Life & Culture

Botanical secrets from around the world

Shabbat walks led to a career celebrating the natural world


In these troubled times, as we emerge, blinking, from the latest lockdown, we could all do with a bit of comfort.

And comfort in — ahem — spade loads is what you get in Jonathan Drori’s delightful new book, Around The World in 80 Plants, a companion to his previous book, Around The World in 80 Trees.

Both are lavishly illustrated by the French artist Lucille Clerc, gloriously rendering Drori’s plant stories in a wash of colour so that you could almost put your hands on the pages and pick a flower or a leaf.

Drori’s career is long and distinguished, from senior positions at the BBC to many environmental and ecological trusteeships, including Cornwall’s Eden Project, ambassador for the Woodland Trust and one of the Council of Ambassadors for the World Wildlife Fund. He is also chair of the Wingate Trust, which supports Jewish life and learning and awards annual literary prizes. He was awarded a CBE in 2006 and is a former trustee of Kew Gardens.

So he comes to this book with a lifetime of experience and a passion for talking about — and encouraging the preservation of — plants, trees, insects and birds. He brings with him a cheerfully wry sense of humour and a wonderful way of explaining to the previously ignorant the golden nuggets of fact, the “did you knows?” that make the book such fun to read. Just watch one of his four TED talks, viewed more than 3.3 million times, to get a flavour of Drori at his best.

It all began with Shabbat afternoon walks to Richmond Park or Kew Gardens. “Between the ages of about four or five, until I was a teenager, I probably went to Kew at least once every two weeks, all through summer and winter, in every weather”.

His father had come to Britain in 1938, from eastern Europe via Palestine. “I think his first love was botany. He had studied at the Hebrew University and came to Britain to study further, but the country didn’t really need botanists, so he retrained as a mechanical engineer and made a good career. My mother was also interested in plants… so between them, my brother [seven years older] and I got lots of stories about plants and their uses.”

One moment that “stuck with me, all my life”, took place in Richmond Park when Drori was about five years old. “We used to go and visit this cedar of Lebanon tree, it was a fantastic tree. And one day we went to see it and it had been stuck by lightning, and died. And my father — I had thought he was in benign control of everything — but it was the first time I saw him cry. My mother said, there had been a whole world in that tree. And at the time, I understood that as purely in terms of the tree and the insects and birds which lived in it. But later, given what had happened to my father’s family during the war, I understood that what my mother was saying was that the tree was a metaphor for the Jewish people of eastern Europe”.

Drori’s grandmother was “frum”, he said, “but she had no problem at all reconciling that with a scientific outlook on the world. She would hear us talk about evolution and the way that plants or animals would adapt to fill ecological niches. And she would say, absolutely. I have no truck with what is called ‘intelligent design’. And she would have a little twinkle in her eye and she would say, ‘ah, but who made evolution?’”

It is indeed hard, reading Plants, not to wonder if there isn’t some sort of master plan at play — because Drori often picks out an example of how a shrub or tree (yes, trees slipped in here, somehow, too), lures insects or birds to it in order to get them to become covered in pollen and move on to distribute the pollen elsewhere. “We have good explanations for things like gravity, or the colour of a plant — and, yes, evolution. We don’t need to see a guiding hand… but you could stand back from the whole lot, and say, it’s all pretty amazing”.

On almost every page there is a surprise: Drori writes about plants which can live for a thousand years. There’s one in the Namib Desert in Angola, the welwitschia, which he says can grow “for 500-600 years, in the most inhospitable conditions. It was described by Charles Darwin as “the platypus of the plant world” meaning that, like the platypus, this is a plant with no known relations.

Here’s Drori on Israel’s pride and joy, the citron, more familiar to us, perhaps, as the etrog, prized at Succot. He says: “It’s the forerunner of the lemon, and the way it ended up spreading throughout the Mediterranean was through the Jewish population” — though in fact, Drori points out, the citron originated in China before being brought to the West around 600 BCE.

Now the etrog is being revived, we learn, no longer fated just to be made into jam after Succot. “It is being researched as an alternative ingredient for lemonade that would need less sugar… its zest is added to trendy tisanes and its peel candied for cakes and… triumphantly, coated with chocolate”.

Succot gets another mention when we are introduced to myrtle, which is one of the Four Species carried during the festival; and, though we meet myrrh in its native country of Yemen, Drori tells us that 5,000 years ago, “camel caravans brought the biblical species of myrrh to Egypt. The Old Testament refers to its use as incense, and to its aphrodisiac and fragrant qualities”. But guess what? Myrrh, says Drori, “means ‘bitter’ in Semitic languages.” In other words, this is the original “maror” of our Seder plates.

There’s another surprise in Drori’s account of the opium poppy, the raw material for morphine and heroin. It turns out that it is possible to test positive for drugs a whole week after eating a poppyseed bagel, although you won’t get high. “You wouldn’t get sent to jail for it” says Drori, laughing, amused at the idea that someone might use a bagel in their defence.

Along the way we learn about the Dutch tulip wars of the 17th century and the even madder adoption of the pineapple in mid 18th century Britain, where people rented the fruits “as a high-status accessory,” to take along to soirées.

“I grew up with a wide range of subjects,” says Drori, who decided to present the book from a variety of different sources — interdisciplinary, if you will, encompassing “science, history, culture, etymology”, and weave them together.

There is a pleasing echo of the former British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, and his A History of the World in 100 Objects, and perhaps also the novels of his wife, Tracy Chevalier. Drori’s driving force was to be able to say something new about each plant. Did I know, for example, that the Black activist Malcolm X used nutmeg in prison to get high?

As with so much else in this delicious book, no, I didn’t — but it was wonderful to find out.


Around the World in 80 Plants by Jonathan Drori is published by Laurence King


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