Book Review: The Gyroscope of Life

Gyroscopes are entertaining toys and incredibly useful tools. They retain their balance and resist changes to their orientation as long as their flywheel is spinning. As the flywheel slows or stops, the gyroscope wobbles out of control and ultimately quits. Considering their design and function, it’s easy to find parallels between gyroscopes and living systems. Consistent energy inputs keep living things alive. Changes can bring imbalance; major disruptions can lead to death. There is a reason we often describe the natural world as a sort of balancing act. It is the work of an ecologist to make sense of this balancing act. The better we understand it, the more equipped we are to protect it and operate responsibly within it.

It is through this lens that David Parrish writes about the biological world in The Gyroscope of Life, a book that Parrish refers to as “a love song to the field of biology.” Parrish has spent much of his life observing and studying the natural world and, as professor emeritus of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, undoubtedly shared much of what he presents in his book with countless students over the years. The Gyroscope of Life reads like part memoir and part last lecture, and is the work of someone who has an obvious passion for science and nature.

Parrish spends the first few chapters of his book writing mostly about his life and how he came to be a biologist. He acknowledges his privelege – “born male, white, and American in an era where each of those attributes provided me major advantages” –  having essentially been placed on third base from the start, “well down the third base line.” An aspiring zoologist turned botanist, he spent his early years in graduate school studying seeds and seed dormancy. It’s a topic that obviously interests him, as several pages of the book are spent considering what’s going on inside of a seed. “Seeds provide the widest-spread examples of suspended life,”  Parrish says. Are they alive or dead or neither?

Two additional, major life events play a prominent role in the arc of Parrish’s book. One being his break from organized religion and the other his battle with advanced prostate cancer. He grew up in an orthodox Christian home with a very literal understanding of the Bible. His education put him at odds with what he was taught growing up about (among other things) the age of the earth and its creation. Eventually he came to understand that science and religion “exist in separate non-overlapping spheres – the physical and the metaphysical.” He doesn’t necessarily see science and religion as being inherently at odds with each other, but his understanding of science makes it difficult to “find resonance in religion” due to the “cacophony of dissonance” it offers.

In addressing his prostate cancer, Parrish underwent an operation that gave him a newfound perspective on gender. Freed from “testosterone poisoning,” he was able to more fully consider sex and gender from a biological perspective, which he says he had been doing for decades prior to the operation. He spends a good portion of the book “demystifying sex and gender.” One compelling example he offers involves avocado flowers, which actually change gender over time, a phenomenon known as synchronous dichogamy.

avocado flowers (Persea americana) via wikimedia commons

Over the course of its pages, The Gyroscope of Life covers a significant number of topics in the fields of biology and ecology. It’s a relatively short book, but as it careens through such wide-ranging material, it does so in an approachable and suprisingly succint manner. Parrish’s sense of humor, which doesn’t waver despite how bleak the discussion sometimes gets, helps carry the story along and keeps things interesting. Parrish covers evolution (“[Biologists] argue that, if evolution didn’t happen, it should.”), taxonomy (“the name for naming things”) and sytematics, ecological niches (“[humans] are essentially living niche-free and ecosystemless”), domestication, and so much more. The last chapter is spent discussing agroecosystems (“the organisms and abiotic environment that interact in a human-managed agricultural setting”), a topic he spent much of his career studying.

The underlying message of this book, as I see it, is a simultaneous celebration for life on earth and a concern for the direction things are going considering how humans have managed things. Parrish has some admonition for humans in light of how we’ve treated our home planet, but he isn’t too heavy-handed about it. Overall, reading the book felt like sitting in on a lecture given by a friendly and dynamic professor who has obviously given a lot of thought to what he has to say.

Check out the following video to see David Parrish describe the book in his own words.

More Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Podcast Review: Plants and Pipettes

Gardening was my first introduction to plants. I enjoyed growing plants so much that I decided to study them. Or rather, I studied the growing of them, i.e. horticulture. During my studies, I became increasingly interested in botany, a vast scientific field that investigates all things plant related, from their evolutionary history to their cellular biology to their interactions with other organisms, etc. Now I am obsessed with pretty much anything to do with botany. However, the molecular side of plant science has never been much of a pursuit of mine. Until now.

What has piqued my interest in this isn’t a university course or a dense textbook on the subject, but instead a podcast hosted by two molecular biologists – Tegan and Joram – who make learning about molecular plant science considerably more interesting than I had previously found it to be. Their podcast (and blog of the same name) is called Plants and Pipettes, and they have been consistently publishing both written and audio content on their site for well over a year now.

The bulk of the Plants and Pipettes podcast consists of Tegan and Joram summing up and discussing a recent plant science research article. While I occasionally get lost in the discussion (particularly when the research delves deep into molecular biology), they both do an exceptional job explaining the science and offering insights that I would not get if I attempted to read the papers on my own. When listening to this portion of the podcast, it helps to have a basic understanding of molecular biology, but it isn’t entirely necessary as the hosts often review basic concepts while discussing the research.

Over the course of the podcast’s history, additional segments have been added. These rarely have anything to do with molecular biology, so if you don’t see yourself tuning in for the research discussion, definitely tune in for the rest. One segment is called My Favorite Plant in which one of the hosts talks about a plant they are interested in that week. Next is Diversity in Plant Science, in which they pick a person that is not a white male and talk about their life and contributions to science (George Washington Carver, for example). After that they define and discuss a cognitive bias, and then they share random things (sometimes science-y, sometimes not) that they find fun or interesting or important to share. Each episode typically ends with a cat fact, as they both have a profound love for cats (although everything is a cat to Joram, apparently).

grass triggerplant (Stylidium graminifolium) was Joram’s favorite plant in episode 12 of Plants and Pipettes (image credit: wikimedia commons)

A highlight among the early episodes was an interview they did with a researcher at the University of Minnesota who is working with pennycress (Thlaspi arvense). This plant is a common weed, but it shows potential for being a productive and useful oilseed crop, similar to a few of its relatives in the mustard family. Speaking of weeds, a fun fact in episode 29 caught my interest, in which Tegan shares an example of Vavilovian mimicry involving rice and barnyard grass (Echinochloa crus-galli). A great introduction to their ongoing series about cognitive biases is episode 37 in which they discuss the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. And of course, I have to recommend listening to episode 48, in which Tegan gives a shout out to Awkward Botany and my new zine Dispersal Stories. How cool is that!?

pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) discussed in episode 8 of Plants and Pipettes (image credit: wikimedia commons)

While I am not always able to keep up with the discussions about molecular plant biology, I still really love listening to this podcast. Apart from the interesting content, the hosts are the real appeal.  Not only do I appreciate their social justice rants and their support for open science, but I also find their sense of humor and lack of pretension refreshing. They are excellent models of the way that science communication should be done. 

If you check out Plants and Pipettes and decide you need more Tegan and Joram in your life, check out a new podcast they just started with Ellen from Plant Crimes podcast called Plant Book Club, in which they choose a plant-themed book to read and discuss. You can also watch/listen to Tegan and Joram talking about their podcast on Career Conversations

More Podcast Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Tea Time: Violet Leaf Tea

The genus Viola is large and widespread. Its flowers are easily recognizable and obviously popular. A significant number of Viola species, hybrids, and cultivars are commercially available and commonly planted in flower beds and container gardens. Certain species have even become weeds – vicious lawn invaders in some people’s opinion. Violets (or pansies in some cases) are also edible. Their leaves and/or flowers can be used in salads, drinks, and desserts. One way to use the leaves is to make tea, so that’s what I did.

I imagine you can make tea from any Viola species, but after some searching I found that two species frequently mentioned are Viola odorata and Viola sororia – two very similar looking plants, one from the Old World and the other from the New World.

