Review: In Praise of Plants by Francis Hallé

Francis Hallé is a venerable French plant biologist who is famous for his work defining tree architectures along with his colleagues Oldeman and Tomlinson.

Based on his book In Praise of Plants, he is also a philosopher, artist and poet of the like you don’t see often when reading science books intended for a general audience. I confess I love his quirky book. It has beautiful illustrations, quotes poetry and takes some whacky diversions, but most of all it has some of the deepest insights you will find about the nature of plants and their lives.

Because aside from the philosophy there are also amazing scientific facts which change the way you understand plants. Aiming to avoid the mistakes of all those before him in using animal models to explain plants, Hallé lists the crucial differences.

They get energy from the sun. They have plastic development due to persistent meristems at shoot, root & stem. They have no ‘vital organs’ simply growing another if one is lost. They don’t excrete but contain toxins inside the vacuole. They don’t have an immune system. They have around 30 types of cell, many of which can regenerate the entire plant, versus the specialised 200+ cell types in animals. They are fixed but not immobile, growing to meet their needs. Their cells are all connected sharing the same cytoplasm. Parts of plants can die without killing the whole. They produce their own pharmaceuticals. They change the chemistry of their environment by exuding chemicals from roots & leaves. They reproduce in two genetically distinct stages – a haploid generation followed by a diploid generation. They have flexible genomes which can change the number of chromosomes even during the lifetime of the plant. They can tolerate cell mutations and have genetic diversity within one plant such as different branches in a tree’s canopy with different genomes!

This book has really opened my eyes to the massive differences between animals and plants, and shown me how easy it is to fall into a zoocentric frame of mind. Already a fan of trees, I’m now even more in awe of the plant world.

Although a little expensive (£20 on Amazon) it’s definitely worth a read if you have a curious mind and a philosophical soul. If you speak French you can download the original version for Kindle for £8.99 (“Eloge de la plante. Pour une nouvelle biologie (French Edition)”).