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An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds
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An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds [Kindle Edition]

Jonathan Silvertown
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

The story of seeds, in a nutshell, is a tale of evolution. From the tiny sesame that we sprinkle on our bagels to the forty-five-pound double coconut borne by the coco de mer tree, seeds are a perpetual reminder of the complexity and diversity of life on earth. With An Orchard Invisible, Jonathan Silvertown presents the oft-ignored seed with the natural history it deserves, one nearly as varied and surprising as the earth’s flora itself.

Beginning with the evolution of the first seed plant from fernlike ancestors more than 360 million years ago, Silvertown carries his tale through epochs and around the globe. In a clear and engaging style, he delves into the science of seeds: How and why do some lie dormant for years on end? How did seeds evolve? The wide variety of uses that humans have developed for seeds of all sorts also receives a fascinating look, studded with examples, including foods, oils, perfumes, and pharmaceuticals. An able guide with an eye for the unusual, Silvertown is happy to take readers on unexpected—but always interesting—tangents, from Lyme disease to human color vision to the Salem witch trials. But he never lets us forget that the driving force behind the story of seeds—its theme, even—is evolution, with its irrepressible habit of stumbling upon new solutions to the challenges of life.

"I have great faith in a seed," Thoreau wrote. "Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders." Written with a scientist’s knowledge and a gardener’s delight, An Orchard Invisible offers those wonders in a package that will be irresistible to science buffs and green thumbs alike.

Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Just as a seed contains the ability to create a whole plant, the evolution of seeds can serve as a microcosm for plant evolution. British ecology professor Silvertown (Demons in Eden: The Paradox of Plant Diversity) begins with a discussion of how seeds evolved to adapt plants to a fully terrestrial life when they emerged from the sea. In the process, he covers many relevant topics, including sexual and asexual reproduction, plant genetics, plant self-defense and seed dispersal, plant poisons, and seeds as food. The author also explains the coevolution of plants and animals, as in using and perceiving color. He covers some plant products humans use, such as sunflower oil, grain for beer, and coffee. Like Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire, Silvertown cites historical attitudes and quotations about particular plants. But he focuses primarily on the science of plant evolution rather than human history or anecdote. Endnotes suggest further reading. Silvertown writes both elegantly and clearly, and the book is as pleasurable to read as it is informative. For academic and public library botany and natural history collections.—Marit S. Taylor, Auraria Lib., Denver
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

The author of Demons in Eden: The Paradox of Plant Diversity (2005) provides an informatively jocund jaunt through the life cycle of seeds. While rarely passing up a mirthful opportunity, Silvertown never digresses from dilating on the dynamics of natural selection in the evolution of seeds. Indeed, his account reads like a treasure hunt for evolutionary explanations of seed characteristics, such as their protective coverings. This aspect allows the introduction of botanists who have wondered about seeds and flowers, including fictional aficionados like Sherlock Holmes and characters from Shakespeare, of whom Silvertown typically takes leave with a witty adieu before spelling out the modern evolutionary interpretation of, for example, plant reproduction. Why that should be predominantly sexual rather than asexual isn’t readily apparent until Silvertown recounts the eternal contest between predator and prey that rules the evolutionary game. In like manner Silvertown considers traits favoring a seed’s survival from dispersal to germination. He concludes with a portrait of humanity’s favorite seed, the coffee bean. A pleasure to read, not least for biology mavens.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1938 KB
  • Print Length: 224 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (August 1, 2009)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B002GKC2SA
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #876,233 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem, a delight and a storehouse of delicious information September 16, 2009
I'm always on the lookout for books about food plants in their natural state detailing where those foods originated, and how those plants became domesticated and changed over time. "An Orchard Invisible" (the title is from the Welsh proverb "a seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible") is just such a book and one of the best I have ever read.