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Viola odorata – commonly known as sweet violet, wood violet, or English violet – is distributed across Europe and into Asia and has been widely introduced outside of its natural range. It has round, oval, or heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins that grow from the base of the plant, giving it a groundcover-type habit. Its flowers range from dark purple to white and are borne atop a single stem that curves downward at the top like a shepherd’s crook. It has no leafy, upright stems, and it spreads horizontally via stolons and rhizomes. The flowers are distinctly fragrant and have a long history of being used in perfumes.

One way to get a good whiff of these flowers is to try a trick described in the book The Reason for Flowers by Stephen Buchmann:

Go into a garden or any natural area and select one or more flowers you want to investigate…. Select a small, thoroughly washed and dried glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Place just one type of flower in the jar. Set your jar in a warm, sunny place such as a windowsill and come back in an hour or two. Carefully open the lid and sniff…. If you’ve selected a blossom with even the faintest scent, you should be able to smell it now, since the fragrance molecules have concentrated inside the jar.

sweet violet flowers inside glass jar

Viola sororia – native to eastern North America –  is also commonly planted outside of its native range. It’s clearly a favorite, having earned the distinction of state flower in four U.S. states. Known as the common blue violet (or myriad other commons names), it looks and acts a lot like sweet violet. I distinguish them by their flowers, which are wider and rounder (chunkier, perhaps) than sweet violet flowers, and their leaves, which are generally more heart-shaped. Feel free to correct me. If, like me, you’re having trouble identifying violets, keep in mind that Viola species are highly variable and notorious hybridizers, so don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s their fault, not yours.

common blue violet (Viola sororia)

Violets bloom when the air is cool and the days are short. They are among the earliest plants to flower after the new year and among the latest plants flowering as the year comes to a close. In his entry on violets in The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman refers to these early bloomers as “this low, blue flame in the woods.” They are like “a pilot light that ignites the entire burst of resurrection we call spring.” I can’t really picture spring without them. I find their unique flowers so intriguing that I fixate on them whenever I see them. And once I learned that I could make a tea out of their leaves, I had to try it.

I used the leaves of Viola odorata (or what I, with my amateur skills, identified as V. odorata). I picked several of what looked to be young leaves and left them to dry in the sun for several days. Later, I chopped them up and brewed a tea according to the instructions found on this website, which suggests using one tablespoon of dried leaves in sixteen ounces of water. Apparently, a little goes a long way, and I probably could have used fewer leaves than I did.

dried, chopped up leaves of sweet violet (Viola odorata) for making tea

The tea has a nice green color and smells a bit like grass to me. It may even taste like grass. I found it fairly bitter. Sierra didn’t like it and called it musty. I enjoyed it, but would likely enjoy it more if I hadn’t made it quite so strong. The aforementioned website also recommends combining violet leaf with other things like mint, dandelion, clover, and/or chamomile. I imagine a combination of ingredients could be better than just violet leaf on its own. Another site warns that “some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor,” so that’s something to keep in mind when selecting your leaves for tea and other things. Either way, violet leaf tea is an experience worth having.

See Also: Pine Needle Teas

Zine Review: An Urban Field Guide to the Plants in Your Path

Depending on where you live in the world, it’s probably not too difficult to find a field guide to the plants native to your region. In fact, there may be several of them. They may not cover all the plants you’ll encounter in natural areas near you, but they’ll be a good starting point. Yet, considering that most of us live in cities these days, field guides to the wild plants of urban areas are sorely lacking. Perhaps that’s no surprise, as plants growing wild in urban areas are generally considered weeds and are often the same species that frustrate us in our yards and gardens. Few (if any) of these maligned plants are considered native, so that doesn’t help their case any. Why would we need to know or pay attention to these nuisance plants anyway?

