The best books on Botany

recommended by Chris Thorogood

Pathless Forest: The Quest to Save the World’s Largest Flowers by Chris Thorogood


Pathless Forest: The Quest to Save the World’s Largest Flowers
by Chris Thorogood


In the face of climate change and widespread extinction, there has never been a more important time to study plant science, says Chris Thorogood – author of Pathless Forest: The Quest to Save the World's Largest Flowers. Here he recommends five of his favourite books on botany, including historical accounts of plant exploration and a beautiful photobook profiling the world's most impressive botanical gardens.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Pathless Forest: The Quest to Save the World’s Largest Flowers by Chris Thorogood


Pathless Forest: The Quest to Save the World’s Largest Flowers
by Chris Thorogood


Let me start with a very general question before we talk about your book recommendations: what is botany, and what drew you to the study of it?

Botany, in brief, is the biology of plants. It put down roots in ancient Greece: there the great philosophers Aristotle and Theophrastus established the disciplines of zoology, the study of animals, and botany, the study of plants. Back then, botany was synonymous with herbalism – efforts to identify plants that were either edible or medicinal. Then medieval physic gardens were established for growing useful plants. These were forerunners to the first botanic gardens of universities, established in the 1500s onwards – such as the one in which I work – the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, founded in 1621.

Today the term botany is interchangeable with ‘plant science.’ As someone with a scientific turn of mind, and who loves plants, the subject has always fascinated me. As a child, I’d look at part of a plant and think: ‘how does this work?’ It was inevitable that I would become a botanist.

Your own new book Pathless Forest records your search for the Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower. Could you tell us where this quest took you, and what you found there?

Rafflesia is the genus containing the world’s largest flowers, and they grow only in the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. I first set eyes on Rafflesia in a book, as a child: it was extraordinary, I thought. I made a promise to myself that one day I would find it. Now I am a botanist and I dedicate my life to working on remarkable plants such as Rafflesia.

Some species of Rafflesia grow only in very remote and inhospitable jungles – places it takes days to get to – forests you need to stay with a tribe to reach. Pathless Forest is the story of my adventures in pursuit of them, in the wildest parts of the Philippines, Java and Sumatra.

Pathless Forest is also a story of plants in peril – and together with my colleagues in Southeast Asia – our efforts to save them from extinction. In the book, I aim to portray plants differently; to capture their intrigue. My hope is that it will inspire people with a subject that has always fascinated me.

The first book you’ve chosen to recommend is the wonderfully titled The Cabaret of Plants. It’s by the renowned botanist Richard Mabey—well known in Britain for his memoir Nature Cure and foraging guide Food For Free. What do you admire about this more recent book?

This book is all about seeing plants: noticing them. Something which I’ve come to take very seriously as a botanist.

The Cabaret of Plants brings to life a community of proactive, animal-defying, communicating plants that unfurl and dance across every page: carnivores engulfing insect prey with sinister jaws, orchids mimicking female insects to dupe male insects into mating with them, and arums that raise their own internal temperature to attract pollinating midges. Together, this ‘cabaret’ has the power to change our view of plants as passive objects; above all it gives them personalityand raises an age-old conundrum of whether or not plants can be said to be intelligent. Mabey’s message is that plants are not passive, or victims; rather they are vital, autonomous beings. Listening to them is important for our co-existence.

I know there have been a few books summarising research into plant intelligence recently. Is this an area of research you’re excited by?

Whether or not plants are intelligent has been controversial historically: they don’t possess a brain of course. But first things first, we first need to define intelligence. If we can define intelligence as quick to adapt – to ‘know’ – or even to change behaviour, then in a sense it is reasonable to describe plants as intelligent organisms, and they achieve these things very well without a nervous system. A moment ago I mentioned carnivorous plants engulfing insect prey – in this case they outsmart animals quite considerably!

Next, you’ve chosen Fiona Stafford’s The Brief Life of Flowers. In it, she offers a potted cultural history of fifteen floral species. Could you tell us more?

Fiona’s work explores our fascination with nature: flowers, trees and landscapes. The first line of her book reads

I can measure my entire life with leaves and petals

and she goes on to explain this through vivid reflections of childhood memories of flowers. She goes on to describe how the beauty of flowers has inspired creative minds from Botticelli to Beatrix Potter, in a series of mini-essays examining a miscellany of plants.

One of the things I love about this book is that it gives as much time to a thistle as it does to conventionally beautiful flowers – sunflowers, poppies and so on; by the time you put the book down, if you hadn’t yet seen beauty and wonder in a thistle, the chances are you soon will!

I love that. Do you have any personal favourites from among the less exotic plant species?

I’ve spent many a happy hour in a carpark identifying weeds! You don’t have to go to a rainforest to appreciate striking works of nature.

Quite. Richard Mabey also has a wonderful book about weeds that is a personal favourite of my own. Your next botany book recommendation is a rather beautiful coffee table book. Would you talk us through India Hobson & Magnus Edmondson’s photography book Glasshouse Greenhouse?

The authors of Glasshouse Greenhouse set out to visit, document and photograph the world’s botanic gardens’ glasshouses – including those at Oxford Botanic Garden.