Just to give you an idea of how densely packed this beautifully written book is with fascinating information about seeds--and by extension food and human culture--consider these gems from just two pages:

"MSG occurs naturally in fermented soybean paste, which is the source of miso and soy sauce used to flavor Chinese and Japanese dishes." (p. 170)

"Flavor sensations are a complicated confection created in the brain from the combined inputs of all five senses." (And not just five tastes on the tongue and the myriad aromas that the nose detects.) (p. 170)

There is a berry from the West African tree Synsepalum dulcificum that contains "a protein that interferes with taste receptors in the tongue and causes sour foods to taste sweet." Unfortunately efforts to take commercial advantage of this berry failed because only fresh berries will do the trick. (p. 171)

"...[W]hite chocolate...has the sugar and cocoa butter but not the pharmacological compounds found in normal chocolate..." On the other hand, cocoa powder contains "all the pharmacological constituents and sugar found in a bar of chocolate, but without the cocoa butter." Using this information you can test yourself to find out if you love chocolate for the "mouth feel" of the velvety cocoa butter (absent in a cup of cocoa) or because of the buzz you get from theobromine (absent in white chocolate). (p.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Seeds come to life October 19, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An "Orchard Invisible" gives a very readable and accessible account of many aspects of seeds. How did seeds evolve? How and why do some seeds lie dormant for many years? Why are some seeds almost invisibly tiny, while the largest weighs 20 kg? Why are so many seeds poisonous? He guides the reader through the many uses of seeds - foods, oils, perfumes, pharmaceuticals.

There are also diverting accounts of seedy involvement in Lyme Disease, the Salem Witch trials, and the fatal neurological disease afflicting the native people of Guam, to list just a few of these tangential topics in the book. These stories are quite gripping.

In general the author strikes a good balance between readability and scientific rigour - "clear and engaging" and "a beautifully written popular exposition" according to the cover blurb. Botanical terminology is kept to a minimum so as not to turn off general readers. However, botanists may be frustrated by the occasional vague use of words such as "family." Does he mean the formal botanical "Family", or some other grouping?

The account of Mendel's work on inheritance requires close attention to follow the reasoning behind Mendel's experiments. But all the facts are there for those who want to puzzle it out for themselves.

Obviously much has to be omitted in a 216-page book, but it is a pity he leaves out the strawberry, whose myriad tiny seeds are entirely on the outside of the fruit. Nor does he describe the role of smoke in triggering germination. For many West Australian plants, habitat burning is the single most important cue for triggering germination of the dormant soil seed bank.

There are lengthy quotations of poetry and extracts from other writers, verging on being overdone.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gem full of seeds December 13, 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The market is swamped with books full of facts. Only a few of them manage to do more than copy paste some google search results and tell a fascinating story, express an original view or a come with a challenging vision. And it is the rare gem where this is combined with excellent editing, a real sense for humor (and not the saltless wordpuns other authors call humor), a right dose of erudition, and although from time to time quiet technical never in a way that the layman fleds away. Silvertown created such a gem. You don't have to be a naturalist or biologist or scientist to enjoy this book. And, go for the hardback, the way the book is layouted is worth the extra couple of dollars.
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By Steve G
Format:Kindle Edition
I enjoyed reading this book. Even though I only have a passing interest in botany, author Jonathan Silvertown created a fascinating story about all types of seeds. The language is clear and concise and Silvertown's sense of humor shows through. There is some science in the book, mainly natural selection, which helps explain why seeds do what they do and how they do it. The illustrations in each chapter are beautiful and Silvertown's selection of quotes from literature are well-placed and thought-out. Because of the accessibility of the information, the humor and the gentle science lessons, I recommend this book for everyone.
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5.0 out of 5 stars awesome, awe-inspiring June 20, 2014
By Teri
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I haven't been this thrilled by a book since I first read Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey.

Silvertown is a genius. Not only does he stand on solid science as he explores this topic, but he is a natural storyteller and a thoughtful, logical, patient teacher. The occasional literary or poetic reference or flash of humor just makes the reading that much more nourishing and delightful. He understands and admires the interconnectedness of all things, which informs his explanations and speculations. I am learning so much from him.

Full disclosure: I am researching a book of my own on seeds (it will be called Seeing Seeds and feature incredible--not by me--photographs of various seeds, seedheads, fruits, nuts; it will be published by Timber Press next year). I've done a lot of research for this book and some of it has been dauntingly technical, some of it has been lightweight, and none of it has been as illuminating or stimulating as this book.
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