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Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World

Imagine a typical morning--munching on a bowl of cereal, sipping coffee, dressing for the day, riding to work. Every moment of this common routine draws on the power of plants, and the centuries of development that brought wheat, coffee beans, cotton, and rubber--among many others--into our daily lives.

Remarkable Plants celebrates the wonder and utility of the green kingdom, taking a detailed look at how plants have shaped our world. It focuses on eighty key species and richly explores their history, highlighting their importance and bringing to light surprising stories. Organized thematically into eight sections, the book starts with “Transformers” (including rice, beans, olives) and moves through sections such as “Heal and Harm” (poppy, aloe, strychnos) and “Revered and Adored” (lotus, frankincense, rose). Each species is introduced with its common and scientific names and followed by an exploration of its cultural, historical, botanical, and symbolic associations. Hundreds of botanical illustrations show full plants as well as highlight distinctive leaves, blooms, and fruits.

Rooted in one of the world’s most important and renowned temples of greenery, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Remarkable Plants is a symbiotic balance of science and art that will open readers’ eyes to the deep influence of the natural world on our modern one.

See sample pages (PDF format) or see the author’s website.

240 pages | 160 color plates, 15 halftones | 7 3/4 x 9 3/4 | © 2014

Biological Sciences: Botany, Natural History

Reference and Bibliography


Remarkable Plants That Shape Our World is a quietly lavish book that gathers together the history of human use of a wide array of plants world-wide. The book is divided into sections, treating plants used as major food crops, spices, drugs, building materials, cash crops, ornamentals, sacred plants and, in a fun final flourish, curiosities. . . . A candy box for the curious."

A Best Nature Book of 2014 | Wall Street Journal

Remarkable Plants is readable and engaging. There is much discussion of species beyond ’the usual suspects’ which appear in books on plants aimed at the general reader. A fantastic range of visual material.”

Noel Kingsbury, author of Gardening with Perennials and Hybrid

"A gloriously illustrated celebration of the history, utility, diversity, and sheer wonder of the botanical world that powers our planet."

Washington Independent Review of Books

This overview of the botanical world takes the usefulness of plants to humans as its starting point. Key plants—10 or so in each category—are divided into medicines, materials, foods and flavours, with brief and elegant essays devoted to topics such as olives, asparagus, hops, aloe, flax, bamboo and wheat.

Telegraph (UK)

"This very handsome book provides interesting, particularly historical, information about plants of use and interest to a wide readership.


"It’s readable, interestingand full of colorful facts—botanical, medical, historical, culinary—that keep the reader turning the pages. The writing is in a loose, scholarly style that feels open and accessible to a general readership. This is the kind of book you want to read and then give to your friends and family to read."


"This beautifully produced volume reminds me of a Ken Burns video production. . . . Most of the images in this book are black and white or sepia and accompanied by engaging, authoritative yet accessible knowledge. The images are a gallery of exquisite botanical illustrations."

Economic Botany

Table of Contents

Introduction: Utility and Beauty

Transformers: Settling Down, Tending the Fields

                Wheat, Barley, Lentil, Pea: Founder Foods of the Fertile Crescent

                Rice, Millets, Soybean, Grams: Asian Assets

                Maize, Beans, Squash: The "Three Sisters" of the Americas

                Potato, Sweet Potato, Groundnut, Quinoa: South American Heirlooms

                Sorghum, Yams, Cowpea: Staples South of the Sahara

                Taro, Breadfruit: Fuelling Oceania

                Alfalfa, Oat: Speed the Chariot and the Plough

                Olive: The Quintessential Oil

                Grape: In Vino Veritas

Taste: Beyond the Bare Necessities

                Saffron: The Spice of Conspicuous Consumption

                Nutmeg, Cloves, Pepper: Riches of the Indies

                Chilli Peppers: Some Like It Hot

                Garlic, Onion, Shallots, Leek: Hellfire and Brimstone?

                Brassicas: Eat Your Greens

                Asparagus: A Delicacy Ancient and Modern

                Hop: The Bitter in Beer

                Tomato: The Love Apple

Heal and Harm: Getting the Balance Right

                Poppy: Pleasure, Pain, and Addiction

                Cinchona, Artemisia: Fighting Malaria

                Rauvolfia: Ancient Ayurvedic Drug

                Coca: Stimulant and Nerve Blocker

                Strychnos: Medicine as Poison

                Rhubarb: Potent Purge to "Superfood"

                Willow: Tree of Sorrow and Pain Reliever

                Citrus: Vitamins and Zest

                Aloe: The Succulent and Its Healing Gel

                Mexican Yam: Making “the Pill”

                Madagascar Periwinkle: Delicate Flower, Powerful Treatment

Technology and Power: The Material World

                Cedar of Lebanon: Foundation of the Phoenician Empire

                Oak: Might and Majesty

                Yew: Medieval Longbows, Modern Medicine

                Flax: Linen and Lino

                Hemp: Textiles and Old Rope

                Cotton: Clothing the World

                Bamboo: Versatility and Strength in a Stem

                Mahogany: Furniture Timber of Choice

Cash Crops: Making It Pay

                Tea: Tips of a Global Trade

                Coffee: Waking Up the World

                Sugar Cane: The Slave Trade’s Sweetener

                Chocolate: Food of the Gods

                Tobacco: The Sot Weed Factor

                Indigo, Woad: Searching for True Blue

                Rubber: Amazonia’s Precious Latex

                Banana: The World’s Favorite Fruit

                Oil Palm: Economics Versus the Environment

Landscape: Plant Aesthetics on the Grand Scale

                Larch: Stately Conifers of the Northern Forests

                Redwoods: Titans of the Tree World

                Saguaro Cactus: Icon of the Wild West

                Silver Tree Fern: Shining Māori Symbol

                Eucalyptus: Australia’s Signature Tree

                Rhododendron: Flowering Mountains

                Mangroves: Between Land and Sea

Revered and Adored: From the Sacred to the Exquisite

                Lotus: Sacred Flower of Purity and Rebirth

                Date Palm: Bread of the Desert

                Frankincense: The Odor of Sanctity

                Pomegranate: Fertility, Abundance, Renewal

                Apple: Fruit of Temptation and Eternal Life

                Chinese Plum or Japanese Apricot: Herald of Spring

                Rose: Flower of Love

                Tulip: A Mania for a Bulb

                Orchids: Strange and Beautiful Blooms

                Peony: Flower of Riches and Honor

Wonders of Nature: The Extraordinary Plant World

                Baobab: The Upside-Down Tree

                Welwitschia: Strange Desert Phenomenon

                Giant Waterlily: ‘A Vegetable Wonder’

                Pitcher Plant: Caught in a Trap

                Rafflesia: The Biggest Bloom

                Sunflower: Nature’s Inspiration

                Gingko: The Great Survivor

Further Reading

Sources of Quotations

Sources of Illustrations


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