I argue that we should know them, and not just so that we know our enemy. Weeds are the wild flora of our cities – they grow on their own without direct human intervention. In doing so, they green up derelict and neglected sites, creating habitat for all kinds of other organisms and providing a number of ecosystem services along the way. Regardless of how we feel about them for invading our cultivated spaces and interfering with our picture-perfect vision of how we feel our cities should look, they deserve a bit more respect for the work they do. If we’re not willing to go that far, we at least ought to hand it to them for how crafty and tenacious they can be. These plants are amazing whether we want to admit it or not.

Luckily I’m not the only who feels this way. Enter An Urban Field Guide to the Plants in Your Path, a zine written and illustrated by Maggie Herskovits and published by Microcosm Publishing. This zine is just one example of the resources we need to better familiarize ourselves with our urban floras. While there are many weed identification books out there, a field guide like this differs because it doesn’t demonize the plants or suggest ways that they can be brought under control or eliminated. Instead, it treats them more like welcome guests and celebrates some of their finer qualities. That being said, this is probably not a zine for everyone, particularly those that despise these plants, but take a look anyway. If you keep an open mind, perhaps you can be swayed.

Illustration of Pennsylvania smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum) from An Urban Field Guide to the Plants in Your Path

After a brief introduction, Herskovits profiles fifteen common urban weeds. Each entry includes an illustration of the plant, a short list of its “Urban Survival Techniques,” a small drawing of the plant in its urban habitat, and a few other details. The text is all handwritten, and the illustrations are simple but accurate enough to be helpful when identifying plants in the wild. The descriptions of each plant include interesting facts and background information, and even if you are already familiar with all the plants in the guide, you may learn something new. For example, I wasn’t aware that spotted spurge (Euphorbia maculata) was native to North America.

some urban survival techniques of common mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Capsella bursa-pastoris in its urban habitat

Urban weeds often go ignored. They may not be as attractive as some of the plants found in gardens and parks around the city, and since they are often seen growing right alongside garbage, they end up getting treated that way. But if you’re convinced that they may actually have value and you want to learn a bit more about them, this guide is a great place to start. Perhaps you’ll come to feel, as Herskovits does, that “there is hope in these city plants.”

See Also: 

2019: Year in Review

It’s the start of a new decade and the beginning of another year of Awkward Botany. As we’ve done in years prior, it’s time to look back at what we’ve been up to this past year and look forward to what’s coming in the year ahead. Thank you for sticking with us as we head into our eighth year exploring and celebrating the world of plants.

The most exciting news of 2019 (as far as Awkward Botany is concerned) is the release of the first issue of our new zine, Dispersal Stories. It’s a compilation of (updated) writing that originally appeared on Awkward Botany about seeds and seed dispersal and is the start of what I hope will be a larger project exploring the ways in which plants get around. Look forward to the second issue coming to a mailbox near you sometime in 2020.

Also new to our Etsy Shop is a sticker reminding us to always be botanizing, including while riding a bike. Stay safe out there, but also take a look at all the plants while you’re cruising around on your bike or some other human-powered, wheeled vehicle. Whether you’re in a natural area or out on the streets in an urban or rural setting, there are nearly always plants around worth getting to know.

This year we also started a Ko-fi page, which gives readers another avenue to follow us and support what we do. Check us out there if Ko-fi is your thing.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

We also still have our donorbox page for those who would like to support us monetarily. As always you can stay in touch with us by liking and following our various social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and our currently inactive, but that could change at any moment Instagram). Sharing is caring, so please be sure to tell your friends about Awkward Botany in whatever way you choose. We are always thrilled when you do.

Below are 2019 posts that are part of new and ongoing series. You can access all other posts via the Archives widget. 2019 saw a significant drop in guest posts, so if you’d like to submit a post for consideration, please visit our Contact page and let me know what you’d like to write about. Guest writers don’t receive much in return but my praise and adulation, but if that sounds like reward enough to you, then writing something for Awkward Botany might just be your thing. And while we’re on the topic of guest posts, check out this post I wrote recently for Wisconsin Fast Plants.

Happy Reading and Plant Hunting in 2020!

