Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History
Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History
Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

* Book Type:

Not Available Online
Publisher: Firefly Books

Author Statement: Bill Laws
Series Name: Fifty Things That Changed the Course of History
Audience: Trade
Specs: full-color throughout, further reading, index
Pages: 224
Trim Size: 6 3/4" X 9" X 5/8"
Language code 1: eng
Publication Date: 20150730
Copyright Year: 2015
Price: Select Below

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History

The fascinating stories of the plants that changed civilizations.

The fascinating stories of the plants that changed civilizations.

"This book will mesmerize plant-lovers and non-gardeners alike."
--American Gardener

"This marvelous collection of tales deserves to be read and enjoyed."
--Chicago Botanic Garden

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History is a beautifully presented guide to the plants that have had the greatest impact on human civilization. Entries feature a description of the plant, its botanical name, its native range and its primary functions--edible, medicinal, commercial or practical. Concise text is highlighted by elegant botanical drawings, paintings and photographs as well as insightful quotes.

Many of the plants are well known, such as rice, tea, cotton, rubber, wheat, sugarcane, tobacco, wine grapes and corn. However, there are also many whose stories are less known. These history-changing plants include:

  • Agave, used to make sisal, poison arrows, bullets, tequila and surgical thread
  • Pineapple, which influenced the construction of greenhouses
  • Hemp, used for hangman's rope, sustainable plastics, the Declaration of Independence and Levi's jeans
  • Coconut, used for coir fiber, soap, margarine, cream, sterile IV drips and coagulants
  • Eucalyptus, used in mouthwash, diuretics, vitamins, honey, underwear and fire-resistant uniforms
  • Sweet pea, which Gregor Mendel used in his research on genetics
  • White mulberry, used to feed the caterpillars that make silk
  • English oak, used for fire-resistant structures, dyes, leather tanning, charcoal, casks and ships
  • White willow, used in the manufacture of aspirin, cricket bats, hot-air balloon baskets and coffins.

This attractive reference provides an innovative perspective on both botanical and human history.


Bill Laws is a social historian and the author of 10 books. He has contributed to such publications as the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and BBC History magazine. He lives in England.



What greater delight is there than to behold the earth apparelled with plants, as with a robe of embroidered worke, set with Orient pearles and garnished with great diversitie of rare and costly jewels?
-- John Gerard. Herbal, 1597

If the world's plants suddenly expired, we would have no tomorrow. Yet it is easy to dismiss plants as the silent witnesses to our progress on the planet. The world nurtures between 250,000 and 300,000 types of flowering plants and they can seem like a pretty backcloth to our remorseless activity: walking a dog through a forest of quiet oaks; driving a car past purple fields of lavender; riding the train across a prairie of wheat.


In reality, plants have played a dynamic role in shaping our history. Life on Earth is made possible by the very breath of plants, by the way they absorb carbon dioxide (C02) and exhale oxygen. Plants may have even paved the way for us, evolving the process of photosynthesis in response to some prehistoric climate catastrophe and opening the DNA gates for the evolution of terrestrial animals like ourselves.

Grains of pollen frozen beneath the Antarctic ice may yet reveal the secrets of our Earth's own past. They could help predict its future too, solving the puzzle over whether the current hole in the ozone layer, attributed to our use of fossil fuels, was prefigured millions of years ago. Plant history is certainly longer than ours. While plants have been colonizing the planet for 470 million years, our own timeline is huddled into a relatively recent past. If every century counted as a minute on the face of a clock, the Romans conquered Europe twenty minutes ago; Christianity was founded less than a quarter of an hour back; and the first white people only settled in America in the time it takes to turn the beans of Coffea arabica into a decent cup of coffee.

Plants have always provided us with fuel, food, shelter, and medicines. They have always controlled the rate of land erosion and regulated the amount of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the air that we breathe. They have given us the fossil fuels that we are consuming with such profligacy and they have inspired us to build national botanical gardens, to go garden visiting, and to spend small for tunes on cultivating our own back yard plant collections.

We have self-harmed on plants too, overeating sugar, dosing up on natural narcotics, over indulging in alcohol. An overweight Durban housewife might rue the day that sugar (p.166) was first refined; an inebriate in Adelaide might blame his sorrows on barley (p.104), while some poor patient in a Cincinnati cancer ward could hold tobacco (p.136) responsible for his condition. On the other hand, we can rejoice in a cup of tea (p.26), celebrate with a glass of wine (see Wine Grape, p.202) or simply drink in the scent of the sweet pea (p.118) and the rose (p.162).


This is a good time to look at how plants have altered the history of our life on Earth and how they continue to play a pivotal role. We are taking liberties with our plants and, in doing so, with planet Earth. It cannot continue. By consuming the fossil fuels that were made from plants and destroying the plants that make up the rainforests we are, according to the paleoclimatology scientist Professor David Beerling, "undertaking a global uncontrolled experiment guaranteed to alter the climate for future generations. Plants . . . are a major factor in the environmental drama of global warming now as they have been in the recent and more distant past" (The Emerald Planet, 2007). The perils of destroying our plants could alter the course of history forever.



    Wild Cabbage
    Chili Pepper
    Sweet Orange
    Upland Cotton
    Sweet Pea
    Crab Apple
    White Mulberry
    Opium Poppy
    Black Pepper
    English Oak
    Dog Rose
    White Willow
    Common Wheat
    Wine Grape


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