Synopses & Reviews
The story of seeds, in a nutshell, is a tale of evolution. From the tiny sesame that we sprinkle on our bagels to the forty-five-pound double coconut borne by the coco de mer tree, seeds are a perpetual reminder of the complexity and diversity of life on earth. With An Orchard Invisible, Jonathan Silvertown presents the oft-ignored seed with the natural history it deserves, one nearly as varied and surprising as the earthand#8217;s flora itself.
Beginning with the evolution of the first seed plant from fernlike ancestors more than 360 million years ago, Silvertown carries his tale through epochs and around the globe. In a clear and engaging style, he delves into the science of seeds: How and why do some lie dormant for years on end? How did seeds evolve? The wide variety of uses that humans have developed for seeds of all sorts also receives a fascinating look, studded with examples, including foods, oils, perfumes, and pharmaceuticals. An able guide with an eye for the unusual, Silvertown is happy to take readers on unexpectedand#8212;but always interestingand#8212;tangents, from Lyme disease to human color vision to the Salem witch trials. But he never lets us forget that the driving force behind the story of seedsand#8212;its theme, evenand#8212;is evolution, with its irrepressible habit of stumbling upon new solutions to the challenges of life.
"I have great faith in a seed," Thoreau wrote. "Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders." Written with a scientistand#8217;s knowledge and a gardenerand#8217;s delight, An Orchard Invisible offers those wonders in a package that will be irresistible to science buffs and green thumbs alike.
and#8220;Seedsand#8212;familiar, mysterious, wonderful, endlessly fascinating, but rarely considered carefully. In this beautifully written popular exposition, Jonathan Silvertown brings seeds to life, illuminating their diversity, their amazing properties, their role in nature, evolution and fate over time, germination and fate in the life of an individual.and#160;To be read by all those interested in nature: they will gain deeper understanding from the lively words that trace these and many other aspects of these familiar structures.and#8221;
and#8220;An oak yields millions of acorns through its life, yet one survivor alone secures its line: natural selectionand#160;acts most stringently on a seed. Here the author of Demons in Eden,and#160;with apt and at times hilarious quotation, explores how humanity has ingeniously exploited the extraordinary and complex devices by which plants, through their seeds, have surmounted competition. Beneath, we observe the relentless yet haphazard tide which is evolution.and#8221;
"I loved this little book. . . . An Orchard Invisible practically spills over with interesting insights. A chapter on the evolutionary rationale for fruit becomes a meditation on color perception. In one paragraph Silvertown will tell you about how plant poisons affect different populations of people, and in the next you're learning that Pythagoras didn't eat beans. A discussion of seed dispersal begins with a note about paper airplane design. His chapters on beer and coffee are particularly enthralling."—Boston Globe New Scientist - Best Books of 2009
and#8220;Entertaining and charmingly illustrated. . . . For all its erudition, however, this is not an encyclopedia of botanical lore, nor a definitive text, but rather a little gem of science writing that deserves a spot on any natural history lover's bedside bookstand. . . . It is simply a delight to read.and#8221;
and#8220;Just as a seed contains the ability to create a whole plant, the evolution of seeds can serve as a microcosm for plant evolution. British ecology professor Silvertown begins with a discussion of how seeds evolved to adapt plants to a fully terrestrial life when they emerged from the sea. In the process, he covers many relevant topics, including sexual and asexual reproduction, plant genetics, plant self-defense and seed dispersal, plant poisons, and seeds as food. The author also explains the coevolution of plants and animals, as in using and perceiving color. He covers some plant products humans use, such as sunflower oil, grain for beer, and coffee. Like Michale Pollan in The Botany of Desire
, Silvertown cites historical attitudes and quotations about particular plants. But he focuses primarily on the science of plant evolution rather than human history or anecdote. . . . Silvertown writes both elegantly and clearly, and the book is as pleasurable to read as it is informative.and#8221;
and#8220;A fabulous book. . . . Silvertownand#8217;s skills are in telling stories. Expect wonders, too. . . . In this book, Silvertown has produced a gem. . . . Read it as a gardener, scientist, food aficionado, historian, botanist, or naturalist, and youand#8217;ll not be disappointed.and#8221;
"In a nutshell, I will never look at seeds the same way again, whether teeny poppy seeds or mammoth coconuts. . . . [A] delicious little book."
and#8220;Focusing on seeds, Jonathan Silvertown has written a witty and charming introduction to the evolutionary wiles of the plant kingdom. . . . Do read this eye-opening book.and#8221;
"Silvertown is a witty botanist with a flair for seeds. . . . All botanists will enjoy this tribute to seeds."
"An enthralling study of the ways seeds survive in the terrestrial world, and also sustain us humans. . . . [The] book will clearly remind its audience of a more vibrant, more sentient world than they might have imagined just outside their door."
"Anyone who has ever marveled at the idea of a tree exploding from something as tiny as a seed will exalt in the beauty of this book."
"Now is the season to plant a garden. And there's no better companion for your labors than Jonathan Silvertown's thorough yet eminently readable history of seeds, An Orchard Invisible. . . . A veritable wonder-chamber."
"This far-ranging book is a recommended tonic for hungry gardening minds." Phoebe Connelly - Barnes and Noble Review
"A subtle but engaging narrative of the evolutionary struggles of seeds. . . . Each of the first twelve chapters of this book tells a remarkable story, accompanied by well-chosen literary excerpts."
About the Author
Jonathan Silvertown is professor of ecology at the Open University, Milton Keynes, and is the author of Demons in Eden and editor and co-author of 99% Ape: How Evolution Adds Up.
Table of Contents
1 An Orchard Invisible: Seeds
2 First Forms Minute: Evolution
3 Even Beans Do It: Sex
4 Before the Seed: Pollination
5 According to Their Own Kinds: Inheritance
6 O Rose, Thou Art Sick!: Enemies
7 The Biggest Coconut I Ever See: Size
8 Ten Thousand Acorns: Number
9 Luscious Clusters of the Vine: Fruit
1 Winged Seeds: Dispersal
11 Circumstance Unknown: Fate
12 Fierce Energy: Germination
13 Sorrowand#8217;s Mysteries: Poisons
14 Ah, Sun-flower! Oil
15 John Barleycorn: Beer
16 Realm of Illusion: Coffee
17 Nourishment and Inspiration: Gastronomy
Sources and Further Reading