The front cover is dominated by a colorful and appealing thin slice of a strawberry aggregate fruit. The receptacle tissue shows epidermal, cortical, and vascular tissues leading to three carpels. Two of the carpels are complete; one has lost its style and stigma and thus represents a mature fruit (ovary only). My point is that nothing on the cover illustration is a seed. One would expect a book on the natural history of seeds to carefully distinguish seed from fruit.
The book covers the botanical evolution and development of seeds and focuses intensely on the economic value and preservation of not just crop seeds, but their natural wild relatives. A large portion of the book highlights the germplasm repositories around the world, which is its most significant unique contribution.
The book has several annoying “features.” One is how each chapter is a crazy quilt of segments of differing organization and font size. Sprinkled throughout are pages lifting up particular species whose seeds are being preserved. While all very interesting, the chapters lack focused organization. Maybe if the “species of concern” were consolidated into one chapter, and the coverage of seed banks were consolidated into another chapter, it would make more sense. The most annoying feature is that most of this book is printed in a sans serif typeface of uniform, very fine stroke at 6 or 8 point size. This was almost illegible, demanding magnification and very bright lighting.
Time is a linear variable, but most of the timelines (pp. 28–30, 60–61, 172–173) are shown with branches in various directions for no apparent reason. A better model is on page 56, where the timeline is linear and the font is more legible!
For teachers, the book is not careful about italicizing binomials. Some of the “species of concern” features (e.g., pp. 178 and 179) show binomials correctly, but others (pp. 180 and 181) do not.
Another teaching point too often lost in books is precision in terms. There is an unfortunate tradition of using fertilization when the better word is syngamy. “Fertilization” can mean the union of two gametes, or adding minerals or compost to soil, or even a reversal of sterility. Imprecise terms are a slippery slope, and thinking can go off the tracks completely. On page 79 alone, eggs are fertilized, a nucleus is fertilized, zygotes are fertilized, and ovules are fertilized; elsewhere in this book, ovaries are fertilized and flowers are fertilized. Now just exactly where is this male gamete going, and with what does it actually join?
Will students understand “diploid sporophyte pollen grains are undergoing meiosis to form a haploid gametophyte” (p. 59)? A pollen grain is produced only after both meiosis and a subsequent mitosis; it contains the microgametophyte within the microspore wall by definition. Moreover, a sperm and a pollen grain are not the same thing (p. 81).
There is strong talk of gymnosperm seeds being inefficient because they store materials in the gametophyte even if syngamy fails, whereas angiosperms do not put away storage reserves until double syngamy occurs. But how efficient are angiosperms in making many seeds when precious few ever grow into a new adult (e.g., orchids or oak trees) or when they produce seedless fruits?
Is Selaginella really a “lesser clubmoss” (p. 78) among lycophytes when it has evolved heterospory and has what is almost a seed (endosporic embryo and storage tissue) in its natural history?
Should we be striving for apomictic seeds (p. 81) that have no genetic variation when we already know the cost of inbreeding depression, and the dangers of monoculture (pp. 22–24)? Has the lesson of the Irish potato famine ever been learned? How about the Southern corn blight problem in 1973? Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. These are good discussion topics for class!
Some plants have evolved to be nearly genetically fixed (e.g., beans and Mendel's peas) and exclusively self-pollinate and self-cross; how does this observation square with the discussion on page 81? If a plant self-pollinates, how do we find genetic variation in the offspring?
On page 83 (part 5), a student reads that the megaspore “undergoes three phases of mitosis.” Does that bring prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase to mind (that makes four phases)? The author means “three rounds of mitosis,” which has a different meaning. There is more to discuss.
On page 87, the author writes of “Darwin's theory” about the existence of a pollinator. But as a biology student, does this word choice make sense? Does the author mean “hypothesis” or “prediction” instead?
On page 92, did Micheneau and Fournel score a double whammy or a double bonus?
Reading on page 93, students might wonder about the true natural pollinator of Theobroma cacao. Why were scientists looking for this animal in Africa? Hint: see the “Native to:” entry!
Chapter 5, entitled “Germination brings plants back to life,” could foster a discussion of what is meant by life and death for plants. Is a seed “dead,” and if so, are we “resurrecting” a dead plant when we sow some seeds? It sounds a bit like Frankenstein at work to “coax seeds into life” (p. 140).
On page 150: “The cotyledons of dicots are able to photosynthesize,” but is that universally true? A teacher could germinate a project comparing behavior of pea and bean (dicots) and onion and corn (monocots) seedlings! From page 151: “a single cotyledon, the endosperm, surrounds the embryo…” could prompt a class discussion or an in-class minute paper to defend or condemn. Moreover, the sketch on that page could elicit a “resketch and relabel the diagram” assignment.
The book repeatedly uses orthodox and recalcitrant to describe various seeds, but these terms are not defined in the glossary (p. 186). The definitions can be found by using the index to locate a sidebar on page 39 where the meanings are described.
I have poked some fun at some first-edition blunders in this book, but the book is not without merit. There is worthy content about seed banking and about interesting plant species. Yet the true value of this book is getting a young reader to think critically about what is written on the page. If that was the purpose, the book succeeds magnificently. If my score is generous, it is for this.