Acorns, Seeds, Understood


Thanks to American Scientist for this book review:

From Little Acorns

Peter H. Raven

SEEDS: A Natural History. Carolyn Fry. 192 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2016. $35.

Plant conservationists, horticulturists, plant ecologists, and the like face a perplexing public relations problem when it comes to their beloved subject: For many people, plant life—even though it is essential to the existence of all living things on our planet—may seem dull, especially in comparison with animal life. In 1998 American botanists James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler coined the term plant blindness, defining it as “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment,” leading to “the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” In the pages of Seeds, Carolyn Fry offers an almost certain cure for this malady.


The humble seed proves wonderfully interesting in her hands. As she worked on the book, Fry, an accomplished science writer, consulted with resident experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which also published the U.K. edition of her book. She outlines the evolution and natural history of seed-bearing plants (angiosperms and gymnosperms) concisely and accurately, building this story around individual accounts of people and plants in a way that will both inform and delight the reader. She has included superb and original images throughout the book, many of them illustrating, with light and scanning electron microscopy, aspects of plants and their biology that have rarely been presented as well. These images are not only a pleasure to view but also prove vital in conveying the book’s many compelling ideas and stories.

A particularly attractive feature of Seeds is how it presents its subject through a number of distinct access points, offering up discussions, for example, of particular plants or plant communities and highlighting key features with beautiful illustrations. Essays dealing with pollination and seed dispersal are especially well done. In a section about ballistic propulsion, for instance, Fry’s description of the action of awns, the slim bristles attached to wheat seeds (among others), identifies the clever mechanics involved:

While moist on the plant, the awns are held straight, but after flowering, as the fruits on the plant dry, the awns coil and form a spring mechanism that abruptly throws the seeds 18 inches . . . from the plant. Once free from the parent, the awns coil and uncoil with changes in relative humidity, physically drilling the seeds into the soil. Backward-facing hairs on the awn force the seeds to move in one direction, hence drilling continues even when the awn uncoils.

And her treatment of seed dormancy brings us right up to the limits of seed survival—which extend well beyond what readers might imagine possible…

Read the whole review here.


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