Book Review: Fruit from the Sands

“By dispensing plants and animals all around the world, humans have shaped global cuisines and agricultural practices. One of the most fascinating and least-discussed episodes in this process took place along the Silk Road.” — Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III

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My understanding of the origins of agriculture and the early years of crop domestication are cursory at best. The education I received was mostly concerned with the Fertile Crescent, as well as crops domesticated by early Americans. The Silk Road, as I understood it, was the route or routes used to move goods across Asia and into eastern Europe well after the domestication of many of the crops we know today. Other than the fact that several important crops originate there, little was ever taught to me about Central Asia and its deep connection to agriculture and crop domestication. I suppose that’s why when I picked up Fruit from the Sands by Robert N. Spengler III, published last year by University of California Press, I wasn’t entirely prepared for what I was about to read.

It wasn’t until I read a few academic reviews of Fruit from the Sands that I really started to understand. Spengler’s book is groundbreaking, and much of the research he presents is relatively new. The people of Central Asia played a monumental role in discovering and developing much of the food we grow today and some of the techniques we use to grow them, and a more complete story is finally coming to light thanks to the work of archaeologists like Spengler, as well as advances in technology that help us make sense of their findings.

This long history with agricultural development can still be seen today in the markets of Central Asia, which are loaded with countless varieties of fruits, grains, and nuts, many of which are unique to the area. Yet this abundance is also at risk. Crop varieties are being lost at an alarming rate with the expansion of industrial agriculture and the reliance on a small selection of cultivars. With that comes the loss of local agricultural knowledge. Yet, with climate change looming, diversity in agriculture is increasingly important and one of the tools necessary for maintaining an abundant and reliable food supply. Unveiling a thorough history of our species’ agricultural roots will not only give us an understanding as to how we got here, but will also help us learn from past successes and failures. Hence, the work that Spengler and others in the field of archaeobotany are doing is crucial.

To set the stage for a discussion of “the Silk Road origins of the foods we eat,” Spengler offers his definition of the Silk Road. The term is misleading because there isn’t (and never was) a single road, and the goods, which were transported in all directions across Asia, included much more than silk. In fact, some of what was transported wasn’t a good at all, but knowledge, culture, and religion. In Spengler’s words, “The Silk Road … is better thought of as a dynamic cultural phenomenon, marked by increased mobility and interconnectivity in Eurasia, which linked far-flung cultures….This network of exchange, which placed Central Asia at the center of the ancient world, looked more like the spokes of a wheel than a straight road.” Spengler also sees the origins of the Silk Road going back at least five thousand years, much earlier than many might expect.

Most of Spengler’s book is organized into chapters discussing a single crop or group of crops, beginning with grains (millet, rice, barley, wheat) then moving on to fruits, nuts, and vegetables before ending with spices, oils, and teas. Each chapter compiles massive amounts of research that can be a bit overwhelming to take in all at once. Luckily each section includes a short summary, which nicely distills the information down into something more digestible.

Spengler’s chapter on broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) is particularly powerful. While in today’s world millet has largely “been reduced to a children’s breakfast food in Russia and bird food in Western Europe and America,” it was “arguably the most influential crop of the ancient world.” Originally domesticated in East Asia, “it passed along the mountain foothills of Central Asia and into Europe by the second millennium BC.” It is a high-yielding crop adapted to hot, dry conditions that, with the development of summer irrigation, could be grown year-round. These and other appealing qualities have led to an increase in the popularity of millet, so much so that 2023 will be the International Year of Millets.

The “poster child” for Spengler’s book may very well be the apple. Popular the world over, the modern apple began its journey in Central Asia. As Spengler writes, “the true ancestor of the modern apple is Malus sieversii,” and “remnant populations of wild apple trees survive in southeastern Kazakhstan today.” As the trees were brought westward, they hybridized with other wild apple species, bringing rise to the incredible diversity of apple cultivars we know today. Sadly though, most of us are only familiar with the small handful of common varieties found at our local supermarkets.

Of course, as Spengler says, “No discussion of plants on the Silk Road would be complete without the inclusion of tea (Camellia sinensis),” a topic that could produce volumes on its own. Despite the brevity of the section on tea, Spengler has some interesting things to say. One in particular involves the transport of tea to Tibet in the seventh century, where “an unquenchable thirst for tea” had developed. But the journey there was long and difficult. Fermented and oxidized tea leaves traveled best. Along the way, “the leaves were exposed to extreme cold as well as hot and humid temperatures in the lowlands, and all the time they were jostled on the backs of sweaty horses and mules.” This, however, only improved the tea, as teas exposed to such conditions “became a highly sought-after commodity among the elites.”

