The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey is delightful reading from start to finish. As the title suggests, it is an entertainment with plants at center stage. There is no real narrative arc, more each chapter an essay, though it still manages to feel like everything is connected.
Mabey is an enthusiastic Master of Ceremony. Have you ever watched a British gardening show where the host relates information about plants and gardens and gardeners in a barely contained, almost breathless sort of excitement? (I love these gardening shows and wish Americans would do something like them) That’s what Mabey is like no matter what he is talking about whether it be the oldest living trees in the world or the Victorian craze for ferns. He very nearly bubbles over in a long chapter about orchids. While I think orchids are pretty and have some amazing and unusual forms and pollination lures, I am not ga-ga over them like so many seem to be. Mabey loves the orchids and this was the only chapter in the book I found myself wishing it was shorter.
Some of my favorite chapters include one on oak trees and the history of the Green Man. There is a fascinating chapter on cotton and another on maize. And I loved learning about the discovery of carnivorous plants and how it forced us (humans) to re-evaluate everything we knew about plants. There is also a chapter on plant intelligence and how new technology and research methods are revealing significant things about plants and how they communicate to each other, forcing us once again to re-evaluate everything we know about our vegetal companions.
Along the way Mabey drops interesting facts and other bits of information that are often surprising and always delightful. For instance:
Most of the millions of modern cultivated plants would become extinct within a generation if humans were to vanish from the planet.
And, if you are wanting a garden that attracts pollinators, keep in mind that that blue and its shadings into purple and ultraviolet are the preferred color for insects. Yellow is second. As for red flowers, insects can’t see red, it appears black or dark grey to them which explains why I rarely see bees on my red roses.
I could go on and on babbling about the details of the various chapters and the plants Mabey discusses but instead of reading me reading him, just go and read him directly yourself. His book has a message:
plants are never simple victims, passive objects, but vital, autonomous beings, and … listening to and respecting that vitality is the best way we can co-exist with them, and in their difficult times, learn to help them.
I guarantee if you read this book, you will come away with a whole new perspective and greater appreciation of the plant world.