The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants


Praise for Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers
These are the most ravishing biology lessons we've ever seen.... An enlightening gift or a personal indulgence.
—Chicago Tribune

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Praise for Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers
These are the most ravishing biology lessons we've ever seen.... An enlightening gift or a personal indulgence.
—Chicago Tribune

Praise for Seeds: Time Capsules of Life
An incandescent blend of exacting science and extraordinary art.

Praise for Fruit: Edible, Inedible, Incredible
Little short of astonishing. If the book never gets further than your coffee table, it's still likely to blow the stuffing out of anything else laid near it.
—January Magazine

Three landmark books, Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers; Seeds: Time Capsules of
; and Fruit: Edible, Inedible, Incredible, earned high praise that varied from "breathtaking" and "ravishing" to "enlightening" and "truly revelatory." The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants, which sold 6,000 copies in hardcover and is now available in paperback, brings together the best of these three books in one fascinating union of art and science.

Visual artist Rob Kesseler uses special light and scanning electron microscopy to create astonishing images of a variety of pollen, seeds and fruits. His razor-sharp cross-sections reveal intricate interiors, pods, pouches, keys, and other examples of botanical architecture and seed dispersal. Seed morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy and palynologist Madeline Harley deftly explain the botanical purposes for which the pollen, seeds and fruit are designed, how they fulfill their mission, and their role in preserving the biodiversity of our planet. Literary references and early botanical illustrations pepper the text.

The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants is groundbreaking in its intimate examination of plant reproduction. It is an essential source and reference for artists, designers and photographers and will fascinate gardeners and readers interested in the natural world.

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Editorial Reviews

Baltimore Sun - Susan Reimer
[Review for previous edition] The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants is actually the best of three other books, Pollen, Seeds and Fruit. All of them are pictorial wonders that use the best of science, art and technology to depict the anatomy of plants and their proficient reproduction. This lush and otherworldly picture book illustrates in the smallest detail the inscrutable work of plants making more plants, and fruits making more fruit, flowers making more flowers... This is truly a look into the secret life of plants.
Halifax Chronicle-Herald - Jodi De Long
[Review for previous edition] The most visually striking—and unusual—plant-related book of the year comes from Firefly, which has a long history of visually stunning books to its claim. None of them are quite like The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants, written by a team of authors with serious credentials in the world of plant morphology. Scanning electron microscopy results in remarkable, even otherworldly photographs of pollen, seeds, and fruit; the very reason life continues to exist on this planet. The accompanying text explains how these structures work, both in terms of their individual species and in the wider world. The only drawback is that readers have to flip to the back of the book to find out what images are on any given page, as thee are no corresponding captions accompanying the photos. That caveat aside, this is an affordable book that will forever change the way you look at plants.
Phoenix Home & Garden - Laura Gold
[Review for previous edition] Ever wonder what the difference is between seeds, spores and pollen, or how plants have adapted to make themselves appealing to pollinators? You'll find the answers in The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants. The colorful book provides insight into the lives of plants, as well as the insects and animals that play a part in their pollination. The illustrations of magnified seeds and pollen combined with otherworldly-seeming photographs of plants make this a visual treat.
Richmond Times-Dispatch - Joel M. Lerner
[Review for previous edition] The authors leverage the power of microscopes to enlarge tiny bits of plant material to fill entire pages in this photo anthology. Seen in a larger-than-life fashion, pollens and seeds become complete life forms with unique purposes. The photography and text convey a wealth of information about the organisms responsible for our plant world.
SciTech Book News
[Review for previous edition] Surrounded by the striking microphotography of Rob Kessler, text by two experts from London's Royal Botanic Gardens describes the many purposes filled by pollen, seeds, and fruit, and the roles they play both in plant reproduction and in preserving the Earth's biodiversity. Accessibly written and filled with stunning photographs, this book will be enjoyed both by specialist and general readers.
Texas Gardener - William Scheick
[Review for previous edition] Fantastic photos — images that transcend the bounds of the ordinary — dominate the book. Detailed information about each depicted plant or plant part is expertly included in "List of Illustrations," unobtrusively positioned at the back of the book. The running commentary offers technical insights... The authors of Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants rejoice in such "masterpieces of natural architecture and engineering," especially those invisible to the naked eye that have to be seen to be believed, or even imagined. Such detailed close-up features, brilliantly alight against glossy black backgrounds, amount to an unforgettable feast.
The National Gardener
[Review for previous edition] Like fireworks in the night sky, startling images burst forth from the glossy black pages of this inquiry into the wonder of plant reproduction. The authors, recognized authorities in the field of botany and microscopic plant display, have produced a spectacular treatise, containing an examination of plant reproductive parts and the role they play in the life of plants and the entire planet. Authors Rob Kesseler and Madeline Hartley have created a text on a scientific subject that is easy to understand and fascinating. Through the use of special light and scanning electron microscopy, artist Wolfgang Stuppy has produced remarkable, other worldly photographs of entire as wellas cross-sections of flowers.
Booklist - Donna Seaman
[Review for previous edition] Nature's default mode is beauty. Consider the tiny grains of pollen, works of architecture so intricate and elegant as to defy belief. Humans have only been able to appreciate such wonders after inventing the electronic microscope... but it takes an artist to appreciate their aesthetics. Enter Kesseler, who transforms black-and-white informational images into photographs as resplendent as jewels. Palynologist Harley and seed morphologist Stuppy teamed up with Kestrel to produce three large, dazzling volumes— Pollen, Seeds, and Fruit. The trio now presents a single, more compact and more mobile, and equally gorgeous and mind-blowing volume about the marvelous yet secret lives of plants.
National Gardening Association - Charlie Nardozzi
[Review for previous edition] While most gardeners enjoy practical books on gardening techniques and plants, sometimes it's nice to have a book that just wows you.
National Gardener
[Review for previous edition] From pollen to seeds to fruits, you'll see the intricacies of plant reproduction in a whole new way as you peruse the fantastic photographic images in The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants. A compilation of the best of three earlier books, this volume is a visual feast of incredible, close-up photographs by visual artist Rob Kessler, who used special light and scanning electron microscopy to capture everything from an up-close view of the minute hairs covering the skin of a peach to the astounding array of shapes, sizes and structures of seeds and pollen. These entrancing images are accompanied by interesting information from seed morphologist Wolfgang Stuppy and pollen expert Madeline Harley on the botanical purposes of plants' reproductive structures and the roles they play in preserving biodiversity. You'll find out about the many strategies plants have devised for getting their pollen and seeds where they need to go for the continuation of the species. For example, you'll learn that the largest seed in the world is carried by the nut of the Seychelles palm and that only 10 percent of plants are wind-pollinated. What a great way to increase your botanical knowledge!
Sierra Club - Natalya Stanko
[Review for previous edition] This visual treat, accompanied by engaging botanical descriptions, invites readers to discover the thrill of looking at the everyday from an uncommon perspective.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781554075331
  • Publisher: Firefly Books, Limited
  • Publication date: 7/29/2013
  • Pages: 144
  • Product dimensions: 10.20 (w) x 9.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Wolfgang Stuppy is a seed morphologist for the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens. He is the co-author of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers; Seeds: Time Capsules of Life; and Fruit: Edible, Inedible, Incredible.

