Botanical tidbits

Richard Mabey

There is no doubt that plants suffer from human encroachment, not the least because we can destroy in a matter of minutes what has taken decades to grow, as in Sydney recently where an avenue of hundred-year-old figs was chopped down simply for a wider street. But British nature writer and biographer of Gilbert White Richard Mabey’s new book, The Cabaret of Plants, celebrates the tenacity and resourcefulness of plants, something that we perhaps miss in our urban environment where, as Mabey points out, we labour under the delusion that we control plants. He laments that in our tendency to see plants as either food or decoration we have lost the very Victorian trait of marvelling at the structural and mechanical wonder of plants. The book is a rich lode of botanical tidbits, focusing on a particular species in each chapter, from swampy, tidal marsh plants to orchids and giant waterlilies and boab trees that rose in Madagascar and eventually made their way to Australia. He also points out that plants upset our ideas of what is living and dead and healthy and sick, suggesting that signs of ageing are not signs of disease, and that the capacity of a seed to lie dormant for decades or centuries throws into confusion our ideas of what constitutes a ‘living’ thing. Or ‘things’ – as he points out when discussing clonal colonies of trees that can be classed as many or one organism depending on what definition you are using.

 

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