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Review | The Plant Hunters By Anita Silvey

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on May 18, 2012

ISBN-13: 9780374309084
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 4/10/2012
Pages: 96

Nonfiction kindred spirit Anita Silvey goes to great lengths to feature titles with Dewey Decimal numbers at the Children’s Book-a-Day Almanac.

Publishers, reviewers and librarians visit her site to read about relevant books in science, history or biography for children. The former editor of Horn Book has reviewed aptly and expertly such nonfiction books as The Great Molasses Flood by Deborah Kops and Witches! by Rosalyn Schanzer.

Silvey’s recently released book The Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth is as much about her intense curiosity as it is great reading material for young botanists.

In a blog essay posted at the Nerdy Book Club, she writes about a compulsion to understand things.

I have always read, in large part, for information about the world. I believe I loved novels like Anne of Green Gables because I learned about Prince Edward Island from it or The Secret Garden, because it taught me about pruning roses. I devoured then and now history, geography, biography; I was one of those readers who wanted to know if something had really happened, if something was true.

In The Plant Hunters, Silvey writes about botanomaniacs who harvested rare lilies from rock crevices in China’s desolate Min Valley, sugar pine nuts chewed by members of the Kalapooia tribe and orchid seeds from the Himalayan countryside. The book features beautiful lithographs of plants, a variety of maps and photos of adventurous botanists who braved disease, disasters, bandits, biting insects and wild animals to search for rare seeds and plants.

Silvey’s research turned up plant hunters seeking medicinal plants like the cinchona tree which produced quinine to treat malaria. Others transported plants like the rubber tree around the world to develop commercial crops. There were also those who gathered plants for the botanical collections of Kew Gardens in London or the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

Silvey writes about plant hunters who were fascinated by scientific discovery like Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern botany. He developed the universal system of animal and plant classification still used today. To facilitate the exchange of scientific information, new plant species are given descriptive Latin names by genus and species.

An inspiring story of a plant hunter motivated by the prospect of finding meaningful work was that of Ynes Mexia. According to Silvey, Mexia enrolled in botany classes at the University of California Berkley at age 51.

She accompanied botanist Roxanna Ferris on a plant expedition to Mexico at age 55 and would make seven more trips to Central and South America. Her knowledge of the culture and language made valuable inroads with locals and guides. Mexia would contribute to the collection of more than 500 new species. The plant genus Mexianthus mexicanus she discovered in Jalisco, Mexico was one of 50 named for her.

A fascinating fact in the book reveals the purpose of a high-security facility built into a sandstone mountain on the remote Norweigian island of Spitsbergen—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. According to Silvey, this seed bank preserves a massive collection of seeds to protect against the loss of germplasm (genetic material) due to worldwide or regional crisis.

The Plant Hunters by Anita Silvey is a highly worthwhile read filled with the compelling stories of plant hunters, past and present, moved by the excitement of travel, love of the natural world, a desire to make a profit or the need to devote themselves to the study of plants.

Category: Juvenile Nonfiction, Science, Nature

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