Plants Go to War
A Botanical History of World War II
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2019, 366 pages
Book Review published on: February 12, 2021
Plants Go to War: A Botanical History of World War II certainly promises an examination of an exhaustively studied period through a fresh lens. Judith Sumner certainly knows her plants. She is a frequently published author (The Natural History of Medicinal Plants and American Household Botany), an accomplished researcher (especially on the genus Pittosporum), and a prolific lecturer on botanical subjects of a wide variety, with a special focus on ethnobotany. Given these credentials, a reader should have high expectations. From a botanical reference perspective, those expectations are fully met. From a history buff’s perspective, perhaps not so much.
One should not be the least bit surprised to find the scientific name for every species of plant mentioned in the book; in fact, the lack of such precise detail would be disappointing. The sweep of the book is broad and comprehensive, from the opening page of the preface, in which we learn that Sumner’s father served in the 43rd Chemical Laboratory Company in Hawaii during World War II. She lays the groundwork effectively, noting that in the era when synthesis of organic compounds was in its infancy, plants supplied most essential organic compounds that had direct, immediate application, or were the precursors and feed stock for refined products.
The advent of the Second World War immediately disrupted sources of supply for both Allied and Axis nations but in profoundly different ways. Access to products that grew in Africa, South America, Southeast Asia, and South Pacific islands shifted dramatically at the outbreak of the war, and shifted slowly during the war’s course, ultimately favoring the Allies’ position. At the beginning, however, the situation looked very bleak for the Allies. Great Britain, for example, faced the very real possibility of famine and starvation, because it had become dependent on imports for approximate 60 percent of its food supplies. Losses to the German U-boat campaign were very nearly catastrophic; Winston Churchill himself said the only thing that ever really worried him was the battle of the North Atlantic against the U-boats. Sumner describes in great detail the efforts of all the major war participants: the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and Japan, with almost half the book dedicated to describing efforts in the United States and United Kingdom to keep the civilian population fed. Balanced nutrition, not just calories, was essential for the home front to keep the means of production humming, to support and supply far-flung combat forces.
It was not just about food, though, and Sumner provides comprehensive coverage on how plant products were also used in medicine, textile production, lubricants, fuels, construction, and camouflage. Her coverage is genuinely comprehensive. Illustration and period photographs add effectively to her narrative.
If there is a flaw in the book, it appears to be from a lack of high-level editing that goes beyond proofreading. Technical errors and grammatical flaws are almost nonexistent. However, overall coherence is tenuous, and redundancy is noticeable. One might think that the book is in fact a collection of previously published articles or monographs loosely assembled in a single volume, without much effort to blend them into an integrated, coherent whole. Repetition and redundancy are annoying to a reader, so this book takes some determination and patience on the part of the reader. For example, is it necessary to inform the reader that Fritz Haber invented the process for synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen four different times? Overall, this is a good reference work, but not a casual weekend read.
Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas