Chasing Plants: Journeys With A Botanist Through Rainforests, Swamps, And Mountains By Chris Thorogood — Review
A botanist combines his two lifelong passions, science and art, in this gripping account of his incredible adventures to exotic places around the globe
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Do you love plants? Or maybe you love art? Or how about travel: do you love traveling to wild places on a personal quest for something? If you are intrigued by any of these propositions, then you simply must check out this splendiferous new book, Chasing Plants: Journeys With A Botanist Through Rainforests, Swamps, And Mountains (University of Chicago Press, 2022: Amazon US / Amazon UK), by botanist, Chris Thorogood. Dr Thorogood is Deputy Director and Head of Science at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum, where his research focuses on using molecular tools to explore the fundamental processes in plant evolutionary ecology. Most of his time is spent investigating host specificity in parasitic plants and how this can drive speciation, and examining the novel ecological processes that drive speciation in carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plants.
Surprisingly, despite his credentials, Dr Thorogood never provides much detail about the natural history of the plants he’s seeking in this book, about his research nor what he is doing to conserve these rare plants that he clearly loves so much. Instead, this book is a travelogue that focuses on some of Dr Thorogood’s many adventures around the planet in search of fascinating, beautiful or rare wild plants. His goal? To paint these plants.
One might say Dr Thorogood is obsessed with plants. Actually, Dr Thorogood says Dr Thorogood is obsessed with plants:
“I’ve chased plants for as long as I can remember: I’ve learned the language of them, how to read the land with them and how to speak to its people through them. Knowing plants lets you see a place differently, read the forest’s mind, and listen to the mountain.
Once you’ve thought of something long and hard enough, you can’t unthink it. Right? Once you’ve hauled yourself up a wet mountainside in pursuit of a pitcher plant, macheted your way to that orchid, or divined the world’s largest flower in your mind’s eye, you have to do it for real, don’t you? Find them, whatever it takes. Get to know them, their haunts; bathe in their beauty.” (p. 15)
Although he always loved plants as a child and had turned his bedroom into a small greenhouse crammed with plants of all sorts, it was the chance discovery of ‘a whole forest’ of sap-sucking, leafless common broomrapes, busily stealing nutrients from the roots of ornamental shrubbery next to an IKEA car park that planted the seed that ultimately changed his life: to pursue his single-minded passion to study carnivorous plants.
Now, as a full-fledged botanist, Dr Thorogood travels to many exotic floristic hotspots, including the Mediterranean Basin, Macaronesia, Southeast Asia, and Japan. He tells us of his struggles to reach rare plants. As his readers, we too dangle from cliffs, climb erupting volcanoes, endure typhoons, earthquakes and deadly landslides, and watch as he collects seeds from exotic plants so he can grow them in the lab, learn their ways, paint them.
An internationally acclaimed botanical illustrator, Dr Thorogood’s detailed hyperrealistic paintings bring these marvellous plants ‘out of the shadows’ where they can captivate even the most casual observer. And his paintings are glorious: a brilliantly colorful sawfly orchid that looks like it’s shouting gleefully (p 71). The parasitic Hydnora, ‘a coven of gaping, red-mouthed vampires’ with white fangs whose fist-like flower can punch through pavements and damage infrastructure (p. 79).
The book culminates with the author’s journey to Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu, the largest mountain in all of the Malay Archipelago. Home to a plethora of rare and beautiful plants, ranging from ferns to orchids to carnivorous pitcher plants, Mount Kinabalu is a botanical wonderland. It is a place of pilgrimage for botanists who, over the centuries, left a rich legacy in their personal collections and in the accounts of their adventures.
Astonishingly, Mount Kinabalu boasts more species of ferns than found in all of Africa. Further, many of the plants that live on this one mountain have only ever been collected — or seen — once. But pitcher plants is where Mount Kinabalu is unparalleled: it is home to a jungle bursting with pitcher plants, five species of which occur nowhere else. And these plants are especially impressive on Mount Kinabalu, with some species producing ‘pitchers the size of house cats.’
Sadly, two in five plant species are currently faced with extinction. How to conserve these botanical wonders? Dr Thorogood recognizes that botanists have a vital role to play in raising the public’s awareness of and appreciation for plants.
“We rely on them for our very existence: for food, clothes and medicines — and, as we’re discovering more and more, for our mental health and well-being.”
But plants have their own inherent value.
“We have a duty of care to conserve them — not just for future generations of people to enjoy — but because of their own intrinsic value and worth. As a botanist and artist, if I can help foster a greater care and attention for plants and their plight, even in some small way, then I am happy”, Dr Thorogood once told me last January (more here).
Maybe, as Dr Thorogood hopes, this book filled with his adventure and paintings will inspire future generations to also explore this world, to admire what they find, to protect these wonders that they may have only read and dreamt about in their youth, and to work to leave the world a better place.
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