Book review

Stefano Mancuso’s Planting Our World – book review

My review of the new book by Stefano Mancuso about the roles plants played in human history

This is my review of the new book by the Italian plant scientist Stefano Mancuso, agronomist by training, professor at the University of Florence and activist for respect and protection of plants. Mancuso leads the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, which studies plant intelligence and plant behaviour.

The book is titled Planting Our World (Italian original title is La pianta del mondo), I read it in German translation (“Die Welt der Pflanzen“), published by Klett-Cotta.

Mancuso is extremely controversial among his peers, but I really like his previous books, which made perfect sense. I felt the criticisms of his theories come from straw-man debates about things Mancuso never actually claimed. My earlier book reviews are here:

The previous books were very informative and entertaining. This can’t be said about Mancuso’s latest book, unfortunately. Maybe because it is not really about plants, but about people who worked with plants, mostly with trees, specifically with wood. It is meant to be about plants making human history, but ends up disappointing on both the plant and the history aspect.

Mancuso, an avid collector of vintage books about plants, tells at length about a wealthy Frenchman with the same obsession he met, as a prelude to a rather boring story about how “freedom trees” were dragged out of the forests and planted inside towns during the French revolution. There is Mancuso’s theory of what made the Stradivari violins so special, namely the wood of certain old spruces which used to grow at a certain location in Italy and which sprouted during the last mini-ice age in the Middle Ages. These trees don’t exist anymore, and there won’t be any new ones with similar perfect wood features because the climate has changed and is changing even more. But then again, Mancuso also mentions that his own research attempts to prove his theory led nowhere, despite access to original violins.

The chapter about the history of banana peel as a comedy trope from New York, and Mancuso’s attempts to figure our the peel’s slipperiness in his lab is bordering on silly, but not necessarily entertaining. Not really clear is what information we were supposed to derive from the last chapter about “moon trees”, which sprouted from seeds which travelled with the Apollo moon mission. After all, they look exactly like all other trees.

In one chapter, Mancuso re-tells the case of the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh‘s baby and how the already apprehended suspect was found guilty using a wooden ladder as evidence and a wood expert who proved the connection. Not really exciting, but to be fair, in a different chapter Mancuso tells an interesting story of the astronomer Ellicott Douglass and how he serendipitously invented the science of dendrochronology while trying (and failing) to connect the patterns of tree rings to sub spots. Before the discovery of radiocarbon dating, tree ring databases provided the only possibility to determine which time period a wood fragment came from.

There are indeed occasional interesting bits for sure. In one chapter, Mancuso argues for the urgent need to green up our cities in order to to combat climate change, and in another he talks about how trees communicate and support each other using root connections (not via mycorrhiza this time, but via actual root fusion similar to grafting). But those are stories he largely covered in his previous books.

The new material disappoints. Certainly on the topic of plant biology, since there’s very little of that in Mancuso’s new book. But also as a collection of historical anecdotes about plant usage it is not really exciting.

My recommendation is to read Mancuso’s earlier books instead.

Disclaimer: As usual, I receive no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the book gratis from the publisher.


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