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Plants, Civilization, and Human Nature, a book review for

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, Bill Laws, Firefly Books

I have just read a gripping saga. Ostensibly, it’s about plants, but actually, it’s about us.

This collection of anecdotes details how plants influenced human behavior, and affected the course of history. By chronicling the commercial activity surrounding the discovery and marketing of the food we eat, the beverages we drink, and the plants we process, the author describes how those activities impacted wars, political boundaries, habits, social behavior, and addictions.

I thought that I would be reading an encyclopedia of the history of important plants, but in fact, I was delving into an immensely fascinating epic about western civilization. No sooner had I completed an exciting chapter about one plant, when I could hardly wait to begin reading about the next.

The influence that plants had, and continues to have, on our lives becomes apparent when we think about the amount of fossil fuel we consume, the large number of botanical gardens we have built, and the considerable investments we make in our gardens. Yet, that is only a small part of the bigger story. In this publication, the author identifies fifty plants that have altered the history of life on earth. Here are just a few tid-bits:-

  • The discovery of the pineapple in the New World inspired the invention of the green house in Europe.
  • Hemp was used to manufacture the paper used to write the American Declaration of Independence.
  • Agave is used in the manufacture of bullets.
  • Coconut is integral to making sterile I.V. drips.
  • The opium poppy transformed the history of China. .
  • Trade in black pepper created a need for banking.
  • Peoples’ craving for sugar influenced the growth of the slave trade.
  • The French revolution may be traced to the significance of bread and a poor wheat harvest.
  • 8,800 pounds of mulberry leaves are needed to feed silkworms to supply enough yarn to make one blouse.
  • Coffee is indirectly responsible for the Boston Tea Party and Harry Potter.
  • Cotton uses only 3% of the world’s farmland but 25% of the world’s pesticides.
  • A painting of sunflowers changed the art world
  • Fire-resistant uniforms are manufactured using Eucalyptus.

The author reports that in addition to influencing the course of history, some plants have also contributed to self-destructive behavior.. Many have placed their health at risk from weight gained by overeating sugar; some have ruined their lives by consuming plant - based narcotics, or have marinated their livers by drinking alcohol excessively. Others have shortened their life span by inhaling plant-sourced nicotine into their lungs. On balance though, we also experience safe pleasures from plants by drinking tea and moderates amount of wine, by inhaling the fragrance of flowers, and by stroking a silk garment.

Reading this book has been a better experience than watching a documentary. It runs at a fast-paced clip from one plant to another, constantly revealing fascinating details about civilization, economics, and above all, human nature.  


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Reader Comments (3)

Hmmm. Very interesting, Allan. I'll add this to my growing (not an intentional pun) list of books to read. I enjoy this kind of – well, I actually had to look this science up – ethnobotany, in this case. Just about to start Bill Bryson's "Home: A Short History of Private Life" -- which includes a chapter on The Garden.

Thanks for adding a new word to my lexicon. Ethnobotany is a fascinating topic..

April 16, 2011 | Registered CommenterAllan

Allan, This sounds like a fun read. I'm particularly intrigued by the connection of coffee to both the Boston Tea Party and Harry Potter :-). I have Bill Bryson's Home sitting in a pile of books waiting to be read. I guess I'll have to get to it to see what he has to say about the garden.

April 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJean

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