Charming, But Lacking in Necessary Focus – A Review of The Reason for Flowers by Stephen Buchmann

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For some time now, I have been considering what to do with my bedroom window’s ledge. My window is on the second floor and faces south, which means it gets a lot of sun – good in colder regions of the world perhaps, but not so good in a tropical country, where the goal is to create as much shade as possible. I have Venetian blinds, but they aren’t very ideal: either I close them to block out the sun and cut off ventilation to my bedroom, or I open them to let in the breeze, but then have to suffer from an excess of sunlight, which makes the room even warmer. The constant balancing act between shade and ventilation is of even greater importance during the summer, when both are vital to my comfort, but with Venetian blinds I have no choice but pick one or the other.

The most ideal solution would be to grow plants on the window ledge. This will create shade without interfering with ventilation, as well act as a privacy screen. A vine-type plant would be ideal; it can be coaxed to grow on the iron grating in front of my window, thus fulfilling my need for shade without sacrificing ventilation, as well as act as a privacy screen. I could even go with shrub-type plants: something with a tendency towards horizontal, as opposed to vertical, spread would provide excellent coverage and shade.

But aside from being a solution to temperature control and privacy concerns, I want plants on my window ledge because looking at them makes me feel better about myself, and about the world in general. In 2001 the American Psychological Association published an article showing the various benefits of even just looking at nature, which range from better focus and productivity to improved post-surgery recovery times. In 2009, a paper titled “Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?” confirmed previous research: just looking at nature brings about an overall improvement in both physical and mental well-being; actual contact with nature provides even more significant benefits.

Of course, flowers are a part of the above phenomenon. Looking at a beautiful green landscape is one thing, but flowers might be said to be in a class all their own, laden with their own cultural and symbolic significance. It is these connections, as well as their function and importance in nature, that Stephen Buchmann explores in The Reason for Flowers: Their History,Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives.

The Reason for Flowers is divided into five parts. Part One, “Sexuality and Origins”, deals with how flowers evolved, and their role in plant sex. Part Two, “Growing, Breeding, and Selling”, tackles the practice of breeding plants for their blooms, as well as the economics of buying and selling not just cut flowers, but whole plants, as well. Part Three, “Foods, Flavors, Scents”, discusses what flowers are used for: that is to say, their use in perfumery and their involvement in the culinary arts. Part Four, “Flowers in Literature, Art and Myth”, does exactly what it says on the tin: tackles how flowers have been presented and used in various cultures all across the world. Finally, Part Five, “Flowers in the Service of Science”, explains how scientists have been using flowers in scientific research, and the various discoveries that have been made, and continue to be made.

The first thing a reader may notice about this book is just how broad its coverage is. The summary of contents I have given above is a clear indicator of just how much ground Buchmann covers in this book, which leads to some interesting questions. Can Buchmann really cover that much ground? Can he sustain his narrative voice throughout?

Unfortunately, the answer to both is “not quite”. The first flaw is Buchmann’s narrative voice. There is a certain lack of consistency to his writing that can be irritating for some readers, or at least those who expect a certain steadiness in an author’s narrative voice – particularly an author who is also a scientist. Consider this excerpt, which opens the Preface and, therefore, the entire book:

Most open by dawn’s first light or unfurl their charms as the day progresses. Others unwrap their diaphanous petals, like expensive presents, after dark, waiting for the arrival of beloved guests under a radiant moon. We know them as flowers.

While there is nothing much wrong with such language, I think it comes off as a bit more purple than I might like, at least for a book written in the twenty-first century and which purports to be more scientific than artistic.

On the other end of Buchmann’s occasional bouts of purple prose is a tendency to over-explain things:

Plants have not always had flowers. Certain plants, the angiosperms “invented” flowers and never turned back. They chose wisely. (As I hope is obvious, this is anthropomorphic shorthand for a complicated set of biological processes, for the plants did not make decisions; they tried everything, and natural selection [survival of the fittest] ensured that their genes were the result of the most successful “experiments” and were reproduced.)

While I have complained about authors who lack an ability to use small words when writing for laypeople (e.g. Richard C. Francis, in his book Domesticated), Buchmann is the exact opposite. For any well-educated adult, the quotation marks around the word “invented” are sufficient to point out Buchmann’s meaning; the subsequent parenthesised explanation is entirely superfluous. While I expect a certain amount of ease of reading from popular science books, I do not expect the author to dumb things down to the degree that Buchmann has. I like to think that my education (formal or otherwise) is sufficient enough to allow me to understand precisely what he is talking about without having to tell me (or his readers, for that matter) what natural selection is as if I were a child – and if ever there was anything I did not immediately understand, I like to think I have enough common sense to use Google and look for an explanation there.

This unevenness of tone extends to the overall content of the book. When writing about topics that are (so I must assume) familiar and enjoyable to him, Buchmann appears to be happy to go on at length and in great detail about them. However, when dealing with topics that (again, so I must assume) he is not so familiar with, he tends to treat them in a shorter, rather more curt manner. For example, his discussion of the history of gardens is quite lengthy, which is somewhat-unsurprising considering his background as a botanist and avid gardener. The language he uses is also rather lovely: rather like a ramble through a garden.

However, when he treats the topic of flowers in Renaissance art (or, really, any visual art in general), his text reads as shorter, more to-the-point than the lovely rambles in other parts of the book. I suppose part of it has to do with the way the sections within each chapter have been split up; I get the feeling that, if certain sections had been connected together instead of cut up, the narrative flow would have been a bit more even.

This brings me to the second flaw of this book: the number of topics Buchmann attempts to cover. Since the book tries to tackle so many of them, it does not really explore all of them with any great depth. Oh, to be sure, there are some parts where it manages to do so, particularly in the scientific aspects, but Buchmann’s treatment of other topics (particularly those in Part Four of the book) feels just a touch cursory. I think I would have been happier with this book if the scope had been a little narrower; it would provide some focus, at least, and mean that any topics discussed are discussed with the necessary amount of depth.

Overall, The Reason for Flowers might perhaps be considered a fair introduction to the subject of flowers, but I doubt that the readers that choose to pick it up are looking for an introduction. In fact, it would be fair to argue that this book’s intended audience consists of avid gardeners, floral enthusiasts, and laypeople with an established and fair knowledge of the topic at hand. Unfortunately, this book does not have the depth that such readers might be looking for – it tackles some topics at length, but not all. There are also inconsistencies in tone and narrative flow that readers who are sensitive to such things will likely notice, and which may diminish their enjoyment of the book. If the reader is looking for a deeper exploration of the subject of flowers, it might be better to look for another book entirely, or pick up any number of micro-histories currently available.

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