The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Changed Human History, by Thor Hansen

Good science writing is a joy. Good popular science needs to be factual, broad, well-researched, and written in a style that’s easy to grasp without a PhD to match the author’s. This book fulfills all those criteria and on a subject you wouldn’t normally guess would be so fascinating.

Thor Hansen covers a wide range of seed lore, from those that feed us to those that can kill us. In between he talks about their evolution, man-manipulated GMOs, and high-impact seeds from wheat to coffee beans, trees to molds, coconuts to orchids. As part of the adventure he takes the reader to forest, jungles, and deserts as well as interviewing specialists regarding each new category. He even travels to the wheat fields in the “Palouse” region of my state and discusses how viewing a square foot of seemingly empty soil can reveal seeds from dozens of different plants.

The book is an intellectual adventure, too, in investigating questions about seeds most of us would never think to ask and then answering those as well as possible. Fun ideas include: coffee and other plants produce caffeine, a plant poison, to clear away an area of competitors; the “heat” of peppers increase and decrease depending on climate and the type of pests they need to fight. Sexual reproduction was a unique introduction to the plant world, starting with trees like ginkgos and successfully spreading throughout the kingdom. Plant sexuality made the kingdom more dynamic and adaptable. It also provided humans with the tools to do select plant breeding to increase yield and nutrition in food plants.

This is a fun read for any cook or gardener, and an easy enough read for high school and above.