Inside of a Seed & Seed Oddities:

Podcast Review:

Poisonous Plants:

Tiny Plants:

Eating Weeds:

Using Weeds:

Drought Tolerant Plants:

Tea Time:

Field Trip:

Awkward Botanical Sketches:

Guest Posts:

Out Now! Dispersal Stories #1

Before I started this blog, I had spent 16 years publishing zines at a steady clip and sending them to all corners of the world through the mail. I had never really meant to abandon zines altogether, and in some ways, putting all my writing efforts into a blog felt a little like a betrayal. My intention had always been to one day put together another zine. Now, six and a half years later, I’m happy to report that day has come.

Rather than bring an old zine back from the grave, I decided to make a new zine. Thus, Dispersal Stories #1. It’s quite a bit different from zines I’ve made in the past, which were generally more personal and, I guess, ranty. In fact, Dispersal Stories is very much like this blog, largely because it is mostly made up of writing that originally appeared here, but also because its main focus (for now) is plants. What sets it apart is that, unlike this blog, it zeroes in on a specific aspect of plants. As the title suggests, it’s all about dispersal. For much of their life, plants are essentially sessile. Once they are rooted in place, they rarely go anywhere else. But as seeds, spores, or some other sort of propagule they are actually able to move around quite a bit. The world is their oyster. What’s happening during this period of their lives is the focus of Dispersal Stories.

But why do a zine about this? Apart from just wanting to do another zine after all these years, my hope is that Dispersal Stories will be the start of a much more ambitious project. A book perhaps. My interest in dispersal was born out of my interest in weeds, and there is so much that I would like to learn and share about both of these subjects – so much so that the blog just doesn’t really cut it. So, I’m expanding the Awkward Botany empire. First a zine, then a book, then … who knows? I’m an oyster! (Or something like that.)

Dispersal Stories #1 is available in our etsy shop, or you can contact me here and we can work something out. While you’re at it, check out our new sticker.

If you love looking at plants and learning their names, then you probably enjoy doing it any chance you get. Usually it’s an activity you do while walking, but who says you can’t botanize while riding a bike? This sticker is inspired by a friend who once said that while mountain biking you get to “see three times as many flowers in half the time!” Stick it on your bike or in some other prominent location to remind yourself and others that we can botanize anytime anywhere.

Your purchase of one or both of these items helps support what we do. You can also support us by buying us a ko-fi or putting money in our donorbox. Sharing these posts also helps us out. If you get a copy of the zine, let us know what you think by sending us an email, a message on twitter or facebook, or by leaving a comment below. As always, thanks for reading.

Related Posts:

Selections from the Boise Biophilia Archives

For a little over a year now, I’ve been doing a tiny radio show with a friend of mine named Casey O’leary. The show is called Boise Biophilia and airs weekly on Radio Boise. On the show we each take about a minute to talk about something biology or ecology related that listeners in our local area can relate to. Our goal is to encourage listeners to get outside and explore the natural world. It’s fascinating after all! After the shows air, I post them on our website and Soundcloud page for all to hear.

We are not professional broadcasters by any means. Heck, I’m not a huge fan of talking in general, much less when a microphone is involved and a recording is being made. But Casey and I both love spreading the word about nerdy nature topics, and Casey’s enthusiasm for the project helps keep me involved. We’ve recorded nearly 70 episodes so far and are thrilled to know that they are out there in the world for people to experience. What follows is a sampling of some of the episodes we have recorded over the last 16 months. Some of our topics and comments are inside baseball for people living in the Treasure Valley, but there’s plenty there for outsiders to enjoy as well.

Something you will surely note upon your first listen is the scattering of interesting sound effects and off the wall edits in each of the episodes. Those come thanks to Speedy of Radio Boise who helps us edit our show. Without Speedy, the show wouldn’t be nearly as fun to listen to, so we are grateful for the work he does.