“In Central Asia, Mongolia, and Tibet, tea leaves were oxidized, dried, and compressed into hard bricks from which chunks could be broken off and immersed in water.” – Robert N. Spengler III in Fruit from the Sands (photo via wikimedia commons)

As dense as this book is, it’s also quite approachable. The information presented in each of the chapters is thorough enough to be textbook material, but Spengler does such a nice job summing up the main points, that there are plenty of great takeaways for the casual reader. For those wanting a deeper dive into the history of our food (which in many ways is the history of us), Spengler’s book is an excellent starting point.

More Reviews of Fruit from the Sands:

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Book Review: What Weeds Are Thinking

Plant intelligence is a burgeoning field of research. Despite being predominantly sessile organisms, plants are able to sense their surroundings and make decisions based on environmental cues. In a certain sense, they can see, hear, smell, and remember even though they don’t have eyes, ears, noses, or brains. Not surprisingly, these fascinating findings have spawned books, podcasts, documentariesarticles, etc. The idea that plants could be intelligent beings like us is something that captures our attention and imagination.

For example, if plants are so smart, does this mean that they actually have thoughts? And if they have thoughts, what could they possibly be thinking? In her new book, What Weeds Are ThinkingErica Crockett takes a stab at what a particularly despised group of plants might think if, indeed, they could have thoughts. Weeds are, in Crockett’s words, “the deviants of the plant world.” This book was her chance to imagine what might be going on inside the minds of these deviants, despite the fact that they don’t have minds.Crockett conjures up the thoughts of 21 different weeds. Each thought is accompanied by an illustration by Sarah Ragan Olson. The drawings are charming, but the thoughts that juxtapose them aren’t always so sweet. Perhaps you imagine weeds to be potty mouthed? Well, so does Crockett. That being said, this book is not for kids, nor is it for anyone sensitive to adult words and themes. Each of the weeds in this book varies in its degree of irreverence – not all of them are so crass and some of them are actually pretty mild-mannered – but that’s just what you’d expect from such a diverse group of plants.

Comfrey is offended by cow manure being used as fertilizer and would rather be fertilized by “the decaying corpses of [its] relations.” Ground ivy is embarrassed and offended by inadvertently seeing the ankles of human passersby.  Plantain is apparently into being stepped on, and prostrate spurge is trying to “rebrand” to make itself more appealing and set itself apart from purslane. Cheatgrass, no surprise here, comes across as a big jerk. Originally from Eurasia, it is now a freedom-loving American, “choking out the rights of the natives.”

Most in line with what I would expect a weed to be thinking – especially one found growing in an urban area – is prickly lettuce. Upset after watching a fellow member of its species ruthlessly dug up, it laments: “Neither of us decided to seed down in the deep crack of this suburban driveway. We were blown here…It’s our home…Yet we are hunted.”

Milkweed is quite aware of its role as the sole food source of the monarch caterpillar. It sees how much humans appreciate monarchs, and admonishes us for killing off its kind: “Keep it up, and I’ll take every last one of those delicate darlings down with me.”

Botanical inaccuracies aside – and there are several – this was a fun book. The main appeal for me is that it is plant-themed and, more specifically, weeds-themed. If you follow this blog, you’ll know that pretty much anything involving weeds is going to get my attention. Beyond that, any project that puts plants in the spotlight and gives them a voice (even in a fictitious sense) is worth checking out. This book is no exception.

As a bonus, I asked Erica Crockett what other plants (apart from weeds) are thinking. This was her response: “Probably really precious or intellectual things. I imagine tomato plants are fairly self-important and zonal geraniums are divas. Bougainvilleas are likely social climbers and oak trees are dull, but honest.”

More Weeds-themed Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

The Dragon of Yankee Fork: Devil’s Washbasins

This is a guest post by Martha Dalke Hindman. It is an excerpt from her upcoming book, The Dragon of Yankee Fork

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July through September, river water is low, cold, clear.
Four huge, round washbasins appear in an ageless,
Rectangular, horizontal piece of white granite rock.
“Devil’s Washbasins,” at Selway Falls.

Cousin to the domestic Raspberry,
Thimbleberries grow along the river bank.
White blossoms, no thorns, broad indented leaves,
Red berries, a bit of sugar, delectable desert.

thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)

Long shadows on the dusty, winding road, from Race Creek to Selway Falls, made driving a challenge. Kaye and I stopped at Selway Falls to rest and look into “The Devil’s Washbasins.” Although the Falls are not particularly high, only 25 feet, the sound of the water cascading over timeless, granite boulders, into the river below, creates a world unto itself.

A cream colored car with Oregon license plates slowed to a stop. A man and woman stepped out. I smiled and asked if I could be of assistance.

“Can you tell us WHERE Selway Falls is,” the gentleman asked. “There is no marker.”

“Selway Falls is right here,” I explained. “Do you hear the rushing, tumbling water?”

“But, but! That is just a pile of rocks!!” The gentleman exclaimed. “We expected to see falls like Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon.”

“I am sorry you are so disappointed.” I said. I explained that waterfalls the height and size of Multnomah are not found in this particular part of the country. “If you care to stop at Fenn Ranger Station, I am sure the ranger on duty can give you more detailed information about the falls. You will see a large sign reading, ‘Fenn Ranger Station, Nez Perce National Forest’, as you return to the blacktop portion of the road.”

