Seed To Seed: The Secret Life Of Plants by Nicholas Harberd

A search for the genetic secrets that are hidden in a tiny plant
Click to follow

His subject is the tiny Thale Cress, a commonplace weed, which has become "the fruit-fly of the plant world" because of the simplicity of its genetics. Harberd decided to find one and record its life. The resulting book, written in a brisk but thoughtful diary format over exactly a year, and illustrated with more than 40 sketches, combines the small life of a flower with a portrait of a scientific mind at work.

Harberd finds the leaves of an overwintering plant in a churchyard in the Norfolk Broads. On 12 March most gets eaten by a slug. Undeterred, the plant grows again, manufacturing its own slug-inhibitors. On 8 May disaster strikes again. The plant is decapitated, probably by a rabbit. Harberd lovingly covers the remains, and the brave little cress duly pushes up another, weaker shoot.

On 27 May, it produces its first flower. Seeds tumble from the split pods in July, after which the plant dies. Seedlings spring up but rain flattens most of them. That's the cycle of life if you happen to be a Thale Cress.

But beneath the surface lies an intricate tale of hormones and genes. They regulate the way in which balls of cells are turned into leaves, roots and flowers. They also pace the plant's growth. Harberd's own contribution is in elucidating the role of "restraining genes", without which the plant would "become a fast-liver", burning up and dying young like Kurt Cobain.

Many of these "secret" workings are at the cutting-edge of experimental science and do not make easy reading. What carries them forward is the elegant synthesis of Harberd's thoughts with their inspiration in the sights and sounds of nature. Seed to Seed conjures up the doubts, questions and occasional eureka moments of a working scientist in a confident and assured piece of writing. In the end, the molecular basis of growth seems not too far from William Blake's vision of "a world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower".

Comments