Exploring the universe of our planet’s plants

Planting Paradise: Cultivating the Garden 1501 — 1900

THE plant world is, or seems to be, a very long way from the marvels of space or of cosmology, yet this valuable book can assert its right to be regarded as the explorer of another universe, that of this planet’s plants. And universe they are, creeping along through millennia in the shape, for example, of the Californian bristlecone pine, described by author Stephen Harris as “the Methuselah of the plant kingdom”. Methuselah indeed, given that these trees are nearly 5,000 years old yet continue to produce seed.

Notwithstanding the long time-span at his disposal Harris, Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria, confines his study of cultivation to the centuries from 1501 to 1900; these were the centuries during which the study of plant life and the intricacies of its history, propagation and purpose began to flourish. The starting point of 1501 denotes the appearance of the earliest printed botanical books, the closure of 1900 signals the hugely significant advance of genetic investigation. This of course continues: the controversy aroused by the arrival of GM seeds is only one modern example of how botanical research and plant biology feed not only into public life but into the public imagination.

In these beautifully illustrated pages Stephen Harris tracks origins, sources, fashion and experiment: there is the anxious question of the sex life of plants, not at all as pure as they were thought to be until about the late 17th century. ‘Sex was the basis of Linnaeus’s influential mid-18th century classification of the botanical world and led to a century of scientific and (misplaced) moral arguments’, writes Harris. Scientific investigation however also allowed the rational manipulation of plants for agricultural purposes, gave Darwin evidence for his theory on the origin of species and gave Gregor Mendel the first inspiration for his understanding of genetics.

In mankind’s attempt to plant Paradise it is often forgotten that plant science is more about food and medicine than it is about flowers. Plants are, after all, the longest-lived organisms on Earth. As Harris points out, the domestic cultivation of wheat 10,000 years ago brought civilisation to the Near East, and today 60% of humanity’s calorie consumption is supplied by only four grasses — wheat, maize, rice and sugar.

In this rich botanical history Harris can sweep from pharmacy to banking, religion to decoration, plant-hunting expeditions to mysticism and simple manure. Dividing his chapters by theme and sub-headings which allow more analysis and description he provides information which is both learned and fascinating. Working through texts ancient and modern, from the 7th century herbal of an Assyrian king to the synthesising of quinine in 1945, the cultivation of gooseberries (ah, for the vanished Merlot reds of the dessert gooseberry!) he notes the fact that until chocolate arrived from the New World circa 1502 Europe had existed without caffeine. But nothing is for nothing: the Spanish took a plant produced by the Mayans, but cocoa cultivation had to await the growth of the European chocolate market as well as “a source of cheap labour — slaves”.

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