Boise Biophilia logo designed by Sierra Laverty

In this episode, Casey and I explore the world of leaf litter. Where do all the leaves go after they fall? Who are the players involved in decomposition, and what are they up to out there?

 

In this episode, Casey gets into our region’s complicated system of water rights, while I dive into something equally complex and intense – life inside of a sagebrush gall.

 

In this episode, I talk about dead bees and other insects trapped and dangling from milkweed flowers, and Casey discusses goatheads (a.k.a. puncture vine or Tribulus terrestris) in honor of Boise’s nascent summer celebration, Goathead Fest.

 

As much as I love plants, I have to admit that some of our best episodes are insect themed. Their lives are so dramatic, and this episode illustrates that.

 

The insect drama continues in this episode in which I describe how ant lions capture and consume their prey. Since we recorded this around Halloween, Casey offers a particularly spooky bit about garlic.

 

If you follow Awkward Botany, you know that one of my favorite topics is weeds. In this episode, I cover tumbleweeds, an iconic western weed that has been known to do some real damage. Casey introduces us to Canada geese, which are similar to weeds in their, at times, overabundance and ability to spawn strong opinions in the people they share space with.

 

In this episode, I explain the phenomenon of marcescence, and Casey gives some great advice about growing onions from seed.

 

And finally, in the spring you can’t get by without talking about bulbs at some point. This episode is an introduction to geophytes. Casey breaks down the basics, while I list some specific geophytes native to our Boise Foothills.

 

Podcast Review: Botanical Mystery Tour

My interest is piqued any time plants are featured or plugged in popular culture. Hence my ongoing series of posts, Botany in Popular Culture, featuring Futurama, Saga of the Swamp Thing, etc. Plants just don’t get enough airtime, so it must be celebrated when they do. Which is why I was excited to learn about Chicago Botanic Garden‘s new podcast, Botanical Mystery Tour, in which the plants referenced in pop culture take center stage.

The hosts, as they state in each episode’s introduction, “dive into the botany hidden in our favorite stories.” To help with the discussion, they bring in experts that work at Chicago Botanic Garden to explore the science (and fiction) behind the plant references. In addition to discussing pop culture and the related science, the guests share details about the work they do at the Garden and some of the research they are working on.

In the first episode, Jasmine and Erica ask Paul CaraDonna about the drone bees featured in an episode of Black Mirror. Since many bee species are in decline, will we have to resort to employing robot bees to pollinate plants that rely on bee-assisted pollination? A great discussion about native bees and colony collapse disorder ensues.

(But maybe the idea of autonomous drone insects isn’t too far-fetched…)

In episode two, the hosts ask why humans are so obsessed with corpse flowers. Thousands of people flock to botanical gardens to see these humongous, stinky flowers on the rare occasions they are in bloom, so what is so appealing about Amorphophallus titanum? Patti Vitt joins the discussion to share details about this fascinating plant.

A corpse flower in bloom is a brief and uncommon occurrence, reminiscent of the Sumatran Century Flower in The Simpsons and the 40 Year Orchid in Dennis the Menace.

 

The third episode features the sarlaccs of Star Wars. It turns out, sarlaccs are carnivorous plants. This discovery spawns an interesting discussion with horticulturist Tom Weaver about what defines a carnivorous plant and the various ways that different carnivorous plant species capture and kill their prey.

The fourth (and latest) episode is an exploration into the magical world of mushrooms. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice encounters a large, hookah-smoking caterpillar sitting atop a giant mushroom. Are there mushrooms big enough that a person could actually sit on them like Alice does? Greg Mueller joins the podcast to address this and many other mycology-based questions. The conversation includes a great discussion about why a botanical garden (whose main focus is plants) would be interested in fungus.

The discussions in this podcast are fun and enlightening. The hosts shine the spotlight on often overlooked characters in popular media, and with the help of their guests, lead captivating conversations about the science related to these characters. With only a handful of episodes available so far, it will be easy to get caught up. And then you, like me, will find yourself anxiously looking forward to embarking on another Botanical Mystery Tour.

