An Orchard Invisible

By JONATHAN SILVERTOWN

If you’re blessed with a patch of ground, or at least a windowsill where you can perch a pot or two, then now is the season to plant a garden. And there’s no better companion for your labors than Jonathan Silvertown’s thorough yet eminently readable history of seeds, An Orchard Invisible, out from University of Chicago Press. Silvertown has written an accessible volume that nonetheless touches on everything from Ovid’s Metaphorphoses to a corn fungus eaten as a vegetable in Mexico. Silvertown manages to keep the history, and the science, digestible. He has wisely structured the book so that a nonsequential perusal is as enjoyable as a straight read. Moreover, he has an ear for the elegant phrase. Explaining the vagaries of seed dispersion, he notes, “Dormancy is time travel” — and cooking, he argues, is “evolutionary subversion.” As with the best of any scientific history written for the lay audience, Orchard Invisible gives a sense of the inextricable connections between living things. Fruit, with its nutritive allure, helps explain the evolutionary development of three-color vision in humans. The practice of masting in oak trees, when bumper crops of acorns are followed by fallow years, contributed to the rise of Lyme disease. He quotes Thoreau: “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” An Orchard Invisible is a veritable wonder-cabinet.