Avid gardeners spend a lot of time getting up close and personal with their plants. Whether they have a background in botany or not, they are bound to notice things about plants that others won’t. Questions are sure to arise about what their plants are up to, how they manage to do the things they do, or what might be done to help make their lives better. In the age of information, answers can be found at the touch of a button and from a wide variety of sources, some more trustworthy than others. The latest resource for gardeners with a question is A Gardener’s Guide to Botany. Written by plant expert and seasoned science communicator, Scott Zona, this is a source of information that’s not only trusted and highly credible, but also approachable for readers at any level and an absolute joy to read.
You may know Zona as the go-to guy when it comes to questions about palms or tropical plants, but his knowledge of the plant kingdom extends far beyond these diverse groups. Zona has spent the majority of his life studying plants in all their forms across a wide variety of landscapes and has been sharing his knowledge through various institutions and societies that he’s been a part of along the way. His book is like a summary or overview of all the things he’s learned throughout this journey. It’s also just the beginning, a jumping off point and invitation to learn even more about the endlessly fascinating world of botany.
In the first chapter, Zona helps us understand just what makes a plant a plant – what separates plants from all other walks of life, and what plants have in common with other living things. Plants were one of the first forms of life that came about in the early years of life on our planet. Their evolution helped set the stage for so many other lifeforms to come. Due to the fact that they are generally fixed to one spot for the duration of their lives, they have had to adapt to deal with a wide variety of threats and stressors without the benefit of being able to run away or head for higher ground. As climates around them have changed and landscapes have shifted, so have they. All the while, plants have continued to be primary producers and ecosystem engineers, benefiting the lives of so many other living things, including humans, right up until this very day. Their existence is critical to the continuation of life on earth. Many of the ways that plants have been able to be so successful for so many millions of years are described in Zona’s book.
The second chapter of A Gardener’s Guide to Botany is a lesson in plant anatomy. Zona provides an overview of the inner and outer workings of roots, shoots, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Understanding basic plant anatomy can be important for maintaining a successful garden; it’s also just incredibly interesting in its own right. Plants are simple constructions, yet show up in such diverse forms. By modifying their limited parts, they are able to produce a wide variety of interesting features unique to each species. A branch becomes a thorn, a leaf becomes a spine, a root becomes a fleshy storage organ, an inflorescence becomes a tendril. This is just the beginning of the many surprises plants have up their sleeves.
The next three chapters are all about what plants need to survive, namely water, light, and nutrients. Gardeners know that if any of these three things are out of whack, their plants are sure to suffer. Luckily, plants have some experience adapting a number of ways to get the things they need. Roots can search the soil for water and pockets of nutrients. Shoots move in search of light and can produce leaves that match the intensity or amount of sunlight (smaller and thicker in full sun, broader and thinner in the shade). Relationships can be made with microbes that live in the soil in order to gain access to resources, and even to help plants defend themselves (which is the subject of chapter six). Sometimes light is too intense for plants, and plants have developed features to deal with this such as waxes on their leaves, hairy or fuzzy leaf surfaces, or additional plant pigments that can act as sunscreen. Some of these features also help the plant retain water when temperatures are high. Other plant species have adaptations to live in water-abundant environments, such as drip tips on their leaves to help them shed water or special tissues in their stems and roots that help facilitate gas exchange.
Plants need light to carry out photosynthesis, so the more light the better. But not always. The newly emerging leaves of some species are red, orange, and/or yellow in color which helps protect the developing tissues from the intensity of the sun until the tissues have time to mature, at which point they turn their standard green color. In the fall, the leaves of deciduous plants experience a similar color change but in reverse. This change serves a similar function, protecting leaves from sun damage as they reabsorb nutrients back into the plant.
The chapter about defense is sure to be a popular one. Who doesn’t enjoy learning about the many ways these stationary organisms have developed to defend themselves against hordes of invaders out to destroy them? From fortifications like thorns, spines, and sticky hairs to any number of toxic substances produced within their tissues, many of which humans have learned to use for our own benefit. Some plants even recruit other species to help them out, like ants, mites, and various microbes. Of course, for all the defenses they put up, there are at least a few herbivorous creatures that manage to find a work around. And so the war continues.
In the following chapter, Zona covers another popular topic, plant sex. Pollinators and pollination have gained a lot of interest over the past decade or so, particularly among gardeners. Turning our gardens into habitats for bees and other insect pollinators is one way we can help conserve these important organisms. Understanding more about the specifics of pollination and plant reproduction will only help us improve these efforts. Learning about the many ways by which plants reproduce asexually also helps us out when we are trying to make more plants. Successful plant propagation and plant breeding rely on a good understanding of the concepts that Zona covers in chapter seven.
The final chapter is all about dispersal – how plants get around – and is one that I will be returning to repeatedly for some time. Plant dispersal is one of my favorite topics, and Zona does not disappoint. All the basic means of getting around are covered, and with them come dozens of stories that demand a curious mind look further into, like palm fruit dispersal by electric eels or the aardvarks that disperse the seeds of underground cucumbers. This a chapter that could have gone on for the whole book.
One of my favorite things about this book is that for the majority of the topics that Zona discusses, plant examples are given so that you can see for yourself, and many of those plants can be easily found either as a common garden plant or indoor houseplant. This means that you don’t have to travel the world to familiarize yourself with these concepts, instead you can see them in action right outside your door. Most of us, whether we have a garden or not, have easy access to plants, even if it’s just the weeds growing in the sidewalk cracks. This makes getting to know the Plant Kingdom a possibility for nearly anyone. As Zona writes, “a stroll in the garden or a hike through the woods is all it takes to begin a journey into a leafy, green world.” Let his book be “your passport, your interpreter, your currency converter, and your host on a learning adventure into the world of plants.”