Around the World in 80 Plants

Jonathan Drori

Laurence King Publishing, £20

Review by Susan Flockhart

The hawthorn has long been a harbinger of summer. “Ne’er cast a cloot til May is oot” is a traditional warning to retain your woollies until this native tree – commonly known as the May – blooms white this month, signalling the end of winter.

Might future generations instead be advised to retain their duffel coats until the hedgerows turn purple? The lilac-flowered Rhododendron Ponticum is, after all, rapidly usurping once-familiar trees and in Around The World In 80 Plants, Jonathan Drori warns that “a vast area of western Scotland is now colonised, with a profound effect on native diversity”.

Imported during the 18th century and planted across the Highlands as ground cover for game birds, the shrub thrived in our damp, acidic soils, out-competing native plants for light and nutrients and spreading a deadly poison that attacks larches, beeches and sweet chestnuts.

Yet Drori doesn’t disparage these not unlovely bushes which, “in their native range and without the helping hand of humans … play nicely in the ecosystem”. Indeed, he marvels at the bio-tenacity of this plant hailing from the Turkish mountains, where honeybees have developed immunity to its toxic nectar. Around the Black Sea, the “mad honey” they produce is prized as a recreational drug and sexual performance enhancer, though clearly, one fraught with dangers. In 69BC, Persian soldiers sabotaged their Roman adversaries by baiting them with poisonous honeycombs.

Roman soldiers posted to the British Isles fared little better. At Hadrian’s Wall, they tried to alleviate rheumatism, cold and boredom by flagellating themselves with nettles – a practice that apparently has its devotees. “It’s true that in the right frame of mind, the recurrent, fiery tingle is not wholly unpleasant, but it’s a special kind of person who experiences the sensation as an aphrodisiac,” writes Drori, exuding the gentle humour that permeates this lovely book.

A trustee of the Eden Project and Cambridge Science Centre who accompanied various Kew Gardens botanical expeditions, Drori had a huge hit with his 2018 title, Around The World in 80 Trees. In this new book he circumnavigates the globe, stopping to admire 80 of the world’s most interesting plant species while relating fascinating tales about their origins, uses and the myths and legends they have spawned.

Beyond the shores of the British Isles, Drori introduces us to a world of exotic wonders and quite a few psychedelic trips. In Tasmania – the world’s largest legal producer of opium poppies – we encounter Morpheus, the ancient Greek god of dreams, along with opiate imbibing writers like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose visionary poem, Kubla Khan, probably owed much to his several-pints-a-week laudanum habit.

We're also introduced to mind-altering plants such as cannabis, tobacco and nutmeg (who knew?), as well as Mediterranean mandrake (whose capacity to create a feeling of flying may have sparked the notion of witches on broomsticks) and Pacific Island kava, whose psychoactive chemicals were traditionally harvested “by virgin girls … communally chewing pieces of root and spitting the results into a tanoa, or kava bowl”.

Beautifully illustrated by Lucille Clerc, the book is crammed with great stories. It will appeal not just to gardeners, but to anyone interested in the natural world and the ingenious means by which our ancestors adapted the plants around them for food, clothing, shelter, recreation and artistry. (Did you know that the paint colour Indian yellow came from mango leaves via cattle pee? Or that pineapples were once rented for display on dinner tables as symbols of the hosts' wealth and impeccable taste?)

Undoubtedly, humankind has often overstepped the boundary between survival and exploitation, enslaving men, women and children in order to profiteer from sugar cane or tobacco, and exacerbating the Irish potato famine by forcing farmers to export the un-blighted food crops that might have saved them.

These failings – and the ravaging of our ecosystem – are excoriated by Drori, who calls for “gutsy, far-sighted” leadership from governments in order to protect the world’s environments. He does so, however, without misanthropic finger-wagging, instead, promoting a harmonious and respectful relationship with the botanical wonderland that surrounds us.