A Planet of Plants

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They gave the Earth oxygen 2.7 billion years ago. They are a crucial part of the food chain. We use them for medicine, clothing, household goods, construction, furniture, games, gifts to celebrate, console and apologise. Oh and books! So yeah, plants are kind of important.

They can be some of the smallest living things. Can be the very largest living things. They can also be the oldest living things. Delicate, tough, beautiful, deadly, invasive, parasitic, carnivorous, smelly, tasty… in fact, it’s hard to find an adjective that doesn’t describe one of the 391,000 species of plants on the planet. OK, I’m sure there are plenty. I don’t know any bewildered or embarrassed plants, for example. But the point is that the diversity in flora is vast.

Plants in children’s literature have a significant place, in fiction and nonfiction, and teach us about many aspects of this important and complex kingdom. Here are a few of the different things we can learn about plants in children’s books.

If you want to learn about plants, nonfiction will be the instinctive first port of call. You probably know what to expect when you open one of these books. Flower biology, pollination, germination, photosynthesis, etc… which is all very interesting and fundamental knowledge in this area. But, that’s not all there is. I Ate Sunshine For Breakfast includes all those things, but the reader finds out there are many more areas of interest. The main point to take from this text is how utterly dependent we are on these forms of life. You’ve only got to take one look at a food web to realise how doomed we would be without them – or even some of them (see list in the introduction).

And we have used them for thousands of years. Māori hunters, the book explains, used the silver tree fern. The underside of its leaves is visible in low light and the hunters would use them to find their way back home. Meaning they wouldn’t need to take flaming torches, which would scare away the animals.

Many nonfiction titles may also only give general information about plants and flowers. I Ate Sunshine For Breakfast is wonderful in its range, but it only really scratches the surface. Grow: A Children’s Guide to Plants and How to Grow Them is far more specific. Each chapter focuses on a different plant and its family. Chosen for its impact on cultures around the world. This text reminds me of classic botanical books with illustrations capturing each plant with scientific accuracy. The book tells the reader about different qualities, uses, histories, and step-by-step guides on how to grow them. Many schools have a Green Club, and this book would be an asset to both staff and children.

Did you know each cup of tea uses ten to thirty leaves? That the apples we eat today were wild apples crossbred as traders dropped apple cores on the Silk Road? Everyone knows that a tomato is a fruit, but did you know that botanists consider the tomato a berry?

These are just two of the many nonfiction titles that we would naturally head to. Readers may not, however, go to the fiction section to learn about plants. I remember my Nan saying something about reading fiction and the amount you can learn from it. It’s the kind of knowledge that sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise because you never know quite where a story will take you.

Map of Leaves by Yarrow Townsend is a middle-grade adventure that centres on the healing qualities of plants. Each chapter opens with a different plant and what it’s used for as a traditional remedy. The sap of the forest pine, or Scots pine, for example, can be used as a disinfectant on shallow cuts and as an insect repellent.  What’s extra special is that the plants in this story have a voice. They “speak” to the main character, Orla. Yarrow explained to me that she wanted to have a character “who was so tuned in to the world around them that they noticed every detail.”

It made me think about how many plants around us go unnoticed. All incredibly unique and special. Map of Leaves has taught me to ‘listen’ more to those smaller or unloved plants. Yarrow loves nettles and brambles some people would consider ‘weeds’, but are “essential for wildlife and have been used by people for millennia for clothes and medicine.” Yarrow wanted to give them a voice in a time when herbicides and plastic lawns are taking over gardens.

Hedgewitch by Skye McKenna is another book rooted (sorry) in nature and plant life. A magical fantasy adventure, Skye wanted to show just how “magical the plant kingdom is”. and even though it is fantasy the plants are very much from the real-world. Something Skye felt was very important. “Too many of us suffer from ‘plant-blindness’ – we look at a wood or meadow and just see a sea of green.” without understanding the varieties of plants and their long relationships with us. When reading Hedgewitch, you won’t read about trees and shrubs, rather, Skye explains, but “oak, ash, holly, bramble, bracken, and elder.” 

Children won’t necessarily pick up this book to learn about plants. But as well as enjoying a wonderful story, they will be learning the names of plants they encounter without realising it. What’s interesting too, is that none of the humans in the story have any innate magical ability. Skye wanted the magical power to be “found in nature”. The spells and potions in the book make use of real herbs, taking inspiration from folklore and their medicinal properties. Skye sums up that “this information helps enchant plants and remind us of their unique properties” and she hopes that readers “will become more curious about the plants in their local woods, hedgerows, and parks” and wonder about the stories they could tell or imagine the magic they could hold.

Equally magical is poetry. Poetry makes us look. I mean really look, in detail. What things are like to touch, their smells, the way they move, and their sounds. Poetry slows us and gives us time to observe and notice things. The Things I Love about Trees by Chris Butterworth and Charlotte Voake reads like a poem for younger readers, commenting on the size of leaves, the feel of bark, and how trees “swish like the sea”. Observations demonstrable through a child’s own observations. How wonderful it would be to read this text while children explore a tree, touching it, hearing it, describing it…

A Year of Nature Poems by Joseph Coelho and Kelly Louise Judd includes some beautiful plant-inspired poetry, “October leaf fall/was full of fireworks” and describing sweet chestnut cases in the grass as a “field of trick ‘n’ treat,/nut or spine.” Tantalising the senses and helping us see things in a different way.

I really have only mentioned a few of the books I wanted to. Seed by Caryl Lewis uses the theme of plants to strengthen family bonds and realise dreams. In Toby Alone, a tree is the known world, a living home. And in The Boy in the Tower, we’re reminded that plants can be invasive, deadly, acting without thought. Their only goal, is to survive and reproduce with frightening persistence.

There really is an incredible amount to learn about plants; it’s not just life cycles and food, although this seems to be the focus in education. The danger of this is we will continue to take plants and their many superpowers for granted. It’s lucky then we have so many writers, authors, and artists shouting for them. It’s incredible to think of what secrets this kingdom has left to tell. People say you should talk to plants, but maybe we should be listening to them.


Listen again…

Chris Thorogood talks to Nikki Gamble about plant evolution and his book