Rob Kesseler is a visual arts professor and artist who works with microscopic plant material at London's Royal Botanic Gardens. He is the co-author of Seeds: Time Capsules of Life; and Fruit: Edible, Inedible, Incredible.

Madeline Harley, PhD, FLS, is head of the palynology unit at the Royal Botanic Gardens. She is the co-author of Pollen: The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers.

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Read an Excerpt



Plants are truly amazing because, unlike animals, they have the remarkable ability to use sunlight to make sugar from just water and carbon dioxide (photosynthesis). In doing so, they not only produce their own food but also feed — either directly or indirectly — all life on Earth. Furthermore, as a by-product of photosynthesis, they produce the oxygen in our atmosphere. Quite simply, without plants we would not be able to breathe or eat. Rice alone is the staple food of over half of the Earth's population; and there are many other cereals, as well as pulses and vegetables. Apart from essential nourishment, plants give us delicious treats such as fruits, nuts and precious spices, and useful things like timber, fibres and oils.

Plants play an important role in our lives in many different ways but, because they are static and silent, we tend not to consider them as living entities like ourselves. Their completely different texture and appearance, and the fact that they are rooted in the ground and move on a time scale that is far too slow to be noticeable to the human eye seem to render any comparison with animals and humans absurd, but this is far from true. Not only do plants have lives, just as animals do but, over several hundred million years of evolution, like animals, they have developed very complex lives, often in mutual response to animal evolution. Despite their differences, plants and animals share the same purpose in life: survival to achieve sexual reproduction and ensure the continuity of the species. However, plants, unlike animals, have a back up strategy: in the event of unrequited love they can often reproduce asexually. Nevertheless, sexual reproduction is critically important, and this is why: a new animal begins life as the result of the union of a sperm from the father and an egg cell from the mother. In the process, each parent contributes one set of chromosomes. The same happens in plants when a male sperm and a female egg meet. In all living beings, the chromosomes contain the genes that determine every characteristic of the organism. By mixing together the chromosomes and thus the genetic traits of the parents, an offspring with a slightly different, perhaps even better combination of characteristics is created. Furthermore it is sexual reproduction that provides the basis for evolution by natural selection. Many plants can reproduce vegetatively, for example the runners of strawberries, but the new individuals are genetically identical clones of the mother plant and this is why most plants typically reproduce sexually. That plants have a sex life still comes as a surprise to many people although we are familiar with the activities that surround their sexual activity. Perhaps without realising what is going on, we enjoy watching some of the ways in which plants conduct their most private affairs: flowers are pleasing to the eye and and often to the nose as well, and the fruits that follow bring pleasure to our palate.

