Magazine article The Spectator

Flower Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Flower Power

Article excerpt

Pine by Laura Mason Reaktion Books, £16, pp. 224, ISBN 9781780231013 Lily by Marcia Reiss Reaktion Books, £16, pp. 224, ISBN 9781780230931 After the success of their animal series of monographs, Reaktion Books have had the clever idea of doing something similar for plants. Writers are commissioned to investigate the botanical, historical, social and cultural aspects of individual plants, with volumes on oak and geranium already published, and yew, bamboo, willow, palm and orchid forthcoming. The structure and content of the books appears to be left up to the writers, but all the volumes combine scholarship with lively anecdote and are beautifully and generously illustrated.

While lilies seem an obviously attractive choice for such a series, who would have thought conifers could be so interesting? Laura Mason's Pine starts with a solid and enlightening description of the botanical structure, evolution and habitat of the Pinus genus. It then goes on to show how the pine and its derivatives - from timber to Stockholm Tar - have been used throughout history, how the tree has been depicted in art, its place in mythology, and its culinary uses (not limited to pinenuts).

Part of the appeal of these books is the unexpected facts and stories they throw up. We may all know about Daphne turning into a laurel, but the story of the nymph Pitys being hurled against a rock by the god Boreas and then transformed into a pine, her tears becoming the resin that trickles from wounded trees, is less familiar. Similarly, Mason's account of the contribution of pitch and tar to seafaring - preserving not only ships' timbers but also the sails and rigging (hence 'tarpaulin') - is marvellously detailed, as in its mention of a piece of rope from the Mary Rose that 'lay anaerobically sealed under sediment on the seabed, preserving, remarkably, both the pitch and a smell of pine tar' when the wreck was salvaged more than four centuries after the ship sank.

Unsurprisingly pines were a Chinese symbol of longevity, hence their frequent appearance in paintings. The ink artists most favoured, of 'a deep lustrous black', was made from the 'exceptionally clean and delicate soot' collected in bamboo chambers when pine logs were burned for this purpose. Down the centuries pinewood has been used not only to make furniture and floorboards, but paper, cardboard, matchsticks and even rayon. It has provided not only telegraph poles but the piles on which both Venice and Amsterdam were built and water-pipes for 18th-century London. …

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