Science Book Review: A Natural History of Ferns
A Natural History of Ferns by Robbin C. Moran is a rare type of science book. It successfully walks a line between the popular science book for the layperson and the dry technical tome. The author promises us a natural history of ferns and he delivers. The book is extremely thorough and well organized, starting with basic fern biology and reproduction, then moving on classification, evolution, unusual types of ferns, and our relationship with ferns over the years, including historically and in pop culture. I’ve always liked ferns but I had no idea how much there was to know about them. Nor did I know that horsetails are actually phylogenetically ferns.
This book is very well written without shying away from technical terms or in-depth explanations. In fact, it’s all about in-depth explanations, but they are very well done and fairly easy to follow. However, this book is definitely not for the complete layperson. The author presumes at least a basic, college level knowledge of biology and some familiarity with botany. He does try to explain terms that might be unfamiliar and provides a very helpful glossary in the back, so a very determined person with no existing science background could probably figure it out, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as My First Fern Book (or even My First Plant Book).
What this book is excellent at is educating a person who is already a plant nerd on an area of botany that they may know little about, or introducing someone with an existing science background to botany. The progression of topics is natural, the author is entertaining and makes a few terrible plant puns, and the discussion of the science is at a reasonably high level but not so difficult that the target reader feels like they are slogging through it or preparing for an exam.
There are two other things I really appreciated about this book. First, the chapters are very short and focused on a single topic, without wandering. This made me feel like I could sit down, read a chapter, grasp a complicated concept, and then maybe come back later for more. At no point did I feel like I was being bombarded with too much information or like I couldn’t wait for a chapter to end. This format helped me retain the information more easily than if the chapters had been longer and tried to cover too many things.
Second, while the author does provide a very detailed level of information, large concepts are stressed over nitty-gritty mechanisms. The small scale stuff was there, but I felt like I could still get something out of each chapter without having to remember ever name for every structure on the fern reproductive structure, for instance. This book definitely gets my endorsement for anyone with a botanical interest who wants to go a little deeper. I would love to see more science books of this quality and level of discourse.