Thoroughly disillusioned and disgusted, the couple returned to their car and drove away in a cloud of dust!

“Devil’s Washbasins” is this author’s name for four giant bowls in white Granite rock at the bottom of Selway Falls on the Selway River, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest. The bowls created by centuries of water, can only be observed when the river water is low, usually after the 4th of July and until snow covers the forest. Observe the calm pool at the top of the falls. Enjoy the water’s music and beauty. Help to preserve its Integrity.

“Selway Falls technically is not a falls. It is called a ‘cataract.’ This occurred when the North side of the mountain slid into the river. The flow of the water found ways to continue its journey to the sea. Small pools formed, the water moved around boulders 30 feet in diameter, as well as over and under downed trees, submerged logs, smaller rocks and debris. The water level fluctuates from 23 feet to 32 feet, dependent upon the winter’s snowpack in the mountains and the spring run off.“ [Columbia River Fisheries Development Program, February 1, 1967, STATE OF IDAHO, Fish and Game Department, John R. Woodworth, Director. Pages not numbered.]

A FOREST CHASM

I looked into the Chasm

Of Selway Falls

Late one Summer afternoon.

Four irregular washbasins

In one piece of Granite

Basked In the Summer Sun

Waiting for—

The Seasons to change

Fall, Winter, Spring.

Who comes to drink

From these four washbasins?

Only the River

And the forest

Animals know.

We humans can

Only Imagine!

Resources:

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Poetry, personal stories, images, journal entries, recipes for Springerle, Cinnamon Rolls, Fried Cakes, “a little bit of science thrown in for good measure,” print and online resources, all define “The Dragon of Yankee Fork,” an Idaho Alphabet from A to Z. It all began on a long piece of cream colored shelf paper! (Visit the Go Fund Me page to learn more about the project and contribute to its creation.)

Martha Dalke Hindman’s outdoor classroom was the travel adventures she shared with her father around the State of Idaho. From dusty roads, fishing expeditions, and a keen sense of observation, learning about Idaho’s Heritage gave Ms. Hindman her voice in poetry and personal short stories. She may be reached at martha20022 [at] gmail [dot] com.

Book Review: A Feast of Weeds

Since I am planning on eating more weeds, it seems appropriate that I review this book. Not to be confused with Feast of Weeds, a series of apocalyptic novels about a world-ending plague, A Feast of Weeds, by Luigi Ballerini is tangentially about foraging and cooking wild, edible plants. I say “tangentially” because it’s not like other foraging guides. This is a “literary guide,” as the subtitle states, so in the place of plant descriptions and harvesting tips, etc. are verbose and erudite essays summarizing the various literary references that each of the species profiled has accumulated from antiquity to the modern era. Apart from dozens of recipes, the information presented in this book is more entertaining than it is practical; however, when telling the stories of plants, the human element is an important facet – particularly in the stories of edible and medicinal plants – and it is the human element that this book is concerned with.

Ballerini is an Italian poet, a cooking historian, and a professor of Italian literature at UCLA. The 31 plant species he chose to profile can all be foraged in Italy (most of them in one specific region), and all except for maybe capers can be found somewhere in the United States. The majority of the plants in this book are commonly cultivated as crops, ornamentals, or landscape plants – few are truly weeds – but all of them can be found growing wild somewhere. And that’s one of Ballerini’s main points – wild food and the act of foraging is a very different experience from farmed food and the act of buying it at the grocery store. Take arugula for example:

Try making a salad with arugula that you have gathered yourself in a field and compare its taste with what you have made a hundred times with pre-washed and sterilized arugula bought at the supermarket or even at a farmers’ market. It’s easy to predict the comment that will immediately come to your lips: ‘There’s no comparison.’

A selection of recipes accompanies each of the plants that Ballerini writes about. These recipes were “invented or elaborated” by Ada De Santis, who lives on a farm in the “heel of Italy” and who “enthusiastically agreed to divulge the secrets of her kitchen.” Ballerini partnered with De Santis because of her Italian ancestry and her vast experience with both wild and cultivated plants.

Each chapter in the book follows the same basic format: a discussion of the myriad references a certain plant has received in various writings throughout human history, an overview of the (often bizarre) medicinal uses the plant has had throughout the centuries, and a brief statement on when to harvest the plant. References include plays, poems, songs, myths, fiction and non-fiction, religious and sacred texts, medicinal plant guides, and even artwork. Reading through the book, my interest and attention waned often, partly due to Ballerini’s way of writing and also due to my lack of familiarity (and lack of interest, frankly) with the references. But there were enough interesting bits here and there that made it worth the effort.

common mallow (Malva neglecta )

Of course, my interest was mainly held by the chapters about the weeds. Apparently, mallow (Malva spp.) has been written about prolifically, leading Ballerini to write, “the history of mallow is complex and contradictory, rich in illustrious testimony but, given its effects, not always very noble.” Like other plants in the book, the medicinal uses for mallow have been so numerous that it could be considered “a true cure-all,” if in fact it truly treated all the things it has been claimed to treat. On a humorous note, Ballerini writes in the chapter on wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), “we have come to understand … if a plant is good for you, it is good for nearly everything – but particularly for snakebite.”

