Plants have developed an extraordinary capacity to adapt as well as withstand adversity. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in Chernobyl. Following the nuclear disaster of 1986, more than 350,000 people were forced to relocate. Trees and other plant life remained, however, despite being heavily exposed to the radioactive fallout. In fact, they more than just remained – many flourished. In The Incredible Journey of Plants, a richly illustrated guide to some of the more eye-opening aspects of the plant kingdom, Mancuso describes the city of Pripyat, two miles from the exploded reactor, as a ‘veritable Ukrainian Angkor Wat’.
Chernobyl is not the only example of incredible feats of survival or adaption in the book. Written by one of the world’s leading authorities in the field of plant neurobiology, it also richly details the lengths some species go to pass on and spread their genetic makeup. Asparagus seeds can float in saltwater for up to 23 days if fresh (and 86 days if dried), allowing them to travel almost 3,000 miles using ocean currents. The Hura crepitans, more commonly known as the dynamite tree, native to tropical regions of Latin America, is able to project its seeds as far as 120 feet at a velocity of more than 200 feet per second. Meanwhile the Mammillaria hernandezii is able to conserve its seeds for long periods of time, releasing them only when conditions are favourable for germination.
Some plants develop symbiotic relationships with specific animal species, adapted over time. Others, such as the avocado, have found a surprising new lease of life; the massive animals that once swallowed their seeds and then dispersed them far and wide are long gone, but thanks to human tastes the plant has nevertheless spread across the globe.
In perhaps the most fascinating section of the book, Mancuso describes how the seeds of certain plants can germinate hundreds or even thousands of years after being produced. In 2005, scientists successfully grew a date palm from a seed found during an archeological dig in Israel. The seed dated from between 155 BCE and 64 BCE, making it the oldest ever to germinate (unfortunately it was a male tree, so unable to reproduce). It is a fitting reminder of just how incredible the natural world really can be.