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Books & Poetry

The Cabaret of Plants

Books & Poetry

The root system of Richard Mabey’s latest addition to his already voluminous backyard catalogue, which includes the much lauded “plant bible” Flora Britannica, runs deep into the subterranean world of imagination.

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Specifically, the imaginations of those besotted with, disturbed and downright confused by plants and their inexhaustible capacity to astonish.

Mabey’s meander through the potted history of some of flora’s most peculiar gems burrows and climbs its way from cave art to Wordsworth’s daffodils to Keats’ great romantic confusion and Van Gogh’s attachment to olive trees, ever onwards to shamans and explorers forever on the hunt for something strange and enticing (not to mention profitable).

Trees that live thousands of years only to be surreptitiously hijacked by religion after religion and the hunt in the deepest Amazon for a flower that blooms only by the full moon are just two of the fascinating accounts of plant life unfurled by his mastery of the word as well as the genus.

The Cabaret of Plants – subtitled Botany and the Imagination – is indeed a compostable feast, one of those rare tomes that manages to entertain and simultaneously educate. Who, for instance, would have thought that a plant could turn mud flat to dry land, or bloom only underground?

It is one thing to sit in the garden and watch the white fly devour the roses; it’s another thing altogether to spend three years in a mosquito-infested rainforest searching endlessly for carnivorous lilies or tree-climbing succulents.

What we consider gardening becomes somewhat laughable when stacked against the tales in this mammoth perennial. Which is not to say that we should hang up our trowels and take to canoes – no, that has already been done, and thank the gods of botany for that.

You will never see ginseng in the same light – I promise you.

The Cabaret of Plants, by Richard Mabey, Profile Books, $39.99.

The Cabaret of Plants, by Richard Mabey, Profile Books, $39.99.

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