Ballerini especially enjoys sharing odd medical claims, like in the chapter about sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), in which Nicholas Culpepper promoted some interesting uses for its juice. Purportedly, bringing it to a boil or “warming it in some bitter almond oil inside the skin of a pomegranate is a sure remedy for deafness and tinnitus.” The medicinal uses of wild chicory (Cichorium intybus) are “as old as the hills,” with a medical papyri from ancient Egypt (circa 1550 B.C.) referencing its medicinal uses among “magic formulas and spells for driving away evil-intentioned demons.”

sow thistle (Sonchus sp.)

A couple of paragraphs about dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into the chapter about wild chicory. The rosettes of these two plants look similar, and the roots of both, when “roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee.” Dandelion is also known to be a diuretic, and is thus referred to as pisciailetto in Italy, pissenlit in France, and piss-a-beds in England.

Speaking of the names of things, how things came to be called what they are is a topic that Ballerini addresses frequently throughout the book. However, such origins aren’t always clear. In the chapter on wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus), Ballerini reflects on the “general uncertainty regarding the origin of the English term raspberry.” Does it originate from the Old French word rasper, the Spanish word raspar, and the Italian word raspare, all of which mean to rasp or to scrape? Ballerini laments, “this introduces very unpleasant connotations for such a delicate fruit (yet there are those who, when faced with roses always think of thorns).”

While the bulk of this book is of little use to me – I guess I’m just not that interested in classic literature or mythology – it’s worth keeping around for the recipes alone, several of which I am anxious to try. If the idea of an unconventional field guide appeals to you, this book might be up your alley, just as it apparently was for this reviewer.

Additional Book Reviews on Awkward Botany:

Book Review: Good Weed Bad Weed

Distinguishing weeds from desirable plants is a skill that takes years of experience. If you’re not an avid gardener or a practiced naturalist, the distinction between the two groups may be blurry. There are weed identification guides aplenty, but even those aren’t always the most user-friendly and can often leave a person with more questions than answers. One of those questions may be, “Why is this plant considered a weed and not that one?” Through her book, Good Weed Bad Weed, Nancy Gift attempts to answer that question, offering much needed nuance to a regularly vilified group of plants.

In the introduction, Gift acknowledges that the term “good weed” sounds like an oxymoron. A weed, by definition, is an unwanted plant, an interloper and a troublemaker, without value or merit. What could be good about that? Gift, on the other hand, asserts that “it is a weakness of the English language that weeds are universally unwanted.” We need a word that describes plants that may have weedy characteristics but some redeeming qualities as well. For now, Gift uses “volunteer” – “a plant that comes up without being planted or encouraged” – suspending judgement until its performance can be fairly assessed.

Good Weed Bad Weed is a weed identification guide designed for beginners, for those wondering if their yard is “infested or blessed.” It is specifically concerned with weeds commonly found in lawns and garden beds, and “not meant to apply to farm fields or any other landscape.” It sets itself apart from other identification guides by organizing weeds into three categories: Bad Weeds, Not-So-Bad Weeds, and Good Weeds. Each plant profile includes a description, notes about benefits as well as problems, and some recommendations for control. Assigning good/bad designations to these plants is bound to cause some heated debate and outright disagreement, and Gift acknowledges that; however, we all have our “unique judgement” about the plants we encounter in our landscapes, so as “weed-lovers-in-training,” Gift hopes that we can “make a few new friends in the plant kingdom” and, perhaps, a few less enemies.

For the ten plants that make the Bad Weeds list, the reasoning is pretty clear. They are highly competitive and difficult to control [foxtail (Setaria spp.), garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense)], they are poisonous to humans despite being beneficial to wildlife [poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans ) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum)], they are known allergens and otherwise unattractive [common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)], or, like Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), they are on the list of top 100 worst invasive species.

The other two categories are where more personal judgement comes into play. The twelve plants considered Not-So-Bad Weeds are said to have “admirable qualities despite some negatives.” Prostrate knotweed (Polygonum aviculare) provides excellent erosion control. Orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), and musk thistle (Carduus nutans) are quite beautiful and highly beneficial to pollinators and other wildlife. Nutsedge (Cyperus spp.) is edible and easy to keep in check if you stay on top of it. Bindweeds (Convolvulus arvensis and Calystegia sepium) avoid the Bad Weeds list because their flowers are so appealing. Aesthetics really matter to Gift, which is made clear with the entry for common fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), which could have made the Good Weeds list were it not for its disappointing and forgettable floral display.

