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Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (Fifty Things That Changed the Course of History) Hardcover – September 14, 2011

4.2 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Beautifully illustrated with botanical drawings, paintings, and photos, this fascinating reference offers insights into both botany and social history. (Liz Grogan Good Times 2011-06-30)

It is a very useful guide to the basic fifty plants that humans had cultivated from the beginning of agriculture. For each, there is a description of the plant, the botanical name, its native range, and its primary function... There is also a lot of cultural and social history for each plant: Laws explains why it is in the Top Fifty (many plants get two pages here; corn gets six pages). This text is complemented by botanical drawings, paintings and photographs, and quotes from deep thinkers... There's a bibliography for further reading... Audience and level of use: the historically curious, foodies, reference libraries, schools of hospitality and cooking... Well-priced, and it comes with a ribbon bookmark. (Dean Tudor gothicepicures.blogspot.com 2011-03-17)

Much more than a "plant book," this is a beauty packed with historical detail and art that will feed your eyes, your mind and your spirit as you learn about plants in a way you've never experienced. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History is by Bill Laws, who intends the book to be an encyclopedia of "plants that have had the greatest impact on human civilization," according to the book jacket. But he has made his encyclopedia so much more. It's chock-full of life, art, typography, history and botany, and I've never been more pleasantly surprised with a "plant book" than this one.... Beautiful art reproductions, classy typography and eye-catching design work together to present a gathering of the history behind these 50 plants that will keep you coming back for a good look (and read) over and over. (Karen Gallagher Dayton Beach News-Journal 2011-04-16)

How wonderful are plants! That is the theme of this compilation of stories of the usefulness of 50 remarkable plants. Attractively illustrated, the text contains short essays on plants that provide sustenance, medicine, fragrance, spice, color, clothing, and much more. Lest we forget, the common sweet pea provided the means for establishing the scientific field of genetics. This marvelous collection of tales deserves to be read and enjoyed. (Marilyn K. Alaimo Chicago Botanic Garden 2011-06-30)

Bill Laws brings trivia buffs a treasure trove of quirky facts about fifty plants that made a difference in the world. It matters not whether you're a gardener or that you simply enjoy learning obscure information -- this is a book for the curious sort. (Kylee Baumle Horticulture 2011-04-20)

If the origin of plants interests you, and learning more about the history behind their uses, a new book by Bill Laws is well worth a read. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History provides insight into the way plants used as fuel, food, weapons and medicines have had an impact on civilizations. (David Hobson Kitchener Record 2011-04-01)

This is a handsome book. A delight to look at and a pleasure to hold. It is also a pleasure to read, not just because each page is beautifully illustrated but also because of the unusual, unexpected and fascinating histories it charts.... Each page is packed with facts. The Latin names and common names of each plant, a brief outline of its importance to us, the history of its uses and misuses, and countless small details...all give the reader a lot to absorb, but everything is presented in a humorous, easy-going way laced with plenty of curious anecdotes.... Bill Laws weaves together strands of ecological, political and agricultural history. His scope is worldwide and it ranges from the words of early herbalists to the discoveries of modern science. He draws inspiration from myth and legend, and, occasionally from the early philosophers. And the illustrations come from art, history, old magazines and modern botanical photography. Altogether, Laws has done a fine job. (Ann Skea Midwest Book Review 2011-04-01)

A fascinating compendium that covers edible medicinal commercial and practical species. (K. Reka Badger Santa-Barbara News Press 2011-03-26)

Bill Laws provides a concise profile of each of the plants included in his well-designed book. These informed entries are enhanced by botanical drawings and other illustrations. The entries make for entertaining reading. Even so, my favorite chapter feature was the sidebar box. Inside these brief newsy boxes the reader gets a peek outside the box of the normal. It's a peek at the wildcards that have emerged from the shuffled deck of human experience with plants. (William Scheick Texas Gardener's Seeds 2011-03-02)

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, by Bill Laws, presents interesting information and impressions about plants. (Joel Lerner Washington Post 2011-03-04)

(reviewed with Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History) These two volumes from Firefly uncover some of the most interesting stories of how animals and plants have impacted human civilization in economic, political, and industrial history. This is an original approach that links the biological sciences to the social sciences and students and general readers will find many interesting stories within these pages. (Shannon Graff Hysell American Reference Books Annual 2012 2012-04-01)

Covering economic, political and industrial history, Bill shows how the plants' uses have changed over time. Recognizing both common as well as those plants whose roles are less well known, Bill provides an innovative perspective on both botanical and human history. Gardeners and social historians will find this book fascinating to read. (Fifty-Five Plus 2012-09-30)

This attractive and fun natural history of plants showcases fifty species that have influenced human history in significant ways. Each entry features color illustrations and photographs, interesting fact sidebars and information about distribution and growing conditions. Narratives detail the importance of each plant and range from ancient remedies and poisons to crop plants that formed trade and economic networks around the globe to bases for modern technological advances. The volume is designed for easy reference and includes information on further readings and Internet resources. (Book News 2011-12-01)

Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History offers capsule summaries of the culinary, medicinal, commercial, or practical significance of 50 familiar plants. Some will be obvious (wheat, wine grapes), but Laws manages to throw in some interesting and little-known history about each. For example, the 17th-century French Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, who helped develop still wines in the region of Champagne, is sometimes credited with first sealing a wine bottle with a stopper made from cork oak; and pharmacist Wilbur Scoville devised a test for rating the heat of a chili pepper in 1912. (George M. Eberhart C and RL News (Association of College and Research 2011-10-01)

