By Jill Severn
In his book Inside the Plants, A Gardener’s Guide to Plant Anatomy and Physiology, local author Gary A. Ritchie, Ph.D., starts at the beginning.
The earth, he notes, is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old; the first signs of plant life appeared about 3 billion years ago. “Organisms that we would recognize as plants did not appear until just before the Cambrian period,” he writes. It was barely 541 million years ago.
The first flowering plants came even later; they only evolved 145 million years ago. (It makes me happy to be alive now, it would be sad to live on a planet without flowers.)
This is an inspiring book, written by a retired plant physiology researcher who is also the president of the local Rose Society and a dedicated gardener.
His examination of the history of our rotating planet and all the plant life that surrounds it is lively and enchanting. Now when I see West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin on the news, I’ll think of the Carboniferous period, about 350 million years ago, when horsetails, moss and ferns lived and died and became the great deposits coal mines of his state.
He also writes a wonderful description of a plant cell, which he describes as “being analogous to a city with complex systems and subsystems” that provide “infrastructure, security, cellular regulation, synthesis and l ‘intracellular assembly, food production and energy management’. With all this activity inside every plant cell of every plant around us, it’s amazing we can’t hear it.
There’s a lot of stuff in this book that I’ll probably never understand because I never took chemistry class and I sucked in math class. But even though I’ve only read the first five chapters so far, it’s already deepened my appreciation of the history, complexity, and wonder of how the evolution of plant life has made possible the evolution of man by providing oxygen for breathing and food for animals. life.
When Ritchie dives into science, I’m lost. But he writes clearly and attractively about basic concepts and context. For example, here is his introduction to photosynthesis:
“Ask any third grader how plants make food and they’ll shout, ‘Photosynthesis’.”
“But then ask them how photosynthesis works and you’ll get a blank stare. In fact, ask any adult how photosynthesis works and you’ll get a blank stare. The simple fact is that while photosynthesis is pretty simple in principle – plants use sunlight and CO2 to make sugar – the processes by which it happens are terribly complicated. So complicated that while most of the major steps in photosynthesis have been solved, many remain enigmatic to even the brightest scientists.
A few pages later, he’s immersed in thylakoid membranes, chloroplasts, photons, and the dark reaction or Calvin cycle, and I’m left behind. But even if I never catch up, I will always be grateful for this measure of my own ignorance. This book is guaranteed to keep the non-scientist humble.
But it also has its share of practical advice, including how to prevent photodamage – aka sunburn – on geraniums that have been overwintered in a garage, or on plants that have pushed in cloudy conditions and are suddenly faced with sunny days. The key is to help them make gradual changes rather than sudden ones. One strategy is to provide them with an umbrella for shade for a few days, which Ritchie notes might amuse your neighbors.
I am happy to own this book. I will continue to read the helpful chapter introductions and summaries, and study the excellent graphics and illustrations. I recommend it to all gardeners and naturalists looking to better understand the extremely complex miracle of life on earth.
Inside the plants is available here.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversations between gardeners. Start one by emailing her at [email protected]