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

As for the Goods Weeds list, more plant species find themselves in this category than the other two categories combined. That being said, those who have strong, negative opinions about weeds should probably avoid this section of the book, lest they experience an unsafe rise in blood pressure upon reading it. But be advised that making the Good Weeds list doesn’t mean that there are no negatives associated with having these plants in your yard; it’s just that the positive qualities tend to overshadow the negatives.

Positive qualities include edible, medicinal, low growing, slow growing, easy to control, beneficial to wildlife, not a bully, hardly noticeable, uncommon, and soil building. Certain weeds are desirable in lawns because they are soft to walk on, like ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and moss. Other weeds, like self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), stay green year-round and don’t leave ugly, brown patches when they die or go dormant. Still others, like bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), black medic (Medicago lupulina), and clovers (Trifolium spp.) fix nitrogen, providing free fertilizer. Gift notes that, for those who keep chickens, weeds like common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) and cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) are great chicken feed.

Speaking of eating weeds, Gift concludes her book with four pages of recipes. The “Weedy Foxtail Tabouli” is particularly intriguing to me. Reading this book definitely requires an open mind, and some people simply won’t agree that any weed should ever be called “good.” Gift seems okay with that. She calls herself a “heretical weed scientist,” insisting that “a weed is in the eye of the beholder.” As “beholders,” I hope we can all be a little more like Nancy Gift.

A weedy lawn (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

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Book Review: Grow Curious

In the early 2000’s when I was really getting excited about learning how to garden, one of the first resources I turned to was a website called You Grow Girl by Gayla Trail. I probably saw it mentioned in a zine about gardening. Something about it felt very punk rock. Trail’s site was different than other resources, and it spoke to the anti-authoritarian, non-conformist in me. Reading through the About page today, Trail’s punk rock spirit hasn’t waned, and I can see why her site appealed to me.

Now with well over two decades of gardening experience to draw from, Trail continues to run her site, has written five books (including one called You Grow Girl), and her “contemporary, laid-back approach” to gardening remains essentially the same. In her words, she “places equal importance on environmentalism, style, affordability, art, and humour.” Her “aim has always been to promote exploration, excitement, and a d.i.y approach to growing plants without the restrictions of traditional ideas about gardening.” We share these sentiments, which is why when I learned of her most recent book, Grow Curious, I knew I needed to read it.

Grow Curious by Gayla Trail accompanied by a pressed leaf from Trail’s garden.

Grow Curious is an activity book for gardeners of all ages, backgrounds, and skill levels. It diverges from most books about gardening in that it is not a how-to or a what-to-plant-where guide. It is instructional, but only in ways that are less about getting our chores done and more about helping us explore our gardens in order to see them in a new light and open our eyes to the remarkable world that is right outside our door – a world often overlooked because we have work to do. Trail’s book is also meant to reinvigorate any of us that may be a bit disillusioned by the act of gardening – having misplaced our spark along the way, lost in the drudgery of it all. It’s about stopping for a minute, looking around, and seeing things we maybe haven’t noticed before but that have been there all along.

Because Grow Curious is a compilation of garden activities (“an invitation to play”) interspersed with prose, there is no need to consume it chronologically. Activities can be done in order or chosen at random. They can be skipped altogether or done at different times of the year. The book, however, is organized by season, starting in spring and ending in winter. In this way, the story of the birth and death of the garden is told, a polarity that Trail reflects on throughout the book. In the introduction to “Fall,” she writes of the growing season coming to a close and the garden becoming “a scene of decay.” The garden’s death can help us come to terms with other deaths, including our own. On a brighter side, the return of spring can bring a newfound sense of “hope, transformation, and optimism;” along with “the energy of renewal.”

Botanical rubbings – one of dozens of creative, garden activities found in Grow Curious by Gayla Trail

The bulk of this book is a series of activities that are meant to, as the subtitle proclaims, “cultivate joy, wonder, and discovery in your garden.” In general, the instructions are minimal – a short paragraph or two; a single sentence followed by a list of things to observe or do. In this way, you have the freedom to explore and make things up as you go, without worrying about rules or whether or not you are doing it right. Activities include touching an insect, observing the shapes of leaves and stems, smelling soil, taking pictures from new and unusual angles, visiting your garden in the dead of night, et cetera. Some activities are more involved, like raising a caterpillar or researching something to death. Other activities require little effort, like pulling up some plants to see what color their roots are or tasting an edible plant part that you have never tasted before. To facilitate advanced exploration, many of the activities include ideas or ways to “Go Further.”

Among the pages of activities are Trail’s musings on gardening and life (as it relates to gardening), and I found these to be equally intriguing.  Like her thoughts on fear and insecurity: “I was inexperienced and uncertain, full of my own fears and excuses.” And her “balanced” view on pests in the garden: “Since our insect partners often depend on the so-called bad guys, it turns out that a balanced garden needs both.” Her encouragement to observe the differences between wild plants and weeds that grow within and beyond the borders of our gardens, and her plea for us to “invite wildness” in, noting the “knotty labyrinth” that exists between “wild” and “cultivated” – “social constructs that we place in opposition to each other.”

