Plants & Us: how they shape human history and society

Gardeners enjoy a close special relationship with plants, but plants affect everybody. Wild or cultivated, they are vital to human existence and civilization, not least because they harvest sunlight to make food and oxygen, ­supporting all life on Earth.

Plants exert so many influences on daily life and have frequently been at the heart of major historical events. A new illustrated book, Plants & Us: how they shape human history and society takes a broad look at the impacts and influences of plants, including their role in gardens and horticulture, where gardeners, designers, plants and wider environmental issues create a ‘virtuous circle’. Within and far beyond our gardens, plants give us food, drinks, medicines, timber, fibre and all those everyday products that sustain and enhance human life. Trade in crops and ornamental plants is a major part of the world economy. Plants also uplift and inspire us. Steeped in myths, legend and symbolism, they illuminate society’s rituals of birth, courtship, marriage and death. They can be potent national symbols, like the Scottish Thistle or Irish Shamrock.

The book demonstrates how, above all, every plant tells a story. Take the trees and shrubs we grow in gardens or admire in parks or the grounds of big houses. Their stories are varied but never dull. Cedar of Lebanon provided the strong, fragrant timber employed in constructing the temple of King Solomon described in the Bible. In World War I, Horse Chestnut’s conkers helped to make explosives and Prime Minister Lloyd George rewarded the chemist responsible with a promise to establish a Jewish homeland, saying it ‘was the fount and origin of the Balfour Declaration’ that established the modern state of Israel. Sweet Chestnuts saved the people of the Cévennes and other south European mountains from starvation. We have taken Ash for granted but is now threatened by an introduced parasitic fungus, as is that hedging stalwart, Box. Bamboo gives gardeners their canes but in its native tropics and subtropics supports all manner of human activity from edible shoots, paper and matting to water pipes, walls and scaffolding. London Plane, a cross between European and American trees raised in a 17th century Vauxhall garden, tolerates air pollution, so helping to green city streets everywhere.

Gardens are a window on the world, present and past. The Renaissance brought Greek and Roman architecture and statuary to gardens, closely followed by a profound change in British and European horticulture with the arrival of an entirely new flora from America. Native Americans bequeathed their vegetable patch bounty to gardens and kitchens worldwide: maize (now the world’s single largest crop), marrows and squashes, haricot beans, peppers and chillies. Explorers and collectors sought out coniferous and broad-leaved forest trees and other familiar ornamentals. Not everybody remembers Meriwether Lewis and William Clarke, whom President Jefferson sent in 1804 to explore from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, but gardeners cherish two of their discoveries, Lewisia and Clarkia. Garden author Christian Lamb rightly noted that ‘their plant collection was not large but much of it was new to science’.

The vast North American prairie grasslands, now monocultures of maize and wheat, yielded the suite of border perennials that underpins so many British and Irish gardens. Once they coloured the grassland, but their legacy remains, nurtured by all anyone who grows coneflowers, heleniums and Michaelmas daisies. American conservationist Aldo Leopold evocatively described a sunflower-like Sylphium or Compass Plant in a Wisconsin graveyard – last survivor of the prairie where ‘a thousand acres of Silphiums … tickled the bellies of the buffalo’. Now the plants, their habitat, the buffalo and the Native Americans dependent on them are gone.

Another region of profound influence on gardens is the great mountain bloc of the Himalaya, where Scottish botanists especially made a valuable contribution. Their enthusiasm and tenacity are exemplified by George Forrest, who introduced hundreds of plant species, including over 300 Rhododendrons, still an Edinburgh Botanic Garden speciality, and the popular autumn-flowering Chinese gentian. On one occasion Forrest was pursued for days through the rhododendron forests by enraged monks, while noting interesting plants to collect on his return! Monty Don of BBC Gardeners’ World has Scottish botanical forbears, 18th-century botanist George Don and his five sons, all gardeners or botanists. And he is related to Janet Keiller, who in 1797 with her son James established Dundee’s famous marmalade, another plant product!