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Is there a plant-themed podcast or podcast episode you would like to recommend? Please do so in the comment section below.

Book Review: What Weeds Are Thinking

Plant intelligence is a burgeoning field of research. Despite being predominantly sessile organisms, plants are able to sense their surroundings and make decisions based on environmental cues. In a certain sense, they can see, hear, smell, and remember even though they don’t have eyes, ears, noses, or brains. Not surprisingly, these fascinating findings have spawned books, podcasts, documentariesarticles, etc. The idea that plants could be intelligent beings like us is something that captures our attention and imagination.

For example, if plants are so smart, does this mean that they actually have thoughts? And if they have thoughts, what could they possibly be thinking? In her new book, What Weeds Are ThinkingErica Crockett takes a stab at what a particularly despised group of plants might think if, indeed, they could have thoughts. Weeds are, in Crockett’s words, “the deviants of the plant world.” This book was her chance to imagine what might be going on inside the minds of these deviants, despite the fact that they don’t have minds.Crockett conjures up the thoughts of 21 different weeds. Each thought is accompanied by an illustration by Sarah Ragan Olson. The drawings are charming, but the thoughts that juxtapose them aren’t always so sweet. Perhaps you imagine weeds to be potty mouthed? Well, so does Crockett. That being said, this book is not for kids, nor is it for anyone sensitive to adult words and themes. Each of the weeds in this book varies in its degree of irreverence – not all of them are so crass and some of them are actually pretty mild-mannered – but that’s just what you’d expect from such a diverse group of plants.

Comfrey is offended by cow manure being used as fertilizer and would rather be fertilized by “the decaying corpses of [its] relations.” Ground ivy is embarrassed and offended by inadvertently seeing the ankles of human passersby.  Plantain is apparently into being stepped on, and prostrate spurge is trying to “rebrand” to make itself more appealing and set itself apart from purslane. Cheatgrass, no surprise here, comes across as a big jerk. Originally from Eurasia, it is now a freedom-loving American, “choking out the rights of the natives.”

Most in line with what I would expect a weed to be thinking – especially one found growing in an urban area – is prickly lettuce. Upset after watching a fellow member of its species ruthlessly dug up, it laments: “Neither of us decided to seed down in the deep crack of this suburban driveway. We were blown here…It’s our home…Yet we are hunted.”

Milkweed is quite aware of its role as the sole food source of the monarch caterpillar. It sees how much humans appreciate monarchs, and admonishes us for killing off its kind: “Keep it up, and I’ll take every last one of those delicate darlings down with me.”

Botanical inaccuracies aside – and there are several – this was a fun book. The main appeal for me is that it is plant-themed and, more specifically, weeds-themed. If you follow this blog, you’ll know that pretty much anything involving weeds is going to get my attention. Beyond that, any project that puts plants in the spotlight and gives them a voice (even in a fictitious sense) is worth checking out. This book is no exception.

As a bonus, I asked Erica Crockett what other plants (apart from weeds) are thinking. This was her response: “Probably really precious or intellectual things. I imagine tomato plants are fairly self-important and zonal geraniums are divas. Bougainvilleas are likely social climbers and oak trees are dull, but honest.”

More Weeds-themed Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Book Review: A Feast of Weeds

Since I am planning on eating more weeds, it seems appropriate that I review this book. Not to be confused with Feast of Weeds, a series of apocalyptic novels about a world-ending plague, A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini is tangentially about foraging and cooking wild, edible plants. I say “tangentially” because it’s not like other foraging guides. This is a “literary guide,” as the subtitle states, so in the place of plant descriptions and harvesting tips, etc. are verbose and erudite essays summarizing the various literary references that each of the species profiled has accumulated from antiquity to the modern era. Apart from dozens of recipes, the information presented in this book is more entertaining than it is practical; however, when telling the stories of plants, the human element is an important facet – particularly in the stories of edible and medicinal plants – and it is the human element that this book is concerned with.

