformed it from a food for royals and the wealthy to a food available to all. Harris seems in favor of genetic technologies, though he notes some concerns in relation to food production. Regarding tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum, Solanaceae), Harris notes that “the potential health benefits of genetically modified plants may yet sway public opinion.” For many herbal scientists, this will spark controversy. This seems part of the intention of the book: to generate discussion among the learned and all those dependent on plants — that is to say, everyone.

Harris has taken 50 important plants, diving deep and wide into both ancient and the most current human stories with a light touch. This allows certain facts of inhumanity presented here to speak for themselves: Britain’s ignoble Opium Wars with China, slavery and other human rights abuses, environmental disasters, and the 1988 murder of Amazonian rubber tapper and conservationist Chico Mendes.

In What Have Plants Ever Done for Us?, Harris aims to share big ideas with people from all walks of life. This book is a pleasure cruise of plant science, and it will be of interest to anyone interested in the planet, from secondary school biology students to educators and health care professionals. Rich in research details, this is a unique resource for any reader who teaches, gives public talks, or seeks to update academic lectures on botanical topics. Harris has achieved a mighty goal in shining a bright light on our debt to and dependence on plants, from grass to towering tree.

—Amanda McQuade Crawford, RH (AHG), MCPP, MNIMH
Medical Herbalist and Psychotherapist,
Ojai, California