How plants conquered the earth


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In “The Incredible Journey of Plants,” Stefano Mancuso celebrates the evolutionary wonders of the green world.

In typical elementary school plays, if you don’t land the lead or a supporting role you may instead be cast as a flower or tree — costumed and face-painted but mute, immobile, part of the scenery. In Italian botanist Stefano Mancuso’s “The Incredible Journey of Plants,” however, it is the shrubbery that takes center stage as the stars of the show.

Mancuso, a neurobiologist and professor of plant science at the University of Florence, has devoted himself to elevating the intelligence of plants, which he argues humans tend to dramatically underestimate. In his new book, translated by Gregory Conti and carpeted with watercolors by Grisha Fischer, he presents numerous specimens of plant evolution, detailing surprising adaptations that have benefited these species against all odds.

The book suggests that paying closer attention to weeds and quiet green things can raise fundamental questions about what it means to be human, and explain where climate change and fiddling with the environment is leading us, and our interconnected relationship to life on the planet. Mancuso offers no answers, stressing instead how plants are fascinating in their own right, and this book will likely charm amateur and expert botanists alike.

If we view plants outside of an “animal filter,” he writes, their stupendous qualities will start to emerge. Their uncanny intuition to survive at all costs includes adaptations such as hitchhiking seeds or the “explosive dispersal” of the aptly named “dynamite tree” (Hura crepitans) that can shoot fruit capsules up to 330 feet. Plants can even thrive after disasters like the Chernobyl nuclear accident, and some species have been brought back from dormancy thousands of years later because of their well-preserved seeds.

Mancuso even expresses his admiration for invasive species like fountain grass or water hyacinth, which have, thanks to human activity, adulterated much of the planet, outcompeting and threatening the local vegetation they push aside. The evolutionary persistence of these weeds makes them the “native flora of the future, just as the invasive species of the past are a fundamental part of our ecosystem today,” he writes. And for that reason, in spite of their destructive habits, their intelligence is captivating.

“True globalization,” Mancuso writes, “has existed forever in nature. For plants, fortunately, tariffs, borders, travel bans, and barriers are meaningless concepts.”

Each chapter contains a series of vignettes centered on a special adaptation. Some are cast as whimsical fables, others as murder mysteries. In taking this inventory of strange flora we are given a tour of the globe, from the ancient Israeli fortress Masada and Campbell Island, slightly north of Antarctica, to the arid dunes of Ténéré in the Sahara and the site of the Hiroshima bombing.

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