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

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

by Richard Mabey


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"Highly entertaining…Mabey gets us to look at life from the plants’ point of view." —Constance Casey, New York Times

The Cabaret of Plants is a masterful, globe-trotting exploration of the relationship between humans and the kingdom of plants by the renowned naturalist Richard Mabey.

A rich, sweeping, and wonderfully readable work of botanical history, The Cabaret of Plants explores dozens of plant species that for millennia have challenged our imaginations, awoken our wonder, and upturned our ideas about history, science, beauty, and belief. Going back to the beginnings of human history, Mabey shows how flowers, trees, and plants have been central to human experience not just as sources of food and medicine but as objects of worship, actors in creation myths, and symbols of war and peace, life and death.

Writing in a celebrated style that the Economist calls “delightful and casually learned,” Mabey takes readers from the Himalayas to Madagascar to the Amazon to our own backyards. He ranges through the work of writers, artists, and scientists such as da Vinci, Keats, Darwin, and van Gogh and across nearly 40,000 years of human history: Ice Age images of plant life in ancient cave art and the earliest representations of the Garden of Eden; Newton’s apple and gravity, Priestley’s sprig of mint and photosynthesis, and Wordsworth’s daffodils; the history of cultivated plants such as maize, ginseng, and cotton; and the ways the sturdy oak became the symbol of British nationhood and the giant sequoia came to epitomize the spirit of America.

Complemented by dozens of full-color illustrations, The Cabaret of Plants is the magnum opus of a great naturalist and an extraordinary exploration of the deeply interwined history of humans and the natural world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393353860
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/11/2017
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 543,607
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Richard Mabey is the author of Food for Free, Flora Britannica, and Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, among other books. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he has narrated popular BBC television and radio series and written for the Guardian and Granta. He lives in Norfolk, England.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Vegetable Plot 1

How to See a Plant 10

1 Symbols from the Ice: Plants as Food and Forms 13

2 Bird's-Eyes. Primulas 26

Wooden Manikins: The Cults of Trees 41

3 The Cult of Celebrity: The Fortingall Yew 47

4 The Rorschach Tree: Baobab 64

5 The Rig Trees: Sequoias 72

6 Methuselahs: Bristlecones and Date Palms 77

7 Provenance and Extinction: Wood's Cycad 83

8 From Workhorse to Green Man: The Oak 89

Myths of Cultivation 108

9 The Celtic Bush: Hazel 110

10 The Vegetable Lamb: Cotton 122

11 Staff of Life: Maize 133

12 The Panacea: Ginseng 142

13 The Vegetable Mudfish: Samphire 159

The Shock of the Real: Scientists and Romantics 164

14 Life versus Entropy: Newton's Apple 167

15 Intimations of Photosynthesis: Mint and Cucumber 176

16 The Challenge of Carnivorous Plants: The Tipitiwitchet 184

17 Wordsworth's Daffodils 198

18 On Being Pollinated: Keats's Forget-Me-Not 209

New Lames, New Visions 220

19 Jewels of the Desert: Francis Masson's Starfish and Birds of Paradise 225

20 Growing Together: The East India Company's Fusion Art 232

21 Chiaroscuro: The Impressionists' Olive Trees 239

22 Local Distinctiveness: Cornfield Tulips and Horizontal Flax 246

The Victorian Plant Theatre 253

23 'Vegetable jewellery': The Fern Craze 258

24 'The Queen of Lilies': Victoria amazonica 264

25 A Sarawakan Stinkbomb: The Titan Arum 275

26 Harlequins and Mimics: The Orchid Troupe 279

The Real Language of Plants 308

27 The Butterfly Effect: The Moonflower 311

28 The Canopy Cooperative: Air Plants and Bromeliads 323

29 Plant Intelligence: Mimosa 329

Epilogue: The Tree of After Life 339

Additional References and Sources 343

List of Illustrations 358

Acknowledgements 362

Index 364

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