High School Science title: “Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind” by Henry Hobhouse (1986)

When I was in ninth grade, I went on a long road trip with my parents.  Even though I was the youngest of four children, I was the only one living at home that year (my two oldest brothers were off at college, and my sister was spending a year abroad through a foreign exchange program), so I was also alone with my parents for the trip.  My mother had borrowed a book-tape (fast forward to the 21st century and she would have downloaded an audiobook) from our local library for the trip’s entertainment.  She selected Seeds of Change: Five Plants That Transformed Mankind by Henry Hobhouse (1986).  This title proved to be an absolute revelation to me.  I was enthralled by the layers of cause-and-effect; by what appears to be inconsequential yet has enormous impact on the world.  The stories of man, mixed with the science of plants, changed the way I thought about the world around me.  I have reread and revisited Hobhouse’s work several times since then, each time building on new knowledge, experiences, and understandings.

At A Glance: Things to Know

  • Hobhouse, H. (1986). Seeds of change: Five plants that transformed mankind. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Lexile 989, ATOS 6.6  (recommended ATOS 8.5 due to background knowledge needs)
  • 255 pages
  • Basic background knowledge of world history recommended
  • Cross-discipline History and Science
  • Exceptional Annotated Index and Bibliography
  • Best presented in topical sections
  • Common language, witty, engaging


Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind by Henry Hobhouse (1986) Lexile 989 Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Seeds-Change-Five-Plants-Transformed-Mankind/dp/0060156317

Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind by Henry Hobhouse (1986) Lexile 989, ATOS 6.6 Retrieved from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Seeds-Change-Five-Plants-Transformed-Mankind/dp/0060156317

Seeds of Change is a collection of succinct historical reviews that focus on five plants – quinine, sugar cane, tea, cotton, and the potato – that have had, as Hobhouse argues, a transformative relationship with human kind as we have progressed to this point in time.  While the topic might seem more applicable to history, the depth to which Hobhouse investigates the facts of each plant launches his work into the realm of natural science, environmental science, horticulture, pharmacology, nutrition and health, social science, and economics.

Without revealing some of the more interesting details presented by Hobhouse, a brief synopsis of the five plants that transformed mankind is as follows:

  • Quinine, derived from the bark of a cinchona tree discovered in South America in the early 19th century, was used to treat the symptoms of malaria, allowing for unlivable areas of the world be populated without fear of malarial epidemic.
  • Sugar cane’s addictive by-product refined sugar has had tremendous health effects on the world population, as well as fueled the international economy, including (but not exclusively) the slave trade.
  • Tea impacted the European peoples from its introduction as a beverage that, paired with the need to boil water before consuming, became extraordinarily addictive due to its caffeine content.  This in turn, like sugar cane, fueled economies and imperialistic growth world wide.
  • Before the American Civil War, cotton fueled the slave trade in the American south, and the trade economy in the American north.  The Industrial Revolution and Great Britain’s rule over India (where cotton could be grown and harvested cheaply), caused the cotton-driven economy of the US to fail pushing for new industries to develop.
  • Potatoes, originally a New World crop, afforded Irish an inexpensive and near-effortless food crop to sustain the poor even under siege by a treacherous British monarchy.  While an excellent high calorie food crop, the manner in which the Irish managed potato crops ultimately added  to the cause of the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.  And in turn, the Irish flooded the US, stimulating a tremendous influx of immigrants to the US from all over impoverished European countries.

Seeds of Change challenges higher level thinking, but is not a struggle to read

Seeds of Change is a pleasurable read, intended for the layperson, yet filled with well documented research that sometimes can prove to be more titillating than the leads chosen for the main argument (check out the rich index and footnote sections).  With a Lexile of 989/ ATOS of 6.6, and 255 pages (including an extensive index and bibliography), this title is an excellent choice to supplement typical high school science curriculum.  While much of the discussion deals more extensively with cause-and-effect of an historical nature, the background for the cause-and-effect arguments lay heavily in the realm of science.

