Plant Talk | Science Talk

The Cabaret of Plants

Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. She spends much of her time assisting researchers, providing instruction related to library resources, and collaborating with NYBG staff on various projects related to Garden initiatives and events.

The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey

The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination offers a resounding cheer for the Plant Kingdom. This new title by Richard Mabey brings a smorgasbord of plant history and science to a popular audience.

There are 30 essays in Cabaret, (including the epilogue), contained within approximately 350 pages. This means that on average each essay is just over 11 pages long. The variety of topics and the length of each section works very well—readers are able to jump into the text at any point, and spend a few minutes reading a succinct and melodious treatment on a particular topic relating to plants. These 30 essays are divided in 7 sections, but any essay can be read as an independent piece. Considering the nature of this book, (it is intended to be a mélange), the stand-alone nature of each section does not detract from the reading.

Mabey’s skill as a writer carries the reader through the 40,000 years that Cabaret spans. His use of language is both marvelous and delightful. A challenge that some readers may face, however, is Mabey’s use of poetic license or lack of specificity when it comes to certain scientific terminology. For example, in a chapter on cycads entitled “Provenance and Extinction,” Mabey writes of cycads having “corraloid [sic] roots which live in symbiotic partnership with algae able to fix atmospheric nitrogen.” He is in fact referring specifically to blue-green algae, also known as Cyanobacteria, which are not technically algae at all.

Mabey’s lack of citations is frustrating for a reader who is hoping to follow up on a topic with additional research. Looking again at the cycad essay, the single citation for this six-page entry is for one section of The Island of the Colourblind by Oliver Sacks. Perhaps Sacks’ scholarship and research were the sole foundation for this section. Indeed, readers of the chapter ‘The Queen of Lilies’: Victoria amazonica may face flashbacks to two titles from 2013—Victoria: The Seductress by Tomaz Anisko and The flower of empire: an Amazonian water lily, the quest to make it bloom, and the world it created by Tatiana Holway. Ultimately, this researching and reusing of themes and content is one way by which scholarship is disseminated—but more citations or a slightly more detailed bibliography would be helpful.

Ultimately, Cabaret is very successful at what it attempts to be: “… a story about plants as authors of their own lives and an argument that ignoring their vitality impoverishes our imaginations and our well-being.” Mabey’s selection of topics and themes has resulted in a very engaging and eclectic assortment of essays. Through his eyes and his words readers can explore a familiar topic, or delve into new areas of plant history or plant science.

The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey. W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 2016. 384 pages. Hardcover. $29.95. ISBN: 9780393239973


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