Orange roots of California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). “As you’re digging up, moving around, and planting out new crops, trees, bushes, and perennials this fall, take note of plants that have colourful roots.” — Gayla Trail

If you have been following Awkward Botany for a while, you can probably see why this book is right up my alley. If you enjoy reading Awkward Botany, this book should be right up your alley, too.

Book Review: Weeds Find a Way

At what age do we become aware that there are profound differences among the plants we see around us? That some are considered good and others evil. Or that one plant belongs here and another doesn’t. Most young children (unless an adult has taught them) are unaware that there is a difference between a weed and a desirable plant. If it has attractive features or something fun to interact with – like the seed heads of dandelions or the sticky leaves of bedstraw – they are all the same. At some point in our trajectory we learn that some plants must be rooted out, while others can stay. Some plants are uninvited guests – despite how pretty they might be – while others are welcome and encouraged.

But weeds are resilient, and so they remain. Weeds Find a Way, written by Cindy Jenson-Elliot and illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, is a celebration of weeds for their resiliency as well as for their beauty and usefulness. This book introduces the idea of weeds to children, focusing mainly on their tenacity, resourcefulness, and positive attributes rather than their darker side. “Weeds are here to stay,” so perhaps there is a place for them.

The book begins by listing some of the “wondrous ways” that weed seeds disperse themselves: “floating away on the wind,” attaching themselves to “socks and fur,” shot “like confetti from a popped balloon.” And then they wait – under snow and ice or on top of hot sidewalks – until they find themselves in a time and place where they can sprout. Eventually, “weeds find a way to grow.”

Weeds also “find a way to stay.” We can pull them up, but their roots are often left behind to “sprout again.” Pieces and parts break off and take root in the soil. Animals may swoop in to devour them, but weeds drive them away with their thorns, prickles, and toxic chemicals. In these ways they are a nuisance, but they can be beautiful and beneficial, too.

This illustrated story of weeds is followed by some additional information, as well as a list of common weeds with brief descriptions. Weeds are defined as plants “thought to be of no value that grow in places where people do not want them to grow,” adding that even “misunderstood and underappreciated plants that are native to a region and have multiple uses” can be labeled weeds.

The concept of weeds as invasive species is also addressed; some introduced plants move into natural areas and can “crowd out native vegetation, block streams, and drive away wild animals.” That being said, weeds also provide us with “endless opportunities to study one of nature’s most wonderful tools: adaptation.” Weeds are problematic as much as they are useful, it’s simply a matter of perspective.

A criticism of this book might be that it doesn’t focus enough on the negative aspects of weeds. There is plenty of that elsewhere. The aim of this book is to connect us with nature, and as Jensen-Elliot writes, “you don’t need a garden to know that nature is at work.” When there is a weed nearby, nature is nearby. Weeds “adapt and grow in tough times and desolate places,” and they make the world beautiful “one blossom at a time.”

Book Review: The New Wild

What if we were to look at invasive species with fresh eyes? Traditionally we have viewed them as interlopers hellbent on environmental destruction, but have we considered the good they can do? Should our efforts to eradicate them be tempered – eliminating them when it seems absolutely necessary, but accepting them when they are doing some good; welcoming them when they have something to offer. What does their presence mean anyway? What does it say about the ecosystems they inhabit and about us? Invasive species are convenient scapegoats, taking the blame for much of the ecological devastation that we started in the first place. Is that justified?

This is, essentially, the theme of The New Wild, a book by Fred Pearce that urges us to reconsider the ways we think, talk, and act towards invasive species. More than that, it is about dumping the idea that pristine nature (a mythological concept anyway, and one that is not all that useful) is the only true wild, and that nature invaded by alien species is a lesser thing that needs to be fixed. The truth is, nature is and always has been in a constant state of flux, and it is unconcerned about the provenance of the species that compose it. As Pearce puts it, if it’s doing “a useful job,” “it matters not a jot where a species comes from.”

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Invasion biology is a relatively new field of study, stemming from the publishing of Charles Elton’s book, The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants, in 1958. For thousands of years, humans have had a hand in moving species of all kinds around the planet, but it was in the latter half of the 20th century that our awareness of the ecological damage that some of these species can do really developed. Since then we have made great efforts to remove such species and put things back the way we found them. The zeal with which we have done so hasn’t always been justified or effective, and throughout what at times has felt like an all out war against foreigners, a profound sense of animosity and suspicion towards anything non-native has taken root in our psyche.

