Read about plants as you weather the long winter

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 12/31/2020 10:54:23 AM

The sound of a seed packet ripping open. The smell of freshly turned earth. The feel of grass beneath my feet. The sight of little green shoots popping out of the ground. The sense of long hours of sunshine. The taste of that first freshly picked tomato. These are the cherished memories that keep us going through the winter.

My seed catalogues had not yet started to arrive, it is snowing as I write this column, and I am feeling some deprivation.

If you have been reading this column regularly you know I spend a lot of time with books on botany, plants, and gardening. Usually, reading on this topic is more pronounced in the winter – and this year is no exception. My expanding book collection has started to include “native” versus “imported” and I have been thinking about how all the plants we consider “native” originally got here from all those other places on the globe from where they theoretically started.

Turns out, I am not the only one thinking about this. Stefano Mancuso, one of my favorite botanists, and one of world’s leading authorities in the field of plant neurobiology by the way, has a new and fun book on this very topic.

“The Incredible Journey of Plants” is a delightfully illustrated work that discusses plant migration. I can see you getting a little anxious about the “neurobiological authority” part and thinking this is going to be too scientific to be fun. Think again. Mancuso tells his plant stories with humor, anecdotes, and just plain joy in the subject he has long studied: plant migration. He explains that plants migrate the way birds take flight, winds cross all man-made barriers, and water finds its own level whether we like it or not.

Starting with the earliest floras, generations of foliage have found their way around the world, conquering new spaces far better than the most sophisticated human armies could ever hope to do. This is usually done with spores or seeds, by means of animals, water, air, birds, delicious fruit, or just explosions of drying seed pods. A plant’s methods are endless, and the quite creative results are often spectacular. Plants also survive under amazingly adverse conditions. Resisting atomic bombs, the Chernobyl disaster, ice ages, and the meddling of humans, vegetation continues to flourish in the darndest of places.

Rest assured; this volume is very accessible for all readers. I loved the little vignettes peppering the text and one of the most amusing was of a Victorian-era German chemist, August Engelhardt who developed the idea that greater contact with nature would improve people’s health. This sounds pretty good so far, but he just kept going. Coconuts were closet to the sun god, and therefore the only sustenance required by all humans. He also advocated nudity at all times and sexual liberation. This posed several practical problems for application in German society and Engelhardt eventually moved to Papua, New Guinea. He and his followers eventually all died of malnutrition because they refused to eat anything else except coconuts – but they did die in a lovely tropical setting resplendent with coconut palm trees.

That particular story was used to expand upon the value of the coconut palm tree so valued by many of the world’s population as a basic foodstuff that guarantees survival – as long as they also ate the fish, they caught and whatever else could be found for protein.

Even if you are not a coconutarian, the myriad practical uses of coconuts, and stories of the coconut palm’s dispersal techniques is certainly worth the read! Of course, in our climate growing coconut palms is not advisable. But think of how many plants we have in our gardens that we consider “native” only to discover they are early transplants for other continents. We treasure our roses, fuchsia, chrysanthemums, and rhododendrons not only here in New Hampshire, but across the world. Interestingly, many of the common varieties have their original roots in Asia.

If you are wondering how this is possible, we have to step back in time to 1829. A British surgeon and amateur naturalist, Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward began to experiment how he could keep plants alive in the soot-filled air of London. I actually wonder how humans kept themselves alive in that filthy air, but the good doctor was more worried about his plants, and as a result he devised a closed system for plant propagation and growth. This was actually the forerunner to those nifty terrariums I wrote about a couple of years ago. (Don’t worry if you don’t remember – I won’t be quizzing you).

Dr. Ward kept experimenting, writing to horticultural friends, and eventually developed an amazing miniature green-house type box for safe transport of plants. I know all this from reading “The Wardian Case: How a Simple Box Moved Plants and Changed the World” by Luke Keogh.

Today, we buy think nothing of buying fresh roses or carnations in a local market. Those same flowers that had their origins, less than 72 hours before, some place in South America. Our global world, even in these times of strained supply chains, manages to rapidly transport pretty much anything from one point on the globe to another. We forget how it was in the days of sail when transporting plants, among many other types of cargo, was fraught with incredible danger. It was very rare that a plant survived any journey across the seas – until the Wardian box came along.

Keogh’s book, the first to discuss the Wardian case, really explains how this invention drove the revolution in plant relocation. He steps back through time to paint a vivid picture of Dr. Ward, his associations with both amateur and professional horticulturalists, and how the exploration in remote regions of the world – along with the successful transportation of then-unknown plants – forever changed our botanical world. Of course, nineteenth-century imperialism reared its ugly head during this era and that too is addressed by Keogh.

Whether you are interested in collections of rare orchids, the history of quinine plantations, expansion of tea growing regions in the world, or the early days of rubber trees, this book covers it all in amazing well-researched detail. Our world has been changed dramatically due to this one invention, and for that reason alone it is well worth reading about.

As we know, the structure of our world would be far different if we did not have the many plants we frequently take for granted. However, one culture never diminishes the importance of plants. Native American Tarahumara, Enrique Salmón, a highly regarded ethnobotanist, explains this in his fascinating book “Iwigara: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science.” The translation of the Tarahumara word “iwigara” is “The belief that all life-forms are interconnected and share the same breath.”

Salmón builds on this concept of the connected web of life, by writing about the 80 plants revered by North America’s indigenous peoples. He clearly explains how these plants are used as food and medicine, how they are identified and harvested and the role they play in the traditional stories of Native American people. One of my favorite trees is the juniper, and I learned that after Mother Earth and Father Sky had a fight and a four-year drought resulted, one of the four plants that survived was the juniper. The juniper has many medicinal applications and by figuring so highly in numerous traditional stories and ceremonies, the First Nation peoples are able to pass down not only their customs but the medicinal importance of this plant as well.

Each plant has about two pages of information that is straight to the point and very detailed. This makes the volume not only a fast reference for readers, it also allows us a glimpse as to how that web connects all of us in one way or another. If you love plants this is an excellent addition to your reference library.

Keep reading about plants in these books, knowing that those seed catalogs will arrive any day now.


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