Book Review

Parallel Botany

Leo Lionni
Knopf, 1977, 181pp


The field of parallel botany, i.e., the study of parallel plants, has often been underappreciated and ignored by other biologists, almost, one might say, a backwater in which progress has been slow and difficult. There are, of course, many reasons for this; but chiefly, the principal difficulty with studying parallel plants is their lack of a basic property possessed by the vast majority of other, non-parallel plants, namely the property of `existence'.

As many deities have discovered, being existence-challenged can be a significant inconvenience, and it has also led to serious difficulties for investigators of parallel plants which, in retrospect, may perhaps seem inevitable. For example, the nonexistence of parallel plants and their consequent matterlessness and invisibility have proved to be formidable obstacles to collecting adequate specimens, and considerable diligence and patience are required to obtain clear photographs of these rare and elusive plants. Nonetheless, some progress has been made using methodology that is both ingenious and creative. For example, the author describes the remarkable discovery of the first known fossil Tirillus specimens near Ham-el-Dour in the desert of eastern Luristan by the eminent paleobotanist Madame Jeanne Helene Bigny, who used not only paleontology but also methods from parapsychology and psycholinguistics to locate their fossil imprints.

The challenge of nonexistence has also led parallel plants to adopt unusual strategies for survival, and accounts for much of their botanical diversity. One such strategy is `parabotanization', in which the plant takes on the appearance of ordinary plants, either as a disguise or as a result of envy. Nowhere is this more convincingly demonstrated than in the elegant cellular morphological and topological studies by Spinder, and the studies, by other scholars, of parallel plants such as the Woodland Tweezers, the candelabra-shaped Camporana menorea, and the giant Protorbis. These studies, remembered as classic investigatory tales by sociobotanists everywhere, are thoroughly described in this book.

In particular, the author acknowledges the large debt of gratitude owed to the the famous Professor Hydendorp of the University of Honingen for his detailed and diligent studies of Giraluna, whose paramimetic qualities are most directly evident in its metallic seeds, or spherostills, on its corona. For some researchers, these are seen as evidence of a possible lunar origin for this plant, an origin from which the plant derives its name.

The profound philosophical and psychological issues raised by all members of this unique form of plant life reaffirm the valuable insights that the study of parallel plants has given to botanoethics and biophilosophy. The latter is particularly well represented by scholars such as Kormosh Maramsh, who saw evolution more as the result of economic and political struggles than of the existential meaning of, and attempts to achieve actualization in, time and space, a type of existential reification that parallel plants are still struggling to achieve.

Parallel Botany, unlike its subject matter, is a real book, although now out of print and difficult to find, and is one of the most creative and amusing books ever written in the field of botany. It is also the authoritative work on parallel plants.