Pearce hopes to mitigate these feelings and get us to reconsider some of our actions. To start with, he calls into question the distinction between aliens and natives: “A broad time horizon shows there is no such thing as a native species. All lodgings are temporary and all ecosystems in a constant flux, the victims of circumstance and geological accident.” Also, “many aliens are so well integrated that they are assumed to be native,” and “species come and go so much, as a result of both human and natural forces, that conventional hard distinctions about what belongs where have long been all but meaningless.”

Instead of judging a species by its provenance, “we should treat species on their merits and learn a little tolerance and respect for foreigners.” While “being alien can sometimes be problematic,” it can equally result in the renewal of “flagging ecosystems, creating new space for natives and providing ecosystem services.” Seeing that those services are in place is what should really matter, and “[ecological services] are best done by the species on hand that do it best.” After all, nature is not a system of “preordained perfection,” but instead “a workable mishmash of species, constantly reorganized by the throw of the dice.”

In his criticisms of the field of invasion biology, Pearce investigates some of the “constantly recycled ‘facts’ about alien species.” He finds many of the claims to be unfounded and oft-repeated statistics to be blatant misrepresentations of the original studies. He concludes that “some of the most widely used statistics in the canon of invasion biology do not stand up.” To support his point, he offers several examples of how alien species have added to the biodiversity in certain ecosystems and he shares stories that “show how we instinctively blame aliens for ecological problems that may have a lot more to do with our own treatment of nature.”

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books making a case for the war on alien species.

Immigrant Killers by Carolyn King, one of many books published in the past few decades that makes the case for waging war on alien species.

In so many words, Pearce’s stance is that the classic “aliens are bad, and natives are good” approach is outdated – “nature doesn’t care about conservationists’ artificial divide between urban and rural or between native and alien species,” which means that our perception of aliens should shift from being “part of the problem to part of the solution.” Abandoned farmlands, secondary forests, recolonized waste places, urban sprawl, and other novel ecosystems across the globe offer explicit examples of species from all backgrounds coming together to create functional habitats. This is the new wild.

Pearce is not advocating that we throw in the towel and let invasive species run rampant: “It would be foolish to claim that alien species never do any harm or that efforts to uproot them are always doomed to fail.” His support for the new wild is “not a call to let it rip.” Instead, “conservation in the twenty-first century requires an open-minded assessment of what might work – not a sullen retreat into blinkered orthodoxy.” So, rather than try to stop the flux of nature (an act that is decidedly “anti-nature”), let’s see where it goes, alien species and all; and when we do decide to beat back invasives and intervene “to preserve what we like,” we should be mindful that nature may be “traveling in a different direction.” As Pearce writes, “the new wild is flourishing, and it will do better if we allow it to have its head.”

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Obviously this is a controversial topic, but the ideas in this book are worth exploring further. Pearce’s notes are extensive, and I intend to read through many of his resources. Stay tuned for more posts. Meanwhile, you can listen to an interview with Pearce on this episode of Talking Plants. For a more critical veiw of Pearce’s book, check out these reviews by Los Angeles Review of Books and The EEB & Flow.

 

Book Review: Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs

The spring season for plant-obsessed gardeners is a time to prepare to grow something new and different – something you’ve never tried growing before. Sure, standards and favorites will make an appearance, but when you love plants for plant’s sake you’ve got to try them all, especially the rare and unusual ones – the ones no one else is growing. Even if it ultimately turns out to be a disaster or a dud, at least you tried and can say you did.

That seems to be the spirit behind Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs by Emma Cooper. Subtitled, “Unusual Edible Plants and the People Who Grow Them,” Cooper’s book is all about trying new plants, both in the garden and on your plate. While its focus is on the rare and unusual, it is not a comprehensive guide to such plants – a book like that would require several volumes – rather it is a treatise about trying something different along with a few recommendations to get you started.

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Cooper starts out by explaining what she means by “unusual edible” – “exotic, old-fashioned, wild, or just plain weird.” Her definition includes plants that may be commonly grown agriculturally but may not make regular appearances in home gardens. She goes on to give a brief overview of plant exploration throughout history, highlighting the interest that humans have had for centuries – millennia even – in seeking out new plants to grow. She acknowledges that, in modern times, plant explorations have shifted from simply finding exotic species to bring home and exploit to cataloging species and advocating for their conservation in the wild. Of course, many of these explorations are still interested in finding species that are useful to humans or finding crop wild relatives that have something to offer genetically.

Cooper then includes more than 2o short interviews of people who are growers and promoters of lesser known edible plants. The people interviewed have much to offer in the way of plant suggestions and resource recommendations; however, this part of the book was a bit dull. Cooper includes several pages of resources at the end of the book, and many of the interviewees suggest the same plants and resources, so this section seemed redundant. That being said, there are some great responses to Cooper’s questions, including Owen Smith’s argument for “citizen-led research and breeding projects” and James Wong’s advise to seek out edible houseplants.

