A Lily Pad Palace and Other Examples of Botany in Action


WILY VIOLETS & UNDERGROUND ORCHIDS: REVELATIONS OF A BOTANIST by Peter Bernhardt, New York: William Morrow & Co., 255 pp., $18.95

WHEN Joseph Paxton designed London's Great Exhibition Hall in the middle of the last century, many critics were adamant: His flimsy structure would fall in the first storm. It could never support such a great expanse of glass.

But Paxton, as great a horticulturist as he was an architect, knew otherwise. Victoria Amazonica, the giant water lily from equatorial South America, had shown him his design would withstand its weight plus anything an occasional London snowfall might throw at it. The lily was right and the building, better known as the Crystal Palace, opened in 1851 to the acclaim of the world.

How could a lily pad, sometimes used as a floating cradle by Indian mothers in the Amazon, inspire an expanse of free-standing roof, a concept considered nothing more than wishful thinking by most engineers prior to the Paxton triumph?

Among his many accomplishments, Paxton was one of the first to successfully raise this leviathan among water lilies outside the tropics and saw for himself what a weight mature pads could support. In an 1849 pageant, he dressed his seven-year-old daughter as Queen of the Fairies and placed her on a lily pad. It supported her with ease. ``It has since been shown,'' says Peter Bernhardt, author of ``Wily Violets & Underground Orchids,'' ``that some Victoria leaves can support 300 pounds of dead weight.''

Paxton incorporated part of the lilly's cantilever system in his design, making it the wonder of Victorian architecture.

The accomplishments of Paxton, head gardener for the sixth duke of Devonshire, take up little more than two pages in a book filled with similarly fascinating stories about plants. Bernhardt is doing for the plant world what others have done for the animal kingdom: presenting it in all its fascinating complexity to the general reader, telling not only how a particular plant functions, but also why.

The book might be described as a story of botany in action, revealing the quite marvelous world in which we live. Plants are stationary, but they make up for that limitation by co-opting animals and insect life into doing what they cannot do on their own - find mates and disperse seed over long distances. It also shows how thoroughly intertwined is the web of life in which each strand supports the next. The conclusion is obvious: Humans cannot alter one part of the environment without impacting the next and the next in a chain of events that ultimately may circle back to affect them in unpleasant ways.

But that wasn't Bernhardt's purpose in writing this collection of essays. The author is a dedicated botanist who, it seems, cannot wait to reveal and interpret the ever-unfolding drama around him to whomever might care to listen. He does so using easy, free-flowing language as he tells of violets that propel seed, like pellets from a shotgun, sometimes as far as 16 feet, and employ ants to spread them even further afield, and of wild orchids that cling to telephone poles in downtown San Salvador. We learn why flowers have developed only six basic shapes in their 120-million-year history; get a better understanding of the North American prairies; and hear of Australian plants so bizarre that they grow, and flower, entirely underground.

A moldboard plow first brought Rhizanthella (Rhiz meaning ``rootlike structure'' and antella meaning ``little flower'') gardneri to the surface 61 years ago near the town of Corrigan in Western Australia. John Trott, who was bringing some new land into cultivation at the time, was astute enough to recognize that he had discovered something unique in the flower world.

What he saw as pale plants bearing daisy-like flowers were identified as orchids totally new to science at the time. Sightings since then have been so rare (how many have been unknowlingly destroyed by cultivation is anyone's guess) that from time to time people would proclaim them extinct. Then a major find occurred in 1979, the same year Skylab fell onto a deserted corner of the state.

In trying to make sense of the bewildering array of plant life around the world, Bernhardt has helped students, professionals, and amateur gardeners alike to interpret the functioning of flowers. Why is this important? In his foreword to the book, Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, gives this answer: ``Our relationship with the plant world is based on reciprocity. Plants are all around us, and through their ability to capture some of the sun's energy and make it available in chemical form ... they make all life possible.'' In turn, plants get reproductive help from animals.

Noting, too, that as many as 60,000 plant species may vanish from the face of the earth by early next century, Dr. Raven concludes: ``In a very real sense, plants are the only sustainable resource that we have: Cherishing it, preserving it, and learning to use this resource more efficiently are necessary ingredients for human prosperity in the future.''

By educating readers in so fascinating and lively a fashion, ``Wily Violets and Underground Orchids'' will surely stimulate a desire to preserve the resource.

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