Reaching for the Sun: How Plants Work – an interview with author John King

Reaching for the Sun jacket imageWhat first led you to become interested in the study of plant science?

At school and, later, as an undergraduate student, I encountered mentors who encouraged an interest in, at first, natural history, then, general plant biology, and, finally, the more specialized field of plant physiology and biochemistry. This interest continued to grow during my years as a graduate student, becoming, in time, an academic career in plant biology.

Plants demonstrate considerable variety of form and colour, and thrive in all corners of the globe – is there a realm of plant science that particularly interests you?

My own fascination is with how plants work at the most fundamental level. In my research career, I focused on plant metabolism using such tools as biochemical mutants and molecular biological techniques to investigate how plants manufacture the molecules they require for their everyday needs, such as those involved in DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis, vitamin production – including folic acid – and some of those used by plants to defend themselves against attack by fungal diseases.

Reaching for the Sun is accessible to the non-specialist as well as the student – what was your aim for the book? What can a potential reader expect?

My aim in writing the first edition was to provide knowledge of how plants work to the informed layperson who has some background knowledge of plant biology. The green organisms are the bedrock of the biosphere in that they are the primary producers of the foods nearly all other living things must have. Their ability to capture energy from the sun and use it to form complex organic molecules from simple inorganic compounds like carbon dioxide and water is a miracle of nature. Yet there are many books with a focus on the wonders of animals and animal life but not nearly as many on plants and their lifestyles; I decided I could help to rectify this imbalance.

The seventeen chapters in the first edition covered many aspects of the inner workings of plants. I approached the subject from an historical point of view thinking that showing how our knowledge of how plants work had evolved over time would carry the less well informed reader towards increasing understanding of these unique and critically important organisms.

Parts 1-4 in the second edition cover the same major topics as the first but also includes new information consistent with recent advances in knowledge. To make this edition accessible, still, to the non-specialist, some more advanced information is kept separate in Boxes. If non-specialists wish to skip this source of information, they can do so without losing the thread of discussion in the main text. More knowledgeable students can use the Boxes as a source of additional information.

Part 5 deals with the great global geological and biogeological cycles of five of the most important elements needed by plants: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. The first chapter in this section charts how these natural cycles operated in the four and a half billion years or so of the Earth’s existence before humans began having a significant global impact. The second chapter highlights some of the effects human activities are having on these cycles and, then, on plants, since the advent of the Industrial Revolution about 300 years ago.

How are the plant sciences set to deal with the consequences of such environmental changes?

Advances made in recent years in plant biology are huge and at all levels of plant life from the ecological to the molecular. At the level I am particularly interested in, unprecedented advances in knowledge are occurring at breathtaking speed.  Our understanding of how plants work at the most basic physiological and biochemical levels improves and expands daily, it seems.

I added Part 5 to the book because of my belief that students entering the plant sciences today need to understand how their planet has evolved during its eons of existence, how the activities of a rapidly growing human population are accelerating the pace of this evolution, especially its great elemental cycles, and what effects these imposed changes are having on plants at the most fundamental level. Any plant biology student in the 21st century needs to develop an understanding of and sensitivity to the impact of human activities on plants at all levels, including the physiological and biochemical. My aim was to provide a few clear examples of how human impacts on our land, water, and atmospheric resources are affecting how plants work. After all, the changes seen at the ecological level are often a reflection of the impact human-forced changes to the environment are having on the everyday activities going on in the cells of the plant.

John King is Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of Saskatchewan

Five Reasons to Buy Trees of Panama and Costa Rica

Trees of Panama and Costa Rica

“This is an impressive tour-de-force of tropical plant identification. The lively writing is accessible to nonspecialists, while the broad taxonomic coverage and authoritative species descriptions make this guide useful to professional botanists.” – Brad Boyle, University of Arizona

  1. The only tree guide to cover Panama and Costa Rica together
  2. Covers almost 500 species
  3. Contains 438 high-resolution photographs
  4. Includes 480 colour distribution maps
  5. There are concise and jargon-free descriptions of key characteristics for every species

Richard Condit is a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Rolando Pérez is chief botanist and Nefertaris Daguerre is a forest specialist with the Center for Tropical Forest science at the STRI.

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Carnivorous Plants and their Habitats

Carnivorous Plants and their Habitats jacket imageThis very generously illustrated two-volume set is the product of eight years of intensive travel and research on the part of the author, naturalist Stewart McPherson. It’s packed full of detail about the natural history and ecology of these fascinating plants – the 1441 pages include 799 colour photographs! Horticulturalists and botanists are presented with unparalleled information about all the carnivorous plant genera, including four species of Nepenthes described here for the first time.

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of HistoryFifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

From the crops that have fed billions of people over the centuries to the plants highly regarded for their medicinal qualities, this fascinating offering from garden expert Bill Laws unearths the stories behind some of the world’s best-known plants. The plants are assessed by their influence in the categories of edible, medicinal, practical and commerical, allowing the reader to discover how each of the fifty featured plants has earnt its right to be regarded as changing the course of history. Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History draws upon some fascinating sources from ancient wall paintings to old Japanese wood blocks, depicting traditional methods of harvesting and preparing crops.

Our favourite plant from this book? Coffee

Coffea arabica – black gold. Thought to have been brought to the West by Marco Polo in the 13th Century, coffee is an economic, cultural and social phenomenon without parallel globally… and particularly in the office at NHBS.

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

Reed – an expert’s view

A Book of Reed jacket image

Dr S. M. Haslam is a field botanist and researcher with the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, who has made intensive studies of reed sites in Britain and Malta, and less intensively across eastern and western Europe, Israel and North America. Her studies on plant growth have made her familiar with various plants from Africa and Australia. Her new book, A Book of Reed, is published by Forrest Text. We asked Dr. Haslam for some insight into her subject…

“Reed occurs in all five continents. It is concentrated in Europe, Asia and Africa, but is most variable and abundant in eastern Europe and into Asia (much in China), in temperate climes. Here it is the commonest wetland dominant, the commonest (non-bog) peat former, and the commonest sparse species in other wetland types. Reed peat is of course a fen peat, formed under water from old plant peats. Reed beds, before much human impact, often lived for several thousand years, colonising flooded areas and building up peat until dry land vegetation could invade or land or sea level changed to increase surface water again. The plants have large rhizome systems growing at the front and dying at the back. It is thought, but without evidence, that the same plants live throughout the life of a stable bed (one that is not subject to constant disturbance and disruption).

“Before main drainage, the next most important habitat (still seen, though sparsely) is in bands along lowland streams, outside a fringing band of trees or bushes. Small dominant stands occur in other wet places, and sparse reeds are in most fens, rich and poor, in estuaries and beside some rivers.

“Reed is extraordinarily sensitive to most environmental impacts, natural and human. These variations make reed a fascinating study in plant behaviour.

“There has been a deplorable decline and loss of river plants which is quite possibly worst in Britain, among the larger countries. This has occurred over the past 30 years or so, although some decline was recorded from the 1930s through to 1980 (principally in fine-leaved Potamogetons). Among small countries, Malta seems to be approaching total loss in a few decades time, there having been a good and common aquatic flora in 1850. This loss, however, is primarily due to water loss from abstraction.”

The dedication in Dr. Haslam’s next book, “The Waving Plants of the River”, is to “the botanists of the future who dedicate their lives to reverse the present decline and devastation of river plants.”

A Book of Reed is available now from NHBS