Book Review: The Cabaret of Plants by Richard Mabey

The Cabaret of Plants was a gift from my friends at work for my birthday. Like so many things in life it arrived randomly at exactly the right time.

Toward the end of the book Mabey starts to talk about plant intelligence. Apparently now given an official trendy fad acronym ‘PI’.

Plants as intelligent, learning, adapting beings is something I can buy into. However, usually the people trying to prove plant intelligence are doing exactly what the Caberet of Plants spends 350 pages telling us not to do: project human and animalistic behaviours onto a kingdom of living beings very different to our own.

PI… No I can’t… Plant intelligence research far too often falls into the trap of presenting compelling findings in a wrapper of human traits. Turning great research into something that reads like hooky hippee nonsense. Comparing networks of fungi to the internet, the wood wide web, doesn’t work for instance. It’s true the connections are there but the information isn’t – I suspect – sent and received with intention. Instead, signals and nutrients are simply shared and acted upon by plants. Such comparisons do help communicate a complex subject to the masses, however the masses are left thinking “whatever you crazy”.

So when plant intelligence came up at the  very end of a brilliant book I cringed slightly and felt disappointed that Mabey had, after chapters of concrete fact, slipped momentarily into the world of hooky-kookiness.

Then I finished the book and realised. His message had been delivered into my head perfectly (at least I think that’s what happened). The brief brush with plant intelligence was a small counterbalance to the facts.

The cabaret of plants goes on, to its own beat, out of sync but visible and linked to our own animal cabaret. To believe plants have intelligence you first have to rethink your own personal definition of what intelligence actually is.

I do believe in a plant intelligence but not in the Triffids meet Little Shop of Horrors definition. Plant intelligence is alien to animal and insect intelligence. Plants absorb information like emotionless computers, processing data from their surroundings. But then they learn and adapt (mostly) outside of our own time scale. The information learnt being passed down slowly from generation to generation. Intelligence doesn’t need a brain and Mabey presents a convincing and balanced case for plants having an intelligent existence.

The Cabaret of Plants is unlike any book I’ve read before. Broken into a series of chapters that read like short essays layering point upon point leading to a conclusion, while educating us on plant and botanical history along the way.

Taking us on a journey from the Californian Sequoiadendron giganteum to the Victorian Pteridomania, stopping at England’s churchyard Yew, Taxus baccata. Mabey shines in the chapters talking about British wild flowers, especially orchids.

This is a book that is enjoyable for its education, its love of plants, and the outpourings of a mind that clearly knows vastly more about plants than most.

Summary: The Cabaret of Plants

My first step into Mabey’s plant obsessed mind has left me wanting to visit his much acclaimed back catalogue. The Cabaret of Plants is an enjoyable and unique read that pours fact after fact at you in short stories.

Personally, I loved it most for challenging the way people look at plants, and for the way humans so unwittingly (and wittingly) barge into and devastate the lives of plants. I hadn’t appreciated quite how destructive the Victorian plant hunting fad had been, for instance.

I finished the book feeling enriched with a depth of knowledge and opinions changed. I also chuckled along at Mabey’s brilliant, fun and clever writing. Excellent. Thank you Mr Mabey.

Score: 4/5

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Jack Wallington

I'm an RHS qualified garden designer living in Clapham, London who loves growing plants and designing with them. Follow me on Twitter.

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