Remarkable Plants that Shape our World – Helen and William Bynum

I have a habit since childhood that I will finish reading a book once I have started it. At times I put this down to my background, that Irish Catholic upbringing of the fifties and sixties with its sense of duty and obligation, and at others to my stupidity and obsession to see matters through to the end. There have been many times while reading a book that I have longed for that other wonderful Irish ability to simply “feck it there”, put the book in the bin – or give it to someone I don’t really like – and move on.

Remarkable Plants Cover Remarkable-Plants-sample page

This is how it has been with “Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World” and this has puzzled me as to why it should be so. The book is, without doubt, well written, well researched, pleasantly illustrated and on a topic which interests me yet it left me quite cold, never raised my enthusiasm or enjoyment levels at all. However, I persevered – I’m sure there will be a reward in the afterlife – and finished the book.

The author, Helen and William Bynum, have selected and described eighty plants which they see as having a significance to mankind. They tell of their uses and benefits to people and how people have used them for various purposes. There are “The Transformers” which facilitated the change from a nomadic lifestyle to a settled one. “Taste” describes plants which added to our food rather than simply being our staples. Other plants were used to “Heal and Harm” while those included in “Technology and Power” made a significant contribution to our material world. Other plants were the significant “Cash Crops” of our world while others contribute to our “Landscape”.  Many plants have become the subject of man’s love and obsession, the “Revered and Adored” and many are simply “Wonders of Nature”.  All in all, as you can see, a rather comprehensive treatment.

The book is very well researched and the material presented is very interesting. The illustrations are all from the collections at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and are especially interesting in their own right. Yet, the book simply did not spark with me. The authors have a background in historical research in medicine and science and have separately published several books on these subjects. With this background they are perfectly qualified for such a project; they have the skills and the capabilities to carry it out but I felt there was something lacking. There is note on the flysheet that they are “making a two acre garden in Suffolk” but I have that niggling feeling that not a lot of soil has been caught under their nails to date. The book is well research and well written but seemed to me to lack enthusiasm and fire and love and devotion and experience. It was dry.

Nonetheless, I do not wish to write it off and feel many people may well enjoy reading it – I am loath to be too critical of someone else’s work as I feel it would be unfair of me to do so. I have never put in the hours and effort to write a book and wouldn’t wish to flippantly dismiss the work of others. However, I am a reader and I was not delighted reading this one. I must pass it on to someone in hopes that it will find an appreciative home.

  • ISBN 9780500517420
  • 60 x 18.60 cm
  • Hardback
  • 240pp
  • 205 Illustrations, 174 in colour
  • First published 2014


Paddy Tobin

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