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In Praise of Plants Hardcover – August 26, 2002
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—John Van de Water, Newark Star-Ledger, February 2, 2003
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The author really tries to make the topic, plants interesting, by describing ideas and facts about plants in an interesting and memorable way, and also informs the reader about the wonderful world of plants
In Praise of Plants by botany Professor Emeritus Francis Hallé of the University of Montpellier, France is such a book. However it is by no means a popular treatise; indeed, if you want to get the look and feel of a botany article in a professional journal, this book provides an entire book's worth! The material is technical, detailed, and uncompromisingly professional.
So why has the Timber Press chosen this volume to bring to the English speaking world? Partly because of the international prestige of Hallé, who is an expert on tropical plants; partly because they were able to get a translation by David Lee who is Professor of Biological Sciences at Florida International University; and partly because of the striking nature of Hallé's presentation.
Hallé emphasizes the form of plants and how that form has developed evolutionarily from their need to secure the services of both sun and earth while remaining nearly immobile. There are dozens of line drawings in the book, most by Hallé himself, illustrating the differences between plants and animals with the text explaining why these differences occur. For example, because plants are sessile (attached to the ground) they are symmetrical on the horizontal plane, a tree looking pretty much the same from whatever spot on the ground you view it. However in a vertical sense a plant is very different since its crown is in the air looking at the sun while its roots are in the ground looking for water and minerals. In contrast, animals (I'll just quote Hallé so you'll get a feel for the technical language): "have dorsiventral polarity and anteroposterior and bilateral symmetry." (p. 70)
Fortunately the attractive and sometimes funny drawings help to penetrate the language for this amateur!
Here are some examples of the sort of things you can learn from this book:
At the microscopic level, where gravity is relatively "negligible compared to other forces" like "surface tension, viscosity, friction and Brownian motion," (p. 64) life forms tend toward the round and take on the symmetries we associate with astronomical objects like the sun and Saturn. Hallé gives examples of bacteria, amoebas, diatoms, etc. where "vertical polarity simply does not exist." (p. 64) Science fiction writers take note: creatures living in interstellar dust clouds will be more or less round.
One of the clear homologies (same form) assumed by plants and animals is in "the external (assimilating) surface of a plant and the internal (digestive) surface of an animal." (p. 51) The plant maximizes its surface area to expose as much of it as possible to the sun and the air, while the animal creates folds and such within its alimentary canal so as to provide a large surface area for effective digestion. Hallé notes that plants resemble fractals externally. (p. 52)
The waste products of animals bring forth (to our sensitivities) malodorous compounds as do their decomposing bodies. Hallé explains why this is so on pages 148-151, and why the waste products of plants and their decomposing bodies do not usually offend us; indeed the smell of new mown hay and forest humus or even a compost pile, can be very agreeable. On page 149 he favors us with a drawing of a tree which grows in part upon the waste products of its metabolism stored in its trunk. Next to the tree Hallé has a dog on top of a pile of its excrement, noting that "An animal that stored its excrement would also be capable of becoming very tall."
Hallé's love of plants and his deep respect for them, and his life-long experience in studying them comes through most wonderfully in this fine book. Although technical, it is accessible to amateur botanists and just plain old gardeners and lovers of plants with just a little effort.
Reviewer: Mr P J Stewart from Oxford United Kingdom
The best book on plants I've ever read (and I've been reading about them for more than 40 years). Here at last is a biologist who sees plants for the amazing things they are and not just as something like stationary green animals.
Of the living things that we can see, plants make up the overwhelmingly greater part. They create the grasslands and forests and wetlands and the surface ocean conditions in which most animals live, they stabilize the atmosphere of the whole planet, and they are the ultimate source of almost everything that animals feed on. Yet biology, until its recent lurch into molecular studies, has mostly derived from animal models. Hallé cites many examples, such as the fruitless search for plant hormones and the extension to plants of the doctrine that the lineage of reproductive cells is strictly separate from that of the cells that make up the body of the organism.
Hallé writes with clarity and gives plenty of concrete examples. He is someone who can decidedly 'see the wood for the trees' - not surprising perhaps in the man who pioneered the exploration of the rainforest canopy using 'rafts' suspended from balloons. He is also often very funny, and the translator has served him well. Hallé has illustrated the book with a large number of his own wonderful drawings. The work is beautifully produced - a gem from every point of view!