The quantitative scoring of Seeds of Change suggests a much younger audience than the high school level, and might concern high school instructors that it is lacking in challenge.  However, while the Lexile and ATOS are scored fairly low (late sixth grade level), the subject matter is more suited to the background knowledge and critical thinking skills of high school students.  Middle school social science curriculum introduces world history, ancient history, and American history, all of which are necessary to grasp the bigger picture presented in Seeds of Change.  The complexity of the argument paired with abundant evidence makes this a challenging read despite the lower Lexile rating.  Furthermore, the high level thinking needed to understand causal relationships on a global scale is significantly beyond the capabilities of the typical 6th or 7th grader.  That being said, the ATOS score should be raised to 8.5.  Because this was written by a former journalist for the consumption of the layperson, the  vocabulary and sentence structure are less complex than what might be expected of a more academic text.  However, the ease of the common speech and the wit Hobhouse uses to make his argument does not interfere with the quality of the science, but instead makes it more digestible for the typical high school student.

Incorporating Seeds of Change into Your Curriculum

Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind by Henry Hobhouse (2005) Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/835314.Seeds_of_Change

Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind by Henry Hobhouse (2005) Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/835314.Seeds_of_Change

Exploration of the importance of biodiversity in the rain forest (quinine), the effects of single crop agriculture (potatoes), the chemical transmutations and effects on the human body (sugar, tea), the life cycle of mega crops (cotton), and the importance of clean water and dry land for human habitats (quinine) can all be found in this gripping “tale” of five plants.  While the entire book is meant to be read as a whole, each chapter can be effectively read alone and paired with the focal curriculum.  Nesting the scientific nature of plants and the environment within the engaging story of man and his civilization gives relevance to a topic that often “disengages” students when approached in a more clinical manner.


For suggestions on lesson plans where Seeds of Change might be incorporated, check out the following links:



In 1991, the Smithsonian Institute put out a publication loosely following a similar edict as Hobhouse’s research: Seeds of Change: a Quincentennial Commemoration is concerned with the New World plants that impacted the world.  While it is no longer being published, you can find inexpensive used copies here.  This would be another excellent supplement to the exploration of science curriculum, especially on topics of biodiversity and environmental impacts of agriculture.


In 2005, Henry Hobhouse added an additional plant – cocoa – to the original five, and republished with a new title Seeds of Change: Six Plants that Transformed Mankind.  I have not read the additional content, so cannot comment on it.  However, it might be a worthwhile addition for students, and provide some added relevancy – I mean what kid doesn’t love chocolate!



For reviews of the original publication Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind (1986), check out the following:

  • Allen, D. E. (1986). Henry Hobhouse, Seeds of change. Five plants that transformed mankind, London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985, 8vo, pp. X, 245, illus. Medical History, 30(04), 483. doi:10.1017/S0025727300046172
  • Kiple, K. F. (1988). Henry Hobhouse. Seeds of change: Five plants that transformed mankind. New York: Harper and row. 1986. Pp. Xv, 252. The American Historical Review, 93(4), 1022–1023. doi:10.1086/ahr/93.4.1022

Curriculum Standards

AASL: 2.2.1 Demonstrate flexibility in the use of resources by adapting information strategies and by seeking additional resources when clear conclusions cannot be made.  2.3.2 Consider diverse and global perspectives in drawing conclusions.

CCSS:  CC11-12RH/SS6 Evaluate author’s differing points of view on the same event or issue by assessing the author’s claims, reasoning, and evidence.  CC11-12RH/SS8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other evidence.

NGSS:  Middle School and High School Life Science storyline:  MS-LS2 Ecosystems  MS-LS3 Heredity MS-LS4 Biological Evolution HS-LS2 Ecosystems HS-LS3 Heredity HS-LS4 Biological Evolution


Achieve. (2013). DCI arrangements of the next generation science standards. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/sites/default/files/NGSS%20DCI%20Combined%2011.6.13.pdf

American (2011). Crosswalk of the common core standards and the standards for the 21st-century Learner reading standards in history all AASL standards common core crosswalk. Huron St. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/commoncorecrosswalk/pdf/ReadinginHistoryAllStandards.pdf

Hobhouse, H. (1986). Seeds of change: Five plants that transformed mankind. New York: Harper & Row.

Hobhouse, H. (2005). Seeds of change: Six plants that transformed mankind. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard.

Reading is a window to the world. (2007). . Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_Learning_Standards_2007.pdf



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