Sunday, June 23, 2024
Curated

Why you need to know where your plants came from

We hope you like this latest article in our curated content series! Enjoy reading and happy gardening!

Flo Headlam's column on tropical plants

Right plant, right place, as Roy Lancaster’s book taught us, is a well-known adage and one we all try to live by. Get it right and your garden will love you for it. On closer inspection that phrase belies a whole historical context that is not evident at first sight. I was reminded recently of the stark fact that most of the plants we have in our gardens are from somewhere else. From Asia, the Antipodes, South Africa, to the Americas and continental Europe, these continents have supplied us for centuries with plants that fill our green spaces. Many are now so familiar and yet two hundred plus years ago they arrived as exotic specimens, delighting the Victorians and their predecessors.
In their native south Asia, camellias are woodland plants, so do best in shady spots
In their native south Asia, camellias are woodland plants, so do best in shady spots

I was at a recent talk by Marchelle Farrell, speaking about her new book, Uprooting. It’s a beautifully written memoir about her relocation to England, and specifically to the southwest where, as the only black woman in her village, she settled into a new home with her family, simultaneously reflecting on her place in the English countryside while cultivating her garden. It was her recounting some of the plants in her garden, some she had seen in English formal gardens up and down the country, and their twinning with plants she remembered from her childhood in Trinidad that got me thinking. Time for a deep dive, I thought.

It reminded me of a recent visit to Jamaica and noticing the numerous plants that grew there and back home (England), as well as in mainland Europe. Plants that thrived in two vastly different locations but nonetheless persisted. How did that happen? That aloes, lantanas and bougainvillea grow in countries with a shared history?

The Aloe genus contains more than 500 species, native to Africa, Madagascar and Arabia

The Aloe genus contains more than 500 species, native to Africa, Madagascar and Arabia

We have the early British and European plant hunters and botanists to thank for the plethora of species that grace our indoor and outdoor spaces. Their arrival was part of an enterprise to discover the world beyond the confines of the European landscape. Driven by scientific curiosity, new technologies that could heat glasshouses, and financed by societies and private money, they scoured the globe for interesting and curious species. Many were brought back to England for further investigation and propagation. Imported plants were also realised to be useful in the colonies, for ornamentation as well as a means of controlling the slave population.

Breadfruit was first brought to Jamaica in 1794 and has been a staple of Jamaican cuisine since. Getty images

Breadfruit was first brought to Jamaica in 1794. Getty images

The introduction of breadfruit from Tahiti into Jamaica in 1793 by Captain Bligh, for example, is recorded to have been driven by the need to reduce the amount of time the slave population spent growing their own crops. Breadfruit trees grow quickly, need very little care, and produce an abundance of fruit. It is versatile, can be prepared in several ways (boiled, roasted, fried), is a high energy substitute for potatoes or rice, even the seeds are roasted or ground. It is known today as a superfood, rich in vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants. Quick growing and highly nutritious – just the crop to get the enslaved people back to work. Time is money after all!

Potatoes were only brought to Europe in the mid 1500s

Potatoes were only brought to Europe in the 1500s

Plants and food crops were transported all over the world by European merchants. Think of the humble potato, taken from South America, Peru and Bolivia specifically, by the Spanish to mainland Europe in the early 16th century. Its arrival in Ireland, a century later, found a more suitable growing environment than it did initially in Spain.

Aspidistras, parlour palms, pineapples, monsteras. These and many more are synonymous with Victorian horticultural aesthetics and fed a growing appetite for exotic plant life for households and dinner tables.

Aspidistras were popular Victorian house plants, partly due to their tolerance of pollution from coal fires and gas lamps

Aspidistras were popular Victorian house plants, partly due to their tolerance of pollution from coal fires and gas lamps

Why does any of this matter? After all, so many of us think of many of these plants as native now, given that they have acclimatised to our conditions. It matters in the same way that knowing your history matters. Context is everything. As a global citizen, I’m always interested in the ‘why’ and ‘how’. Answers reveal the motive behind the story, the journey of the plants. Often it was about a European thirst for knowledge and ownership. The acquisition of plants – breadfruit, potatoes, orchids or cherry trees, for example – was likely not an equal exchange. We can’t go back in time to verify this but large ships with men and guns were probably very persuasive in getting what they wanted.

No, we can’t turn back the hands of time to when our land was populated solely by our native species, trees and wildflowers. Nor would we want to. We are blessed with a fantastic, worldly choice of plants. Occasionally though, it’s good to enjoy a ‘school day’ and learn more about the everyday things we take for granted.

 

* This article was originally published here

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