Field of Science

Fifty plants that changed the course of history

Although published last year, the Phactor has just now gotten a copy of Bill Laws' book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History. Just as the title suggests, the book contains 50 essays about plants that have certainly been important to humans, and even if maybe they didn't quite change history things would have been different without them. Each essay is 2 to 6 pages long and quite readable. Each stands alone so you can jump around or go alphabetical where hemp (Cannabis) follows tea (Camellia). As a long-time instructor of economic botany, most of the material isn't new to me, but if you like knowing nifty things about common plants, you would be well served by this book. Maybe the best part is that you can read an essay in a spare 20 minutes and learn something new and not worry about losing the plot line. The publisher thoughtfully included a ribbon bookmark having anticipated this approach. The illustrations generally well chosen, some quite unique, and generally the book is handsome. If the Phactor had constructed his own list of 50 plants the concordance with this book would probably be around 80%; a few of Laws' inclusions, e.g., dog rose, coriander/cilantro, while interesting enough, are puzzling as changers of history. He fooled me by including cork oak under English oak thereby rescuing the inclusion. The historical implication of many plants may be connections of which you are unaware, e.g., sugar cane and slavery, but Laws' missed explaining that nutmeg was central to New Amsterdam becoming New York due to a swap of islands (Manhattan for Palau Run). Overall this book should contribute to an increased appreciation of many plants by providing those oh so interesting connections with history and human affairs. Mrs. Phactor has put this book on her to read list, and that tells you a great deal because generally we have very few cross-over books.

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