Friday, February 19, 2016

Professor Small's Book of Tiny Wonders

When I went to university to read for a degree in botany, almost 46 years ago, there were only three pieces of equipment that I had to take with me:

  • A white lab coat (bequeathed from my grandfather who was a dairyman and wore one for his daily work)
  • A dissecting kit with a cut-throat razor for cutting sections of plants
  • A hand lens, because a botany degree in those days involved a lot of field work

What reminded me of all this was this little book - Pocket-Lens Plant Lore by James Small, published in 1931, that I bought a few years ago for 50p. in a second-hand book shop. 

The author, appropriately named for someone who was writing about tiny objects, was Professor of Botany at Queen's University Belfast and seems to have written the book for his children, because the dedication reads:

To Sheila and Donn,
two small children who wanted to 

It's a charming little book that, month-by-month, uses a hand lens to explore the features of 192 different plant species, including their buds, leaves, flowers and seeds.

There are pages of small illustrations for plants that are in season, showing details of their external features and internal structure that's visible in sections of stems.

This is a page for February, showing groundsel, white willow, oak, privet, elm, birch and laurel. For every species there is a page of description for the features you can expect to see with a hand lens.

Methods were simple, needing just a hand lens, a pair of self-closing forceps and a razor blade ....

... all of which I had lying around, so I took the book for a test-drive using lungwort Pulmonaria officinalis, which was flowering in the garden today.

Here's Small's drawing of the features to look out for and....

... here is the accompanying page of description

Sure enough, the two kinds of hairs on the flower stalk that he mentioned were there: stiff pointed ones on a pediment, that make the plant feel bristly, and shorter ones tipped with a gland that produces a slightly sticky secretion.

And here are the hairs in the corolla tube that he talks about. It may be that they help to deter small nectar thieves like ants, because ....

... here is the flower with the corolla removed, as he advises. That square of yellowish tissue is made up of the nectaries. 

Inside, at the base of the stigma and style, the four 'eggs' are the ovaries containing the ovules that will eventually become four black seeds, in an arrangement that is typical of the Boraginaceae, the family to which lungwort belongs.

What I really like about this book is that it's aimed at satisfying the natural curiosity that all children are born with.

I'm planning to produce an updated photographic version for my own grandchildren. 


  1. Hugs, Phil, hugs hugs hugs hugs. You wonderful.

  2. Wonderful! An updated photographic version would be enjoyed by kids ... of all ages! (including this one)

    1. Thinking of doing a tablet-based photographic version ...

  3. Looks like a wonderfully inspirational book. I'd be very interested in an updated photographic version, Phil. Would prefer a 'paper' version, but an electronic version would be fine - and so much easier to publish, I guess!!

    Best wishes - - - Richard

    1. Much easier and cheaper to include lots of photos in an electronic version

  4. The book is a little treasure Phil. As for your version, would you sell to interested individuals? It wounds like a great venture.

    1. Haven't really thought that far ahead - just collecting material at the moment!


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