Atlas of Poetic Botany - Fantastical Read
Atlas of Poetic Botany by Francis Hallé (The MIT Press 2018) is a mind-bending magical book. Be forewarned: What seems like fiction is actually truth.
Francis Hallé, French botanist, biologist, artist, explorer and cherisher of equatorial forests, shows us 34 tropical plant species in colorful prose and drawings as he describes these forest dwellers of extraordinary growth and strange adaptations, wondrous co-evolution, unique behaviors, and plants of distinction. Here, five species are portrayed.
“Underground Trees” brought tears to my eyes! The Parinari, ancient trees of the South African savanna with some over a thousand years old, have resorted and adapted to life underground to escape brutal weather patterns such as lightning strikes and fires caused by storms. (Will we humans evolve to do that?) In the rainy season, great puddles of flowers and leaves drew the attention of botanists who found soft branches upon digging. Fifteen species were identified between South Africa and the Jaborosa in Argentina.
These underground trees are cause for thought for Hallé regarding what exactly is a tree. Even now, he says, there is no consensus on a definition of “tree.”
I first wondered about the word “poetic” in the title, how it connected to botany, but now I feel it – the beauty, the imagery of Halle’s words and drawings, the transport to another world unknown to almost everyone, plants we never dreamed existed. His interpretation of his research, experience and contemplation is exquisite.
Among the myriad of marvels and mysteries is Codariocalyx motorius, the “dancing plant” from Southern China that responds to sound waves. At the botanical garden of Xishuangbanna, Hallé watched people clap their hands to make the upper leaflets of trifoliate Codaiocalyx do the wiggle. When Hallé sang a French song, the plants danced then, too. Scientists discovered that the plant dances by “some kind of memory” and sound receptors, but they have not yet learned why the plant has the receptors, or of what benefit they are. But, “like a practicing ballerina,” the more often the sound, the better it moves. The dancing plant was praised by Darwin in 1880.
The “Adultery Tree,” Barteria fistulosa, with pretty white passionflower blossoms and a benign resemblance to an alternate-leafed sumac, grows much like our native sumacs in edge habitat and structure.
In Gabon, Central Africa, this small tree grows in mutualistic bliss with large ants (Tetraponera) that live in its hollow branches. They are vicious and aggressive with a bite and sting that can cause death, thereby offering superior protection against predators and, in return, receive life-long shelter and flower nectar. Even the monkeys stay away.
If a human comes within a few centimeters, the ants drop like rain from the branches and attack. In historical Galm and Camaroon, adulterous women were stood by the trunk for punishment. The ants also catch unwary passersby. Barteria is quite prolific since no one is willing to get close enough to cut it down.
Hallé paints a fantasy-like portrait of Cecropia peltata in Brazil and Guyana in the chapter “One of the Pinnacles of Plant-Animal Coevolution.” The tree makes clusters of fake ant eggs that attract aggressive Azteca ants that move in for shelter and provide protection. Woe to a critter that touches the leaves!
Thousands of the ants chase and sting all critters, except for sloths and little ants that build nests of vegetation with lots of seeds that sprout into "ant gardens." They chew some seeds to form cardboard nests while others sprout and reinforce its walls. Seeds of another species grow umbrella-like leaves to protect the nests from tropical rains.
Bats eat the trees' fruits and spread the seeds during their night flight, constantly bombarding the forest. Cecropia seeds abound, sprout and outcompete each other, shading and killing off those with weaker genes. The weak trees’ roots survive and capture water, then feed it to the strong trees.
The epiphyte Guzmania lingulata in the tropical canopy is a hanging aquarium with frogs, mollusks, shrimp, insect larvae, a crab that is only found there, and a carnivorous bladderwort. Guzmania grow in full light in treetops where its leaves form a tight vase that holds up to seven gallons of water. Dead leaves rot at the base and make compost that supports scorpions, millipedes, cockroaches, termites, and a blind snake!
A debatable theory: Guzmania turns carnivorous and kills all inhabitants to form fertilizer for its blossoms. More research needs to be done!
“These hanging aquariums demonstrate that the canopy is the most extraordinary habitat in the tropics; exploration of the ecological and biological diversity here has hardly even begun.”
– Francis Hallé, Atlas of Poetic Botany excerpt
This book is so fascinating that I could write about every single entry, but why not just buy the book for yourself? It speaks of a world unknown to most plant lovers. You'll broaden your botanical knowledge while discovering these tropical wonderments.
Do yourself a favor. Get the Book. Atlas of Poetic Botany by Francis Hallé with Éliane Patriarca, translated by Erik Butler
All photos courtesy of The MIT Press
Meet Francis Hallé here.
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published January 22, 2020