When most people think of an atlas, they probably call to mind images of a hefty tome almost too large to lift. And when they think of a book about botanical poetry, they would logically expect to read poems about plants.
If that’s the case, then readers will be surprised to discover that Francis Hallé‘s "Atlas of Poetic Botany" (originally published in French as "Atlas de botanique poétique" by Flammarion, Paris, 2016 and in English by The MIT Press in 2018) is neither. There isn’t a poem to be found in its mere 122 pages!
But readers will be pleasantly surprised that this delightful little book isn’t a tome of poems. This will be especially true when they understand why Hallé, a botanist and biologist who has spent 40 years studying tree architecture — especially in rainforests — has chosen plants for the book and how he defines poetic botany.
Hallé said he chose the plants according to several criteria. Those criteria, he explained, are that, "They should be strange, they should be nice looking and, if possible, they should be poorly known or even unknown by people who live in temperate regions far away from the tropics."
He’s certainly succeeded in that regard. While a few of the plants will be familiar to many readers — Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) or the giant aroid Amorphophallus titanum, which always makes news when it flowers — most will not. Hallé’s choices feature some of the strangest, most bizarre and even humorous plants in the world’s tropical rainforests. There’s a vine that dances (Codariocalyx motorius). A tree that walks (Rhizophora mucronata). And a palm that has the biggest leaf of any plant in the world (Raphia regalis). Hallé sees poetry in the unusual habits of the remarkable plants he’s chosen in the same way a person who loves literature is fascinated by the cadence of a poem versus the narrative of a novel.
The plants, which Hallé selected and described in collaboration with Elaine Patriarca, mostly feature flowers, ferns and other plants modest in size. That’s something of a departure for him since he specializes in trees. He took this approach because he thinks these choices will help readers understand what he views as the magical allure of the rainforest.
His delightful descriptions of the plants — which are written in an entertaining style based on his observations rather than in academic botanical terms — make the book a page-turner. With every turn of the page readers will be in for another treat: Hallé’s colorful and whimsical illustrations of each plant.
A professor emeritus at the University of Montpellier in southeast France, Hallé favors botanical illustration over photography. "I prefer to draw than to take photographs," he said, explaining that, "the 1/50 of a second required to take a photograph is too short a time to properly understand a complicated plant. When you study a big tree having a huge 3D structure, which could be 50 meters high and 10 centuries old, you have to take your time!" Besides, he writes in the introduction, photographs are the work of the camera rather than the expression of human thought that emerges in an illustration.
Hallé hopes his book will help readers get a more complete view of plant biodiversity. "In Europe and North America, the floras are rather poor because of the cold winters," he said. "We have to look to tropical floras to really appreciate the size and diversity of the plant kingdom. I hope the book will arouse more respect for the last forest of the humid tropics, which are so rapidly being destroyed."
You can see examples of illustrations from the book below and learn more about his work with The Forest Art Project.