The purpose of this square-format, large-page, paperback “coffee-table” book is to reveal “the evolution of pollen and seeds, two of the most crucial innovations in the history of all life on our planet” (p. 7). The cover indicates that the images inside are enlargements of very small botanical objects: spores, pollen grains, flowers, fruits, and seeds. The images filling the book are mostly colorized SEMs (scanning electron micrographs) of small botanical specimens. Other images are extreme close-ups of flowers or fruits. The beautiful and colorful images float on black pages, which intensifies their visual impact. Between the images, the text tells the story of botany in pastel type. The font is small, but the informational content is dense, providing the reader with a good explanation of the natural history of spore- and seed-bearing plants. The vocabulary used is fully professional and not euphemized, except as is common in science books.
One has to wonder about a coffee-table book with paper covers; at first, turning the pages, it seemed like the spine was breaking as gaps appeared between the sheets. However, this is an intentional design feature: the pages are well sewn, and the stitching is loose so that the pages lie flat. It is a beautiful book, suitable for gift-giving to a friend or relative who is interested in plants.
The book opens with a discussion of the life cycle of spore-bearing and seed-bearing plants. The early chapters deal with spores, and later chapters move to pollen grains, then fruits and seeds. This is a natural progression through the evolution of the natural history of plants. Along the way, sections devoted to pollination biology are also beautifully photographed and described, sorted in the traditional syndromes showing the interaction between flowers and wind, water, bees, moths, butterflies, birds, and bats.
The book transitions through the philosophical question of the results of pollination: the fruit-or-vegetable debate. This book presents the arguments fairly and with citations showing how government decisions on fruit and vegetable classifications have come down on the side of “food science” rather than “botany.” Yet the book clearly supports the correct botanical nomenclature. A range of fruit types are shown and described nicely.
Getting “diaspores” or “propagules” or “disseminules” distinguished could be a bit cleaner, but the authors clearly have a wonderful discussion of the various mechanisms of distributing plant progeny into the environment. Seed or fruit dispersal by wind, on the outside or inside of animals, and by explosive propulsion or catapult are covered thoroughly. Water dispersal in Heritiera littoralis is described as a floating round seed with a “prominent keel, which acts like the sail of a sailing boat” (p. 89). This is confusing, as a boat's keel is a heavy beam that keeps the bottom of the hull at the lowest position under water and the boat vertically aligned, whereas the sail is a large but light item that extends above the waterline. So are the seed keel's position and function more like that of a keel or a sail? If the latter, then why call it a seed keel?
Wonders of the Plant Kingdom concludes with a wonderful description of how the remarkably beautiful and colorful images were produced and artistically altered to make this exploration of what is an almost invisible microcosm in the life and evolution of plants. It explains how the SEM specimens were prepared and how the photographs were produced and then colorized. Following the text are a glossary and indices.
I have two minor criticisms of the book. First, the authors state that “There is nothing in the life cycle of a spore plant that corresponds to a seed” (p. 25). I would maintain that in Selaginella, the megaspore wall, containing an endosporic megagametophyte storage tissue surrounding a diploid embryo with suspensor, corresponds quite nicely to a seed. Sure, the “coat” is just a thick cell wall as opposed to a multicellular integument, but other than this, it is structurally and functionally very similar to a seed.
Second, I have a beef with the usage, not only in this book but in biology in general, of the term “fertilization” (the authors use the British spelling, “fertilisation”), which suggests NPK mineral fertilizer or organic compost. In my opinion, all biology books should abandon this old “farmer language” for what is better called “syngamy” (literally the union of gametes). Like so many other books, this one refers to fertilization of eggs, fertilization of ovules, and fertilization of flowers. This simply does not accurately express the union of gametes. However, in spite of these shortcomings, this is a great book to give someone!