From upland Asia too came Rhubarb, a giant dock that became a British institution, though appreciated in Germany and parts of the USA. Originally a mild laxative, it evolved into the popular desert with the availability of cheaper sugar in the early 19th century. By the early 20th century, nightly ‘Rhubarb Express’ trains were taking the crop from its west Yorkshire heartland to the London markets. Alas, no more, but Rhubarb still holds sway on vegetable patches and allotments.

Recent years have seen a shift of emphasis from plants themselves towards garden design and layout, often influenced by natural plant-rich landscapes. And as far back as Capability Brown’s 18th-century vistas, the distinction between gardens and countryside was often blurred. Gardeners may not like weeds, but they do appreciate ‘good’ wild plants and habitats. In 1861, William Robinson, head gardener of an Irish estate, moved to England and his book ‘The Wild Garden’ appeared shortly after. Promoting woodland, bog and rock gardens rather than formal bedding, Robinson greatly influenced garden guru Gertrude Jekyll, who launched an English passion for cottage gardens. A century later, film maker and designer Derek Jarman achieved a personal vision of the cottage garden on the shingle beach at Dungeness. His unfenced plot of driftwood, metal and native and garden plants pre-empted many modern garden designs and took them far beyond the garden fence.

Today, even the vegetable garden can expand ‘out of bounds’. A growing interest in plant-based meals and a search for healthy, flavoursome, unprocessed foods has led to an increase in foraging for wild produce. Blackberries have always been foraged, but other hedgerow fruits, forest mushrooms, wild garlic and wild greens are becoming more mainstream and even encouraged or planted in gardens. At the same time, the wildflower meadows that the Chelsea Flower Show has taken to its heart have gone mainstream. Their subtle colours, evocation of traditional ‘lost’ countryside and many benefits for insects and other wildlife endear them to gardeners.

Gardeners are as aware as anyone that conservation is an urgent task. The Eden Project, Kew Seed Bank and other initiatives have also shown a wider public how plants are a precious resource needing wise and sustainable management. Yet we do not grow a wide enough range of food crops and species diversity erodes year by year, while pests and diseases spread and proliferate. Estimates vary as to the rate of loss of global and regional plant diversity, but it is fair to say that each year species, variants or old crop cultivars – each possessing potential that may not have been assessed – disappear without any chance of being replaced. Extinction is forever.

Fortunately, gardeners have always been to the fore in what is now called ‘plant science’. Their practical propagation, seed collection and plant husbandry is firmly based on sound scientific deduction and practice. For example, David Moore, who developed Ireland’s National Botanic Garden at Glasnevin in Dublin not only collected plants and pioneered growing orchids from seed but in 1845 discovered that the country’s devastating Potato Blight was a micro-organism, not just a response to damp.

One of the most remarkable of British scientific gardeners, Victorian polymath Joseph Paxton, not only created plant houses of timber, iron and glass, and the Crystal Palace that pioneered modern architecture, but also bred the Cavendish Bananas that remain the basis of the 100 million-ton global banana crop. He was also the first to induce the Giant Waterlily of Amazonia to flower in cultivation.

The written word is important to the English, who have always gardened but also written about plants, gardens, farming, nature and the countryside, in publications ranging from journalism and handbooks to poetry and novels. The famous British contribution to the 18th-century ‘Agricultural Revolution’ owed much to the landowners who wrote about Red Clover and other new crops and techniques then transforming farming. America inherited this writing tradition but applied it to their expansive wilderness. Articles and books by late 19th-century Scottish-American naturalist John Muir stimulated the growth of National Parks in the USA and beyond. Gardeners will sympathize with his preference of nature to indoors: ‘I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!’

UK gardens and gardeners should be applauded for being at the heart of efforts to tackle biodiversity loss, climate change and all things environmental. The nation’s gardens, whether botanic gardens like the Eden Project, Kew and Edinburgh, pleasure grounds or modest suburban plots, are a shop window for plants. Nor is their store of genetic variation appreciated. The 2020 RHS Plant Finder lists over 80,000 different plants, a mighty natural resource that deserves proper recognition.

Plants and Us. How they shape human history and society. By John Akeroyd, Donough O’Brien and Liz Cowley. GB Publishing, 2021, Pages 416. Hardback ISBN 978-1-912576-75-3 (£22.99), Paperback 978-1-912576-76-0 (£14.99).

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