Fruit. Edible, inedible, incredible
Article first published online: 15 SEP 2010
© 2010 The Linnean Society of London
Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society
Volume 164, Issue 1, pages 109–110, September 2010
How to Cite
Ronse de Craene, L. (2010), Fruit. Edible, inedible, incredible. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 164: 109–110. doi: 10.1111/j.1095-8339.2010.01077.x
- Issue published online: 15 SEP 2010
- Article first published online: 15 SEP 2010
Fruit. Edible, inedible, incredible by & . London : Papadakis , 2008 . 264 pp. ISBN 978 1901092745 . £35 .
Fruits occupy a central place in the relationship of man to the world of plants, mainly for economic reasons, as a source of food and other derivatives, but also as a symbolic reflection of a protective cover of the reproductive potential of seeds. However, fruits represent much more and this book takes us into their hidden secrets, going beyond their beauty and most obvious functions. The book represents an extraordinary visual account of the diversity in fruits and, in addition, of seeds. It is the third one in a successful series, starting with pollen, followed by seeds and culminating in fruits. While Rob Kesseler is associated with the three volumes, Wolfgang Stuppy has made his mark in the second and now in the third book. The volume deals as much with seeds as with fruits – in fact, both are intricately linked and have comparable adaptations. As such it is a logical continuation from the previous book and it even overlaps in contents and scope.
Basically the book is in two parts. The first part deals with the definition of fruits and their botanical context, and the second part relates to their dispersal. The authors put the dubious philosophical question ‘what is a fruit?’ in the right context. Although fruits and seeds are botanically distinct, popular terminology is often confusing or wrong. Botanists have made matters worst by introducing over 150 different technical terms to describe fruits, adding misery to generations of researchers, and this has not yet been solved in a fully satisfactory way. In addition, it can be tricky to determine where fruits start and end, and how seeds are related to this. Some bogus fruits contain parts other than the ovary or even the flower, and when it comes to attraction or dispersal, everything is possible. Fruits can certainly be defined in a narrow or broad sense and this is widely discussed by the authors.
The illustrations stand out as the core matter of this book. Technically and artistically, the images are masterpieces. Knowing the difficulties of observing and photographing large objects with the scanning electron microscope, it is extraordinary how well the details are shown. For example, the photograph of a strawberry on the cover is a reconstruction of several fragments photographed side by side and glued together with much precision. The precision of detail makes these SEM images particularly useful scientifically. The colours of fruits and seeds are not real, but have been artificially enhanced, making the superb photographs look more like pieces of art. But who cares about this, as they are aesthetically more attractive? The mark of the artist, Rob Kesseler is very clear here. It follows a long artistic tradition in botany, updated with modern technology. However, this does not take away the scientific quality of the brilliant illustrations shown with amazing detail. The book is also abundantly supplemented by life images of fruits, as allowed by the larger size of fruits compared to seeds.
The book is full of information and detail that is pertinent and even funny. Lying on a narrow ledge between academic rigour and popular exuberance, the text tries to make sense out of the abundance of fruits and their unorthodox behaviour. Titles, such as ‘the story of the sadistic Tribulus’ put different kinds of diaspores with hooks in the limelight, but fail to approach the subject methodologically, with clear parameters set out for comparing the hooks of different homology. I found a clear lack of structure in the text – also reflected in the Table of Contents – disturbing, as there are handsome discussions of different fruit types, swamped in various generally informative but often anecdotal accounts. Using separate boxes with extra information would have been a possible remedy. The link between figures and text could also be more fluent. It is possible to read the main content of the book just by looking at the illustrations and their legends (which are sentences taken from the main text). It would have been better to refer to the text in the figure legends, as too wordy legends take away concentration from the main text.
There is no phylogenetic approach in the description of fruits, as apocarpous fruits are treated after more complicated syncarpous fruits. In some cases a better knowledge of what precedes the fruit, viz. the flower could be helpful to understand the structures that are shown and put fruits in a broader context. The use of some drawings instead of photographs would have been more useful to convey information about fruit structures and to illustrate the elaborate terminology for different fruit types. Also the use of some tables to present major differences between berry, nut, drupe etc. would have been useful. Another – maybe minor – problem is the fact that seeds and fruits are sometimes treated equally in the book because seeds and fruits can have similar adaptations for dispersal. It occasionally increases the dubious distinction between fruits and seeds.
The book offers a compelling story of plant diaspores and several subjects are treated with a large pinch of humour. For example, anecdotes about etymological origins of names (e.g. origin of the pumpkin or sycophants) are fascinating. Behind stories there is the fact that fruits are essential to humanity as the majority of vegetables are fruits or the seeds they contain.
The story about dispersal mechanisms of fruits and seeds is an interesting story of co-evolution, with lots of details about different adaptations. The story of anachronistic fruits is a sad one. The existence of oversized fruits that lack any obvious dispersal agent points to human extermination of a megafauna to which these fruits were adapted. It is the message that slow natural evolution cannot cope with human destruction with fruits waiting for a dispersal agent that is no more.
This is a marvellous book combining art with science. The message is very clear that the hidden and not so hidden world of plant structures is full of interest and should be investigated for its own sake, something that is not sufficiently recognized in our scientific world that has forgotten about what really matters.