As a child, I grew up in a house full of books – books falling off the shelves and piling onto the floor. I was surrounded by them. And I developed a curious habit of sniffing the pages of every book I picked up – one I haven’t quite shaken off. Some smell old, like vanilla; others smell fresh, like rain on warm ground. Glasshouse Greenhouse is one of those sumptuous books that smells so good it’s worth buying for its smell alone. It’s also a visual treat, with tropical foliage sprawling luxuriantly over every page. This is one of those books you can keep on your coffee table and feel happier just for knowing it’s there.

Tell us a bit more about Oxford’s Botanic Garden and Arboretum. As you mentioned, it’s one of the oldest scientific gardens in the world. What do you have in your collections there?

Because we are a botanic garden, we grow plants from all around the world. This means that there is an incredible diversity of plant species in a small area. In fact we grow 5000 different types of plant, some of which hold significant conservation value. They’re also an important resource for engaging people with the importance of plants – and this is a challenge: as animals ourselves, we are attuned to seeing other animals; we tend to perceive plants as a green backdrop against which we exist, as I mentioned earlier. Known metaphorically as ‘plant blindness,’ this is concerning because we depend on plants for our very existence. Inspiring large audiences with the wonder of plants is important – especially new generations who will be the next custodians of our world’s flora. This is something I take very seriously.

Your own research concentrates on parasitic and carnivorous plants.

Parasitic and carnivorous plants have always intrigued me. They challenge our perception of what a plant is, and how it behaves. Most plants rely on energy from sunlight and nutrients from soil to grow and survive, but parasitic and carnivorous plants obtain their nutrients by other means. They’ve evolved fascinating, and seemingly cunning, ways to achieve this – and every year scientists unearth new surprises about them. They are full of intrigue. In fact these plants grow in just about every terrestrial habitat you can think of. But rainforests – as some of the most biodiverse places on earth – are especially rich in them.

Your next two botany books take us to East Asia. Perhaps you’d tell us why you recommend Walter Weston’s The Playground of the Far East, which was published in 1918 and is available now as an on-demand reprint.

Walter Weston was an English clergyman, writer and mountaineer. I first encountered his work when I was researching nature writers who had visited Japan. Weston was famously captivated by Japanese landscapes, and he brought the Japanese Alps to the attention of the world with this book, The Playground of the Far East. My own glimpses of Japan stem from working on a campaign of conservation work led by Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel the length and breadth of the country, and I can really identify with Weston’s descriptions of alpine Japan – its silence and solitude; its vast beauty. I remember he describes a ‘mighty tree-grown amphitheatre’ above a cliff that ‘falls in three great leaps a thousand feet’ – to me this is such a powerful image. This book conjures a new world on every page.

How beautiful. Was it books like this that inspired you to follow the path you have? It seems a romantic lifestyle, plant exploring.

My path was quite an instinctive choice: I always knew I wanted to study living things, plants especially. Yes I suppose there is a romanticism to these historical accounts but I don’t think it was this that was my compass: it was more the thrill of encountering a plant I’d long dreamed about finding. And the reality can be far from romantic – wading into mosquito-infested swamps and leech-stricken forests – but that just makes the reward even greater.

And your final botany book recommendation is another historic text, first published in 1863: Spencer St. John’s Life in the Forests of the Far East. It drew from his travels in Borneo. Why do you recommend it?

To answer this, first I must tell you about a mountain. Mount Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo, is truly a botanical wonderland. It’s the largest in the Malay Archipelago, and has jagged black pinnacles like a great stegosaurus jutting out of the cloud. As a child I’d stare at photographs of this mountain in books and dream about climbing it. It drew me like a magnet.

Kinabalu is known for its diversity of orchids and pitcher plants and it’s long been a place of pilgrimage for botanists. The first documented ascent of Kinabalu was made by a botanist called Sir Hugh Low in 1851 – one of an adventurous group of nineteenth century plant collectors. Spenser St. John was the Consul General of Brunei who joined these botanists’ adventures and he recorded lively descriptions of them in his book Life in the Forests of the Far East. Reading it, you really get a sense of their excitement upon seeing plants that, then, were unknown to science. I was inspired by these accounts I read long before I planned my own ascents of Mount Kinabalu in my early twenties. Years later, I still find myself dipping in and out of this book.

Would you have any advice to a young person interested in studying botany?

My work takes me all over the world in pursuit of plants: I’ve been over the edge of cliffs and down into the very depths of the rainforest and followed indigenous communities to find them. That’s the wonderful thing about botany – it’s a passport to places no one else can go.

And it’s hard to understate the importance of plant science. From increasing food security in a changing climate, to protecting vulnerable ecosystems: plants are key to the solutions to some of the world’s most urgent challenges. There has never been a more important time to study botany.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

March 14, 2024

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Chris Thorogood

Chris Thorogood

Chris Thorogood lectures biology at the University of Oxford where he holds the position of Deputy Director at Oxford Botanic Garden. His research focusses on evolution, biodiversity and biomimetics, and his work takes him around the world in pursuit of plants. Chris is also an acclaimed wildlife artist and botanical illustrator.

Chris Thorogood

Chris Thorogood

Chris Thorogood lectures biology at the University of Oxford where he holds the position of Deputy Director at Oxford Botanic Garden. His research focusses on evolution, biodiversity and biomimetics, and his work takes him around the world in pursuit of plants. Chris is also an acclaimed wildlife artist and botanical illustrator.