We can't live without plants. They provide oxygen, food, clothes, medicine and shelter. From great lists of all-important plants, social historian Bill Laws brings us the fascinating stories of 50 that have actually altered civilizations. Among them: black pepper, which led to a need for banking; sugar, which fueled the slave trade; and white willow, used to make aspirin, cricket bats, hot-air balloon baskets and coffins. You might want to pick up two copies of this beautifully illustrated, fun read--one for the gardener on your list and one for you. (Kathy Huber Houston Chronicle 2011-12-16)

Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws is a perfect book for residents as well as visitors. Almost all the plants grow in Hawaii, and the short historical articles are beautifully illustrated with well-chosen color artwork. Coconut, pineapple, sugarcane and coffee are among the plants pleasantly presented. The built-in ribbon bookmark is a perfect touch for this small hardback. (Clear Englebert West Hawaii Today 2011-12-20)

This book will mesmerize plant-lovers and non-gardeners alike. (American Gardener 2011-07-01)

The illustrations are from other works, but, honestly, I hardly looked at them because the prose packed such a wallop. (Linda Yang North American Rock Garden Society (www.nargs.org) 2012-01-31)

This is a surprisingly easy, and good, read. The subject changes faster than a kaleidoscope image within each chapter, and there are insights into most of the large cultures of the globe.... It is a useful read for adults, and it practically begs to be given to one's acquaintances of the early or mid-teen years who could use a look at the wider world. They will like it. With any luck, they will go out looking for more information on the subject presented in the brief, glittering flashes here. And, if you play your cards right, they will let you read it, too, when they are done with it. (Washington Gardener 2011-10-01)

About the Author

Bill Laws is a social historian and the author of 10 books. He has contributed to such publications as the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and BBC History magazine. He lives in England.


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Product Details

  • Series: Fifty Things That Changed the Course of History
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Firefly Books (September 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1554077982
  • ISBN-13: 978-1554077984
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #523,995 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History
I have just read a gripping saga. Ostensibly, it's about plants, but actually, it's about us. This collection of anecdotes details how plants influenced human behavior which, in turn, affected the course of history. By chronicling the commercial activity surrounding the discovery and marketing of the food we eat, the beverages we drink, and the plants we transform, the author describes how those activities impacted wars, political boundaries, habits, social behavior, and addictions. I thought that I would be reading an encyclopedia of the history of important plants, but in fact, I was delving into an immensely fascinating epic about western civilization. No sooner had I completed an exciting chapter about one plant, when I could hardly wait to begin reading about the next.

The influence that plants had, and still continue to have, on our lives becomes apparent when we think about the amount of fossil fuel we consume, the large number of botanical gardens constructed around the world, and the considerable investments we make in our gardens. But that is only a small part of the bigger story. With this publication, the author identifies 50 plants that have altered the history of life on earth. Here are just a few tid-bits:-

-The discovery of the pineapple in the New World inspired the invention of the green house in Europe.
-Hemp was used to manufacture the paper used to write the American Declaration of Independence.
-Agave is used in the manufacture of bullets.
-Coconut is integral to making sterile I.V. drips.
-The opium poppy transformed the history of China. .
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History" is an intriguing title but falls short of its promise. The author has selected fifty plants from around the world and provided a 2-4 page profile of each, supplemented by a short list of facts (native habitat, height), images, and sidebars. The stories interweave commercial, medicinal, economic, and social roles played by plants over time, however, it can be a bit disorganized and jumpy at times, and you occasionally find yourself thinking, "so what's the point of this paragraph?"--a better editor could have tightened this up.

A major failure is that the author didn't convince me that history changed because of these plants--there's often no clear before-and-after picture drawn by the stories. It might be there, but the author seems distracted by other facts, quotes, or stories that he lost track of the core message. For example, the entry on Wild Cabbage is centered around Clarence Birdseye's development of frozen food, starting with his experience freezing cabbages in his northern Canadian home. Frozen food did introduce major changes in diet (ability to eat foods out of season), household practices (emphasis on convenience, larger home freezers) but they're not even mentioned. Instead, he spends most of the time discussing the inclusion of cabbages in Victory Gardens (which I'm not sure changed history).

Perhaps the book should be named "The Fifty Most Important Plants in the World", but then he'd still have difficulties--he neglects to mention cabbage in its pickled form is a defining element in some cultures (as sauerkraut in Germany or kimchee in Korea), providing an important source of nutrition in winter months.
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Format: Hardcover
Just when you think there's nothing new to be said, Bill Laws has come up with a most entertaining guide stuffed full of the stories and trivia surrounding 50 of our most well-known (and used) plants.

Each of them is categorised into whether it has value as an edible, medicinal, commercial or practical use with most of them fitting into at least two of the categories. The entries are ordered by latin name, so Agave is the first and Ginger (Zingiber) is the last, with all kinds of treasures in between such as maize, ferns, English oak, tea, hemp and tulip. Don't worry, you don't need to be a latin scholar to enjoy this book as on the whole greater prominence is given to the more well-known common names.

There's a tiny thumbnail sketch outlining each plant's natural geographical distribution, the type of plant it is and the height it typically grows to. The bulk of each entry (usually a double page spread, but with longer entries for plants such as wheat which has thousands of years of history associated with it) is taken up with the stories and quirky facts which make up the role each has played in our history and culture over many centuries.

Each entry is accompanied by a botanical illustration or a photograph showing the key features of the plant or the component (such as cardamom seeds) generally used. There's also plenty of photographs, quotations, art and drawings to help fill out the story. As well as the main article, there's also separate box(es) featuring some quirky detail: who would have thought that the humble leek would be the vegetable featured in a 4,000 year-old recipe for instance?

Whilst I loved this book on the whole, there's a couple of gripes which stopped me giving it the full five star treatment.
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