Ballerini is an Italian poet, a cooking historian, and a professor of Italian literature at UCLA. The 31 plant species he chose to profile can all be foraged in Italy (most of them in one specific region), and all except for maybe capers can be found somewhere in the United States. The majority of the plants in this book are commonly cultivated as crops, ornamentals, or landscape plants – few are truly weeds – but all of them can be found growing wild somewhere. And that’s one of Ballerini’s main points – wild food and the act of foraging is a very different experience from farmed food and the act of buying it at the grocery store. Take arugula for example:

Try making a salad with arugula that you have gathered yourself in a field and compare its taste with what you have made a hundred times with pre-washed and sterilized arugula bought at the supermarket or even at a farmers’ market. It’s easy to predict the comment that will immediately come to your lips: ‘There’s no comparison.’

A selection of recipes accompanies each of the plants that Ballerini writes about. These recipes were “invented or elaborated” by Ada De Santis, who lives on a farm in the “heel of Italy” and who “enthusiastically agreed to divulge the secrets of her kitchen.” Ballerini partnered with De Santis because of her Italian ancestry and her vast experience with both wild and cultivated plants.

Each chapter in the book follows the same basic format: a discussion of the myriad references a certain plant has received in various writings throughout human history, an overview of the (often bizarre) medicinal uses the plant has had throughout the centuries, and a brief statement on when to harvest the plant. References include plays, poems, songs, myths, fiction and non-fiction, religious and sacred texts, medicinal plant guides, and even artwork. Reading through the book, my interest and attention waned often, partly due to Ballerini’s way of writing and also due to my lack of familiarity (and lack of interest, frankly) with the references. But there were enough interesting bits here and there that made it worth the effort.

common mallow (Malva neglecta )

Of course, my interest was mainly held by the chapters about the weeds. Apparently, mallow (Malva spp.) has been written about prolifically, leading Ballerini to write, “the history of mallow is complex and contradictory, rich in illustrious testimony but, given its effects, not always very noble.” Like other plants in the book, the medicinal uses for mallow have been so numerous that it could be considered “a true cure-all,” if in fact it truly treated all the things it has been claimed to treat. On a humorous note, Ballerini writes in the chapter on wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), “we have come to understand … if a plant is good for you, it is good for nearly everything – but particularly for snakebite.”

Ballerini especially enjoys sharing odd medical claims, like in the chapter about sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), in which Nicholas Culpepper promoted some interesting uses for its juice. Purportedly, bringing it to a boil or “warming it in some bitter almond oil inside the skin of a pomegranate is a sure remedy for deafness and tinnitus.” The medicinal uses of wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) are “as old as the hills,” with a medical papyri from ancient Egypt (circa 1550 B.C.) referencing its medicinal uses among “magic formulas and spells for driving away evil-intentioned demons.”

sow thistle (Sonchus sp.)

A couple of paragraphs about dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into the chapter about wild chicory. The rosettes of these two plants look similar, and the roots of both, when “roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee.” Dandelion is also known to be a diuretic, and is thus referred to as pisciailetto in Italy, pissenlit in France, and piss-a-beds in England.

Speaking of the names of things, how things came to be called what they are is a topic that Ballerini addresses frequently throughout the book. However, such origins aren’t always clear. In the chapter on wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus), Ballerini reflects on the “general uncertainty regarding the origin of the English term raspberry.” Does it originate from the Old French word rasper, the Spanish word raspar, and the Italian word raspare, all of which mean to rasp or to scrape? Ballerini laments, “this introduces very unpleasant connotations for such a delicate fruit (yet there are those who, when faced with roses always think of thorns).”

While the bulk of this book is of little use to me – I guess I’m just not that interested in classic literature or mythology – it’s worth keeping around for the recipes alone, several of which I am anxious to try. If the idea of an unconventional field guide appeals to you, this book might be up your alley, just as it apparently was for this reviewer.

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