Book Review: A Garden of Marvels

February 15th, 2014

I’m a big science geek and so when I was offered a free copy of A Garden of Marvels: How We Discovered that Flowers Have Sex, Leaves Eat Air, and Other Secrets of Plants by Ruth Kassinger I quickly accepted, and I’m glad I did.

A Garden of Marvels

My first job was bagging groceries, however my second job was working in a research lab at Michigan State University studying the genetics of arabidopsis thaliana trying to identify phenotypes that produce increased seed oil. So I’ve always been interested in some of the science behind plants, though I’ve never taken a botany or horticulture class, and even left the world of biotechnology behind for computers while in school, not because of lack of interest though, but because it isn’t as glamorous as Jurassic Park makes it sound. Imagine harvesting and cataloging millions of seeds and then analyzing their oil content, it is cool in the abstract, but very tedious to actually sit down and do. There is a passage in the book about petunia breeding where the author remarks upon rows and rows of hundreds of plants grown just to see what their flowers will look like, with almost all of them destined to be composted, and I definitely had some flashbacks.

A Garden of Marvels takes the reader on a journey through botany, and some of the history of it. I also happen to like history so it suited me very well. There is one section where I think the author gets a little too far into history and away from the plants (following a tangent dealing with medieval study of human anatomy), but throughout the rest of the book the author is excellent. It is hard to talk about modern plant science though without hitting on some perhaps controversial and or political topics, but the author never comes off as preachy or advocating any one position.

Rather than a single narrative the book is a series of vignettes about specific topics in the plant kingdom, from how we got plants in the first place, to how we learned that plants produce oxygen, to how we learned what the purpose of flowers were (it may seem obvious now, but apparently back then there was a lot of confusion). Mostly the narrative ties together modern science with ancient developments. For instance you may learn at one point how there are two different photosynthetic pathways, C3, and C4, and how they came to be, you’ll also learn scientists are trying to develop rice that follows the more efficient C4 pathway to held the world deal with hunger. There is also a nice whole section about the evolution of plant life dealing with the transition from gymnosperms to angiosperms and how that happened, some of which I touched in my recent post about a dinosaur garden. There is also a section about the booming business of growing tomatoes in Ontario, and the farmer there who heats his greenhouse by growing, and burning, an ancient grass you might have in your garden (I do – and you should if you don’t, it is a cool plant).

So gardeners, if you’re looking for a good read, I recommend the book. Yay science!

One Response to “Book Review: A Garden of Marvels”

  1. Sheryl at Providence Acres  Says:

    Sounds like a facinating book! I have always been interested in this type of plant study, gardening in detail.

Leave a Response

(Email field must be filled in)

Top of page...