However, from a scientific point of view, flowers are simply a display of often colourful, insect-attracting petals surrounding the central male and female genitalia — the stamens and the pistil. After sexual union, as the flowers fade, fruits develop from the female ovaries at the base of the pistil. Fruits are swollen female organs which carry the tiny plant embryos, each packaged within a seed coat. After the seed ripens and leaves the parent plant the embryo inside the seed coat will germinate and, leaving the safety of the seed coat, develops into a seedling that will give rise to a new plant carrying the full chromosome complement from both parents.

Floral sexual organs,
and the fruits and seeds which develop after sexual union bear an enormous responsibility: flowering, pollination and fruiting are the key events in a plant's life and vital to the survival of the species. It is because of the union of sperm — carried by pollen grains — with ovaries of a plant that fruits develop and carry seeds which are the next generation of plants. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that plants have evolved a huge variety of strategies to ensure the success of their progeny.

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents


The Incredible Life of Plants

Precious dust

The difference between pollen, spores and seed

Those who copulate in secret

No match for a seed

An invisible microcosm


Finding the other half

Pollination by wind and water

Pollination by animals

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder

The insect pollination syndrome

Bee flowers

Butterfly and moth flowers

Flies and beetles as pollinators

The bird pollination syndrome

The bat pollination syndrome

Typical bat flowers

Exotic pollinators

The advantages of animal pollination

Fruits and Seeds

The various ways to get around

Wind dispersal

Seeds like dust

Masterpieces of Nature

Indirect wind dispersal

Water dispersal

Rafters and sailors

Sea beans

The biggest seed in the world

Explosive strategies

Animal couriers

Tenacious hitchhikers

Caltrops, devil's claws and other sadistic fruits

Reward rather than punishment

Small rewards for little helpers

Juicy temptations

Colourful appendages

Fraudsters of the Plant Kingdom

The everlasting beauty of plants



List of Illustrations


Picture Credits




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Plants first conquered the Earth's landmasses an unimaginable six hundred million years ago. From the early spore-bearing plants that were similar to our mosses and ferns, it would be another two hundred and forty million years before the evolution of pollen and seeds, two of the most crucial innovations in the history of all life on our planet. Seed plants have continued to evolve for the past 360 million years. Many remarkable adaptations for ensuring their survival, which involve their flowers, pollen, seeds and fruits, have occurred, and their methods of sexual reproduction have been perfected. Previously, in a series of three books, we explored the science, natural history and aesthetic beauty of the private life of plants. The combined expertise of an artist (Rob Kesseler) and two scientists (Madeline Harley and Wolfgang Stuppy) led to Pollen - The Hidden Sexuality of Flowers, Seeds - Time Capsules of
and Fruit - Edible, Inedible, Incredible. The Bizarre and Incredible World of Plants draws on images of some of the most spectacularly hidden (without light and electron microscopy) but vital aspects in the life of plants hitherto been largely unknown outside the scientific community.

Art and Science
Prior to the second half of the 20th century there was a vital, shared passion and appreciation of the plant world in which thoughtful observers all played a part, including artists and artisans. Many serious amateurs contributed to, or challenged the work of early botanical scientists, who were frequently what we would now refer to as 'polymaths', 'scientists' being a rather cold, later 20th century term which has caused in people's minds an unrealistic rift between general powers of observation and thought, and how we later illustrate and record our observations.

Realising the untapped potential for working with scientific data from microscopic plant material, and to foster new audiences for the important work done at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, we joined forces to bridge the gulf that had gradually developed between art and science.

Colour-coded messages
Colour in nature, in science and in art fulfils many different functions. Plants have evolved a sophisticated spectrum of colour-coded messages to attract animals to ensure the pollination of their flowers and the dispersal of their seeds. The scientist uses colour to facilitate discussions within the botanical scientific research community. Here, the artist, Rob Kesseler has used colour to enhance the beauty and expressiveness of high-magnification black-and-white scanning electron micrographs of pollen and seeds to engage a wider public audience. His choice of colours is a personal one and may relate to the original plant or be used to reveal functional characteristics of the specimen. It is used intuitively to create mesmerising images that lie somewhere between science and symbolism, sensual markers inviting further contact with unseen miracles of the natural world.

Our work results from an enthusiasm to communicate and express our shared passion and fascination for the beauty of sexual reproduction among flowering plants, which is revealed in all its splendour using methods and technologies not available until the late 20th century. We hope that we will continue to engage new audiences for the important research and conservation work in the plant sciences being carried out throughout the world. This includes the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and particularly the Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP), one of the largest international conservation initiatives in the world; much of the material illustrated in our books came from the collections of the MSBP.

Wolfgang Stuppy, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew — Wakehurst Place, Millennium Seed Bank
Rob Kesseler, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London
Madeline Harley, Micromorphology Unit, Jodrell Laboratory, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
June 2009

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