Book Review – Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori, Illustrated by Lucille Clerc

Dear Readers, this book is such a pleasure for the eye and for the brain that if I could I would buy you all a copy! Jonathan Drori was a Trustee on the board of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and was Executive Producer of more than fifty science documentaries. He’s currently a Trustee at the Eden Project. His wide-ranging interests have seen him be a fellow of the Linnean Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Geographical Society. From all of this you might expect that this book would be heavy on information, but Drori knows how to keep the reader entertained at the same time as they are educated.

A good part of the pleasure of this book is the illustrations by Lucille Clerc, who has worked with fashion houses, museums and Historic Royal Palaces. The drawings are not straightforward botanical impressions, but also show the plant in its context, sometimes alongside the people and animals who have made use of it. There is much fun to be had from reading part of the text, and then studying the illustration to see if you can spot the bug.

Take this illustration of the indigo plant from Bangladesh. I had no idea that it was a member of the pea family, but this is clear from the pictures of the flower. Drori explains how the leaves are fermented, then dried and cut into briquettes, as you can see. The briquettes are then powdered and added to water, along with an alkali that turns the water colourless. As he says,

‘It is only once the cloth is withdrawn from the vat and the air reaches it that – ta-da! – stunning, intense colour reappears’.

Who knew? Not me for sure.


And how about the rhododendron, and why is it included in an entry for Scotland? Well, largely because Rhododendron pontica was planted in the estates of landowners on the West Coast, both as a decorative plant and as cover for game birds. Tolerant of shade and acidic soils, it spread inexorably. Over to Drori:

A vast area of western Scotland is now colonized, with a profound effect on native biodiversity: where rhododendrons are present, almost every other species of plant is at risk. In their native range and without the helping hand of humans, rhododendrons play nicely in the ecosystem, but in Britain and Ireland they out-compete local species for light and nutrients. There’s worse. Rhododendrons also harbour Phytophthora ramorum( phytophora is Greek for ‘plant-destroyer), a microscopic fungus-like water mould that attacks trees, especially larches, beeches and sweet chestnuts’. 

You might also recall that the honey of the rhododendron is sometimes called ‘Mad Honey’, and was reputedly left by the Persian king Mithridates for the Roman army who was pursuing him to find – the honey can lower the blood pressure dangerously and slow the heart. Drori again:

‘Mad Honey’ is still collected in the Black Sea area and used occasionally as a pick-me-up or recreational drug to induce a tingling wooziness. It also has a reputation for enhancing sexual performance, which doubtless explains why most of the inadvertent poisonings are among men of a certain age‘.

And for a final taster, how about this strange tree, known as the Cook Pine? In California they all tilt to the south quite dramatically (Drori explains that they average twice the tilt of the Tower of Pisa, which is quite some lean. In Hawaii they stand up relatively straight, but in Australia they lean precariously towards the north. Wherever they are in the world, Cook Pines lean towards the equator, and they are the only tree species in the world that’s been observed to do this. Most plants, as we know, grow towards the light, but this tree doesn’t, and no one knows why.

Cook Pine

If I have whetted your appetite, you might also like Drori and Clerc’s earlier book, ‘Around the World in 80 Trees’. It’s just as delightful, though the colours are generally a little more subdued.

If you wanted to find out about everything from the Kapok tree to the Chinese Lacquer tree, this is the book for you.

Chinese Lacquer Tree

So, as you can see I am very taken with these two books. If you are lucky enough to have a local library that’s still lending, it might be a way to have a look without shelling out nearly £18 for each one. Or maybe you have a birthday coming up?

If you fancy buying them (or sending the link to a beloved 🙂 ) I recommend the NHBS website for all things natural history related…

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