Thursday, June 3, 2010

Plants and history

I love history, and I love botany, so I especially like reading about plants in human history. Here's a few odd facts and stories that I've learned about a few local plants over the years, illustrated with a few of my own photos.


White Pine (Pinus strobus)

This conifer can grow to be the tallest tree in eastern North America, with some specimens in the old-growth forests of colonial times supposedly topping 200 feet (about 60 meters) in height. The large size, plus the wood's combination of strength, softness, flexibility, and low amount of resin (for a pine) made it ideal timber for some uses. The trunks of larger specimens were used for ship masts because they were strong but could flex when under great strain. The largest trees of all were officially reserved for use by the British navy in colonial times, and were sometimes branded with a symbol that marked them as so-called "King's pines" (reserved for use of the King's navy). The fact that they weren't allowed to cut them for their own ships or other use was another in the accumulating list of grievances that the colonists of New England developed against the British government.

By the later 19th century, most of the old-growth white pines had been logged, but the white pine certainly didn't become a rare species. The trees adaptability to a variety of conditions and fast growth rate meant that it was often the most common tree to grow on farm fields that had been abandoned. By the late 19th century, a lot of farms in New England were being abandoned as many farmers moved to land in the midwestern and great plains states that had richer soil with fewer rocks, or else moved into the towns and cities to find more profitable work. By the early 20th century, a second wave of logging swept over New England, cutting down the second growth of white pines for a new use - shipping crates. It turned out that white pine wood was ideal for making crates for shipping a wide variety of items by rail, ship, and truck - and the trees didn't have to be especially big to furnish timber for crates.

By the mid 20th century, the development of cardboard among other things undercut the market for white pine crates, and the pines regrew a third time. Some of the pines and other trees of this third generation of New England forests since European colonization have been cut down in their turn for housing developments and malls and other features of suburban sprawl, but many remain because suburban sprawl actually involves less clearing of land than the farming and lumber industry of earlier time. Today, Massachusetts has far more forested land than it did at the time of the American Revolution - though hardly any of it is fully mature old growth forest. Perhaps at least some of it will be able to grow uncut for centuries and allow some of the relatively young 50 or 60 foot tall white pines common today to grow to the 150, 175 or even 200 foot giants that were once far from rare.

The white pine has also been a symbol for both Native American nations and the European-descended whites who displaced them. The Haudenosaunee or Iroquois people who lived in what later became New York State used a white pine as a symbol on their modern flag, which is based on much older designs. For the Haudenosaunee, the white pine represented peace and the unity of the several nations who united to form a confederacy. One possible reason for this symbolism is that the white pine grows its needles in bunches of five, and the original Haudenosaunee or Iroquois confederation was made up of five nations (a sixth joined later).

When the English settled in New England, the white pine became a symbol for them as well, as the pine tree flag used during the American Revolution indicates.




Europeans introduced many terrible diseases to the natives of North and South America, but America only gave the "old world" a single significant disease in return - syphilis. Still, it became common enough in Europe during the 16th century that Europeans were desperate to find a cure. One theory was that since the disease came from the Americas, only a plant from the Americas could provide an appropriate remedy. A number of different plants from different parts of the American continents were tried, none with much success. One of the most popular plants that was tried was the sassafras tree, a native of much of what is now the eastern USA. Some of the very first Europeans to land on the coast of what later became New England at the beginning of the 17th century - more than a decade before the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth- came primarily to cut down Sassafras trees and dig up their roots to extract the oil. Both the fruit and the roots could be used to produce an oil that had painkilling properties (this was probably where it got the reputation of being a good "cure" - for most infectious diseases at the time, the best treatments alleviated the symptoms rather than helping much with the disease itself). The oil also had a distinctive smell that many found attractive and that repelled insects to boot. Settlers later found that parts of the plant could also be used to make flavorful teas and a distinctively flavored beer known as "root beer" because the extract that gave it a distinctive taste came from Sassafras tree roots (yes, the original root beer was an actual beer).

Unfortunately, parts of the sassafras plant also contain the chemical safrole, which is potentially carcinogenic. Not surprisingly, sassafras isn't used for medical treatment anymore, but dried and ground leaves (which don't contain significant amounts of safrole) are used as a seasoning in some regional American cuisines, especially cajun and creole in Louisiana.



Grapevine (Vitis genus, unknown species)

European explorers overseas often looked for evidence of something familiar as they surveyed an unfamiliar environment, and in North America one familiar thing that they often saw was grapevines. One Viking saga tells of how Norse explorers who reached North America around 1000 AD found grapevines there, but did not recognize them because they did not grow in their own homelands of Scandinavia, Iceland, or Greenland. Instead, it was a servant who originally came from the Rhineland of Germany and who was familiar with grapes who recognized the American grapevines and pointed them out to Norse fellow explorers. There is some controversy about this legend, because the only place in North America where the Vikings are known to have landed is northern Newfoundland, which was too far north for grapevines to grow even during the unusually warm early medieval period when the Norse crossed the north Atlantic. One possible explanation is that the medieval Norse word for "grapes" might also refer to other kinds of berries that did grow in Newfoundland. Another possibility is that the Vikings set up a base in Newfoundland, but explored much further south, reaching Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and possibly parts of New England. In these places, they would have found plenty of native grapevines. What is certain is that when Europeans returned in larger numbers to temperate North America in the 16th and 17th centuries, many of them remarked on the grapevines. Giovanni da Verrazzano, leading one of the first European expeditions to explore what is now the eastern coast of the USA in 1524, noted:
We noticed many wild grapevines climbing up the trees, as they do in the north of Italy. If these vines were to be cultivated, they would surely produce some excellent wines. I tasted the grapes on several occasions and found them flavourful and sweet. That the natives consider the grapes important can be seen from the fact that they clear the weeds from growing around them, so as to facilitate their germination. (From this website.)

In fact, North America has a larger number of grape species than any other part of the world. In spite of this biological diversity, and in spite of Verrazzano's optimistic prediction, none of these species have ever been able to rival Vitis vinifera, the old world grape native to the Mediterranean, as a source of either wine or table grapes. Still, the native grape species Vitis labrusca, Vitis riparia, and Vitis rotundifolia have all been developed into several varieties of wine and table grapes, even if they will never match the traditional V. vinifera in popularity.



Virginia spiderwort (Tradescentia virginiana)

This plant was one of the first native plants of North America to be brought back to Europe for mainly aesthetic reasons - as a garden plant. It was introduced to England by John Tradescant the Younger, a 17th century English scholar and botanist who served as chief gardener to King Charles I of England and who personally traveled to Virginia in the 1630s to find interesting plants for the gardens of the King and wealthy English nobles.




This plant is a common weed in fields, lawns, and roadsides in the northeastern United States. It also was (and is) a common weed in Europe, and this weediness lies at the root (no pun intended) of its spread to North America. Because it was a common weed in fields of wheat and other grains, its seeds inevitably got mixed in with seeds of wheat and barley and forage grasses that the early settlers took with them from Europe to sow in their new fields in what became the eastern USA and Canada. Wheat, barley, and other plants were sown, the seeds of the common plantain were unwittingly sown with them. A number of other weeds came over from Europe with European settlers in the same manner - the best known of these is probably the common dandelion. The common plantain, though, became so common around English settlements that the Native Americans in New England took a special notice of it. They referred to it by a phrase which translates as "the white man's foot", because they said that wherever white settlers went, this plant, unknown before they came, seemed to appear almost as if by magic.

1 comment:

catmint said...

love, love, love this post. Can't get enough of the history of plants and plant collectors. That tradescentia is in my garden. Cheers, catmint