A newsletter of evolutionary biology, science history, and scientific illustration.
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Issue 17  |  July 2022

Hello Botany Lovers, and happy summer! I hope the weather is treating you not too aggressively. Here in southern Ontario, we’ve been oscillating wildly between intense heat and cool, rainy days. The plants seem happy, at any rate. I have some interesting reading for you this month, including Darwin’s grandpa’s dirty plant poetry (absolutely the best thing to come out of my book research this month), a new carnivorous plant that hides its traps underground, our centuries-long quest to both see and understand how cells work, and a great book for lovers of ancient landscapes.

Enjoy, and stay well. As always, you can reply to this email if you have any comments or thoughts on what you’d like to see here. You can also follow me on any of these platforms:
Best wishes,
Featured Illustration

This work is called The Great Piece of Turf, painted in 1503 by the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528).

Part of the German Renaissance, Dürer, a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, helped introduce scientific precision to the portrayal of plants in artwork, which had previously been highly stylized.

In The Great Piece of Turf, Dürer used watercolours to depict a community of plants just as he saw them, showing both structure and habitat. As such, it is considered one of the first ecological studies. Only ten of the artist’s botanical works remain, but his stylistic influence has persisted.

What I've Been Writing

Erasmus Darwin & The Loves of the Plants

I’m currently working on the taxonomy and systematics chapter of my book. These are the twin sciences that allow us to name, describe, and classify organisms, and I’ve been digging into their history. 


One of my favourite discoveries during this research has been learning about Erasmus Darwin, Charles’ grandfather. Erasmus was the colourful character that I think history wishes Charles was. He was a physician, but also an inventor, evolutionist, liberal free-thinker, and also a probable atheist at a time when that wasn't so common. Where Charles was cautious and moderate, choosing his statements carefully and often letting others champion his ideas for him, Erasmus was more brash and outspoken. Where Charles was uncertain he ever wished to marry, but then settled down as a contented family man, Erasmus had multiple happy marriages, being widowed at one point, as well as multiple lovers in the interim. An obituarist at the time of his death noted that he could “never forsake the charms of Venus.”

Hardly surprising, then, that when he turned his hand toward poetry, sex featured prominently. Plant sex, specifically. Charles Darwin’s grandfather wrote racy (for the 18th century) poetry about the love lives of the plant kingdom. You see, Carl Linnaeus – of Latin binomial name fame – also devised a system of classification based on the number of male and female organs in the flower, at the time referred to as ‘the sexual system.’ Erasmus, caught up in the charms of Venus as he was, couldn’t help but imagine those organs as different combinations of men and women in his lengthy poem, The Loves of the Plants. And boy, did he let his mind go wild. 

Among the plants with one stamen and one pistil, Darwin started with a pretty vanilla picture of a “virtuous pair,” husband and wife, but from there moved on to a couple sneaking around but betrayed by the appearance of an illegitimate child (“the green progeny betrays her loves”) and a woman awoken by an enamoured lover (“‘Awake, my Love!’ enamour'd Muschus cries, ‘Stretch thy fair limbs, resurgent Maid! Arise’”), among others. Among plants with multiple stamens and a single pistil, Darwin wrote of a frantic queen avenging rejected love by committing infanticide (yikes… who knew Impatiens was such a violent plant?), a seductive harlot, and a beauty guarded by her fond brothers. Once he reached the classes with higher numbers of stamens and pistils, the old boy just couldn’t seem to keep a handle on himself, describing “Each wanton beauty… in gay undress,” a “glittering throng” of “beaux and belles”, and “a hundred virgins” joining one hundred young suitors. Erasmus Darwin did not lack for imagination. 


The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge came right out and said that Darwin’s poetry nauseated him, but Erasmus’ own stated aim was “to inlist Imagination under the banner of Science.”

Which is probably worth a bit of bad poetry.


For anyone interested in reading the entire poem, complete with Darwin’s substantial and sometimes amusing footnotes, it can be found here. And of course, more on Erasmus and his poetry in my book, Unrooted, when it comes out!

Stories From Around the Web

Botany education is on the decline worldwide, with plant awareness and identification skills at a staggering low. How can the loss of plant knowledge be stemmed?

By Sebastian Stroud, for The Conversation. Find it here.

A fascinating longread on the history of histology and our quest to visualize the cells and tissues of living things.

By Benjamin Ehrlich for Aeon. Find it here.

Multicellular organisms are made up of cells containing several types of organelles that were themselves once free-living, single-celled creatures. Scientists are working to clarify the early events in cellular evolution that allowed this momentous step to occur.

By Viviane Callier for Knowable. Find it here.

Botanists have found a new carnivorous plant species on the island of Borneo. This pitcher plant is unique because its pitchers grow beneath the surface of the soil, catching ants and other insects that fall in. The new find has been dubbed Nepenthes pudica.

By Sarah Kuta for Smithsonian. Find it here.

From the Questionable Evolution Archive

Did you know that some parasitic plants can find their preferred hosts by smelling them? This and other marvels of the parasitic genus Cuscuta, a.k.a. Witch’s shoelaces, in this post from the Questionable Evolution archive.

Find it here.

What I'm Reading This Month

If you’ve ever read a description or seen an artist’s rendering of a time in the deep past and delighted in imagining what that ancient world must have looked and felt like, then do I have a book for you. Otherlands: Journeys in Earth’s Extinct Ecosystems, by Thomas Halliday, moves chapter by chapter from the relatively recent past of 20,000 years ago, to the unfathomably distant world of half a billion years ago.

In each vignette, Halliday visits a different location on Earth and paints a vivid picture of life there at that time, from the plants and animals present to the landscape and climate. He describes how it came to be and how it is changing as the aeons pass.

This is a book to experience slowly, letting your mind linger on the alien vistas and being awed by how much the world has transformed. Each chapter begins with a map outlining the lay of the land in the region being discussed, and the book is beautifully illustrated with renderings of the organisms of the time. My one wish would have been for a few landscape drawings to go along with the author’s careful descriptions to help me to picture what he was trying to convey. Still, even lacking this, he makes his points well, and the book served as an enjoyable and informative series of trips into Earth’s past. Halliday describes it as “a naturalist’s travel book,” and he makes good on that premise. 
This Month's Botany Fact:

The world’s largest plant is a 4500 year old Australian seagrass that covers 77 square miles - the same surface area as the city of Cincinnati.
Learn more about it here.

Copyright © 2022 Erin Zimmerman, Writer, All rights reserved.

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Erin Zimmerman, Writer · 393 Wharncliffe Road South · London, On N6J 2M3 · Canada

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