The Big Bad Book of Botany: a Review

By Steve Young

With a title like this is was anybody’s guess what this book was about.  Michael Largo, author of “The Big Bad Book of Beasts” and other books (mostly about strange people), has compiled information about a wide variety of interesting plants from around the world “The World’s Most Fascinating Flora.”  Each species or taxonomic group (birches, bamboos, blue algae) has two or three pages devoted to information about its taxonomy, naming history, natural history, range, uses, and other odd aspects that the author hopes you have never heard about before.  A lot of information is well known but there are some stories I found interesting and fascinating.  I found myself saying Huh fairly often. Many of the species contain chemicals, poisons, or other dangerous plant parts that have wreaked havoc with humans over the ages. Some of them have made a large impact in other ways like primary food sources or building material. It’s a real potpourri of facts that makes the book useful and not useful at the same time. All of the information comes to us without citations so we don’t know how true it is and some of it will probably be cited by others thus carrying any misinformation forward. There is a short bibliography at the end but it certainly doesn’t cover the tremendous amount of information here.  The plants are listed alphabetically by common names, which are far from standardized, so it is hard to go back to a plant to look something up if you can’t remember the common name the author is using. For example, Humulus lupulus, Hops, are under Beer Plant and Nettles are in two places, under Nettle and under Bad Woman). To make matters worse there is no index to scientific names.  Each plant has an illustration in black and white but they are done by eighteen different artists so there is a wide variety of styles, some more in the style of scientific illustration and some not so scientific. Unfortunately, the drawings for water hyacinth and Victoria water lilies were switched. Because the facts come fast and furious, I found that I couldn’t read too many descriptions before I became fact fatigued but I just came back to the book another day and read more. This is a great book to have if you need some extra interesting information about plants that are on a walk you are leading or you want to gross someone out with a weird plant fact at a party (although, in his fig description, he missed the fact that we often eat dead wasp bodies that remain in the fig fruit after pollination).  It’s also a good book for some extra information about plants that make you go Huh.

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