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Flora Mirabilis

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Carrots evolved the wild plant, Queen Anne's lace.

"Generations of discerning gardeners pushed the carrot" toward the vegetable we enjoy today, working originally with the wild version we know as "Queen Anne's lace."

David Beaulieu

The Bottom Line

What Flora Mirabilis Is:

You'll enjoy Flora Mirabilis if you:

  • Have ever wondered about the origins of the plant products we use in everyday life
  • Are interested in how the study of plants has evolved
  • Love the old drawings in plant books traditionally known as "herbals," "florilegia" and "floras"
  • Desire a broad overview on the subject of how humans have interacted with plants over the ages

What Flora Mirabilis Is Not:

Flora Mirabilis is not for you if you are looking for a plant book that:

  • Tells you how to grow plants
  • Provides great detail about specific plants

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Pros

  • The botanical prints alone would make the Flora a collector's item.
  • Sweeping history of how humans have interacted with the plant world.
  • Chock-full of facts about the world's most useful plants.

Cons

  • Plant profiles awkwardly interspersed throughout the Flora.
  • Writing at beginning of this plant book competent, but uninspired.
  • Since vast periods/topics are covered, the Flora necessarily presents only brief glimpses into each.
  • Index could be better.

Description

  • Botanical prints from the Missouri Botanical Garden festoon the book just about everywhere you look.
  • Plant profiles in the Flora focus on some of the plants that have had the greatest impact on human culture.
  • Time lines accompany each chapter, inviting cross-cultural comparisons of how plants were being used / studied at the time.
  • Considering that beginners will want to keep the Flora around as a reference book, its index is rather weak....
  • E.g., you couldn't find the fact about coffee that I relate (in the main portion of my review) by consulting the index....
  • If you wished to re-locate this fact, you would have to fumble through the book and hope you encounter it.

Guide Review - Flora Mirabilis

It took me a while to warm up to Flora Mirabilis, but once this plant book started hitting its stride, I became more and more enthusiastic about coming along for the ride. I'm glad I did: the Flora contains a wealth of facts, entertaining readers along the way with the sorts of vintage botanical prints for which you'd pay good money to have hanging on a wall at home.

A collaborative effort between the Missouri Botanical Garden and National Geographic, Flora Mirabilis could be improved by grouping its plant profiles in an appendix, rather than interspersing them, willy-nilly, throughout the text. Whenever I came upon one of them, I found myself in a quandary, wondering:

  1. Do I break my train of thought, mid-chapter, to digest this vignette?
  2. Or do I skip it for the present and awkwardly retrace my steps afterward to find and read it?

The index could also be better (see Description above). Such technicalities aside, the Flora celebrates and participates in the tradition of herbals, florilegia and floras. This plant book offers novices a sweeping glance at the history of our interaction with plants -- their hunters and growers, those who write about them and those who make botanical prints of them.

Readers who aspire to the botanical intelligentsia will like the material on how plant books in the West evolved from the florilegia of the exploration and discovery periods to the floras of the Enlightenment. As explained in the introduction:

The rich and powerful collected plants to grow in their gardens and greenhouses. Extravagant, expensive, oversize, often hand-colored volumes called florilegia were published to showcase these collections of newly introduced plants streaming in from around the world. As the age of enlightenment and modern science emerged, florilegia faded in favor of more rigorous works attempting to depict all the plants growing in a given region.... Although they represent very different approaches, each could be called a flora mirabilis -- a wonderful book about flowers.

The Flora satisfies those with a sense of adventure by relating exploits of plant hunters, such as those who brought plants from China to the West.

Still others will enjoy the chance to bone up on plant trivia. Impress your coffee-house comrades with tidbits such as the fact that, ca. 1475, Kiva Han, the world's first coffee shop, opened in Constantinople (p. 61). Wonder why people ever bothered inventing a formula for the meaning of roses and other flowers? Page 213 informs you that "Victorian manners prescribed polite and reserved communication, particularly between the sexes.... Straightforward speech and declarations of feeling and emotion were deemed unseemly, and so individuals, particularly suitors and their objects of desire, communicated through a well-defined language of flowers."

The Flora thus tries to please various types of people; maybe too many. Separate volumes on plant history and the evolution of floras might have worked better.

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Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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