Master Gardeners’ Bookshelf: What Have Plants Ever Done for Us?

What Have Plants Ever Done for Us? Western Civilization in Fifty Plants, by Stephen Harris.

by Nancy Brooks, Extension Master Gardener

Monty Python’s skit, What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us? (“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”) may be the inspiration for both this title as well as the very British author’s humorous and entertaining approach to the plant world. Stephen Harris is a plant scientist and curator of the Oxford University Herbaria, where he contributes to courses in plant conservation biology, plant biodiversity, and field biology. Harris has selected 50 plants, which he argues have been important to global history, and he includes illustrative stories of travel, trade, politics, medicine, and chemistry. Among the provocative questions Harris attempts to answer in this book are: “When did the British government become the world’s largest drugs pusher (opium poppy, page 24)?”; “What tree is frequently used to treat cancer?”(yew, page 65); and “Which everyday condiment is the most widely traded spice on the planet (pepper, page 93)?”

This 264 page book is organized into five sections: an introduction, 50 four- or five-page chapters describing the plants, extensive notes, recommendations for further reading, and a useful index. The plants are introduced chronologically, beginning with the early domestication of barley millennia ago in the Fertile Crescent (page 10) and ending with thale cress, an excellent model plant that was the first to have its DNA decoded and is widely used now in genetic research (page 229). Because each short chapter is independent of the others, a reader can skip around and read plant descriptions in any order. The short chapters make this book a good one to take along on trips, errands, or appointments when one is likely to be interrupted or distracted. But it is engaging, too, and a reader could read it straight through, curled up with it and a cup of cocoa (page 138) or tea (page 192) on a long winter’s night. Each plant is delightfully and clearly illustrated with a simple black line drawing.

One of the most useful sections of this book is the author’s note on plant names:

Scientific names can also be rich sources of curious information in their own right. They may relate to place (sinensis, ‘of China’; brasiliensis, ‘of Brazil’), habitat (pratensis, ‘of fields’) or use (officinale, ‘used by apothecaries’, i.e. medicinal; tinctoria, ‘for dyeing’; somniferum, ‘sleep-inducing’). Many indicate a certain characteristic (Helianthus, ‘flower of the sun’; fragrans, ‘fragrant’; tuberosum, ‘having tubers or swellings’; nigra, ‘black’; oleracea, ‘of the garden or vegetables’). Others are used to honour the friends, patrons and colleagues of botanists (Cinchona, Nicotiana, thaliana). Yet other names convey a plant’s qualities in a more romantic way: banana, for example, is Musa x paradisiana, and cocoa is Theobroma, literally ‘food of the gods.’ Consequently, scientific names themselves are part of cultural history, telling us much about individual botanists and the times in which they lived” (page 9).

Many Extension Master Gardeners are worried about climate change. Harris quotes American diplomat George Marsh, who in 1864, long before there was widespread awareness about environmental science, despaired that “we are, even now, breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage, and the world cannot afford to wait till the slow and sure progress of exact science has taught it a better economy” (page 226).

This book offers a lens for learning about these 50 plants and thinking about their place in the history of the world. Because the chapters are fairly short, the author sometimes ends with a thought provoking statement such as “Debate on the GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) issue that has often become polarized. The specters of toxic food and environmental devastation on one side of the debate are contrasted with solutions to feeding and healing the growing human population on the other” (page 232).  He leaves it to the reader to engage in the debate about how to feed nine billion people in 2050.

What Have Plants Ever Done for Us? is available from national booksellers.

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