Jan 26, 2011

Wily Violets and Underground Orchids

Revelations of a Botanist
by Peter Bernhardt

One of the few instances where I bought a book I'd never even heard of before at a shop, just because the title was so intriguing. Wily Violets and Underground Orchids is a curious book describing all sorts of interesting things about plants. Mostly it's about the intricate relationship flowers have with their pollinators, be it birds, insects or small mammals. A lot of the focus is on Australian plants, which was interesting because I know next to nothing about them. There's also a chapter on tallgrass prairie, and several about orchids. It even has something of a literary bent: one chapter is all about how an Australian author/illustrator made native flora such an intricate part of her children's fairytales (Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, ever heard of them? I hadn't) that generations of Australian children grew up being familiar with the names and habits of their native plants, without even being conscious of it (I still struggle to identify common trees in my neighborhood!). Another chapter describes the Victorian orchid craze, when people had such trouble keeping the plants alive they were rare and expensive- and then goes on to describe a myriad of sci-fi stories that describe orchids turning into ominous, vampire-like monsters!

I think what fascinated me most was reading about the mistletoes that grow in Australia. There are so many but they are so well-camouflaged that most people don't even notice them. They grow as parasites on other trees, and usually their leaves mimic the shape of the host leaves. What's so interesting is the debate about why the mistletoes look like their hosts. One theory is simply that they have evolved to blend in and thus avoid browsing animals that would eat them. Another is that trees make hormones in their roots that determine leaf shape, then send the hormones up to the leaves through their xylem. Since mistletoes don't have their own roots, and absorb whatever is in flowing through their host's xylem, they also take in the hormones; thus their leaves look the same. Isn't that interesting?

I was also really intrigued to read about the giant water lilies (that can support the weight of a person) and how difficult it was for botanists to learn to propagate and grow them in greenhouses. One botanist, after studying how the thin leaf structure could support so much weight, applied the same physics to architecture, and amazed everyone with his glass palace!

If you're interesting in plants- especially orchids and mistletoes, I'd say this book is a pretty good one.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 255 pages, 1989

more opinions at:


Deb said...

I think I would have picked this book up for its title alone too. Being Australian, I am familiar with Snugglepot & Cuddlepie - a generation of Australian children were afraid of banksia cones thanks to Gibbs' "big bad banksia men" characters.

Thanks for the review, I'll keep an eye out for it.

Jeane said...

It's kind of shame she had to make one kind of plant the villain!