The remainder of the book is essentially a list of the plants that Cooper suggests trying. Again, it is not a comprehensive list of the unusual plants one could try, nor it is a full list of the plants that Cooper would recommend, but it is a good starting point. Cooper offers a description of each plant and an explanation for why it is included. The list is separated into seven categories: Heritage and Heirloom Plant Varieties, Forgotten Vegetables, The Lost Crops of the Incas, Oriental Vegetables, Perennial Pleasures, Unusual Herbs, and Weeds and Wildings.

This is the portion of the book that plant geeks are likely to find the most compelling. It is also where the reader learns where the title of the book comes from – “jade pearls” is another common name for Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), and “alien eyeballs” is Cooper’s name for toothache plant (Acmella oleracea). I have tried a few of the plants that Cooper includes, and I was intrigued by many others, but for whatever reason the two that stood out to me as the ones I should try this year were Hamburg parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum) and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Tubers of oca (Oxalis tuberosa) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

In the final chapter, Cooper offers – among other things – warnings about invasive species (“our responsibility is to ensure that the plants we encourage in our gardens stay in our gardens and are not allowed to escape into our local environment”), import restrictions (“be a good citizen and know what is allowed in your country [and I would add state/province], what isn’t, and why”), and wild harvesting (“act sustainably when foraging”). She then includes several pages of books and websites regarding unusual edibles and a long list of suppliers where seeds and plants can be acquired. Cooper is based in the U.K., so her list of suppliers is centered in that region, but a little bit of searching on the internet and asking around in various social media, etc. should help you develop a decent list for your region. International trades or purchases are an option, but as Cooper advises, follow the rules that are in place for moving plant material around.

Bottom line: find some interesting things to grow this year, experiment with things you’ve never tried – even things that aren’t said to grow well in your area – and if you’re having trouble deciding what to try or you just want to learn more about some interesting plants, check out Emma Cooper’s book.

Also, check out Emma Cooper’s blog and now defunct podcast (the last few episodes of which explore the content of this book).

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Book Review: Bringing Nature Home

Since Bringing Nature Home by Douglas Tallamy was first published in 2007, it has quickly become somewhat of a “classic” to proponents of native plant gardening. As such a proponent, I figured I ought to put in my two cents. Full disclosure: this is less of a review and more of an outright endorsement. I’m fawning, really, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

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The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.” Ninety three pages into the book, Tallamy elaborates further: “By favoring native plants over aliens in the suburban landscape, gardeners can do much to sustain the biodiversity that has been one of this country’s richest assets.” And one of every country’s richest assets, as far as I’m concerned. “But isn’t that why we have nature preserves?” one might ask. “We can no longer rely on natural areas alone to provide food and shelter for biodiversity,” Tallamy asserts in the Q & A portion of his book. Humans have altered every landscape – urban, suburban, rural, and beyond – leaving species of all kinds threatened everywhere. This means that efforts to protect biodiversity must occur everywhere. This is where the You comes in. Each one of us can play a part, no matter how small. In closing, Tallamy claims, “We can each make a difference almost immediately by planting a native nearby.”

A plant is considered native to an area if it shares a historical evolutionary relationship with the other organisms in that area. This evolutionary relationship is important because the interactions among organisms that developed over thousands, even millions, of years are what define a natural community. Thus, as Tallamy argues, “a plant can only function as a true ‘native’ while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it.” A garden designed to benefit wildlife and preserve biodiversity is most effective when it includes a high percentage of native plants because other species native to the area are already adapted to using them.

Plants (and algae) are at the base of every food chain – the first trophic level – because they produce their own food using the sun’s energy. Organisms that are primarily herbivores are at the second trophic level, organisms that primarily consume herbivores are at the third trophic level, and so on. As plants have evolved they have developed numerous defenses to keep from being eaten. Herbivores that evolved along with those plants have evolved the ability to overcome those defenses. This is important because if herbivores can’t eat the plants then they can’t survive, and if they don’t survive then there will be little food for organisms at higher trophic levels.

The most important herbivores are insects simply because they are so abundant and diverse and, thus, are a major food source for species at higher trophic levels. The problem is that, as Tallamy learned, “most insect herbivores can only eat plants with which they share an evolutionary history.” Insects are specialized as to which plants they can eat because they have adapted ways to overcome the defenses that said plants have developed to keep things from eating them. Healthy, abundant, and diverse insect populations support biodiversity at higher trophic levels, but such insect populations won’t exist without a diverse community of native plants with which the insects share an evolutionary history.

That is essentially the thesis of Tallamy’s book. In a chapter entitled “Why Can’t Insects Eat Alien Plants?” Tallamy expounds on the specialized relationships between plants and insects that have developed over millennia. Plants introduced from other areas have not formed such relationships and are thus used to a much lesser degree than their native counterparts. Research concerning this topic was scarce at the time this book was published, but among other studies, Tallamy cites preliminary data from a study he carried out on his property. The study compared the insect herbivore biomass and diversity found on four common native plants vs. five common invasive plants. The native plants produced 4 times more herbivore biomass and supported 3.2 times as many herbivore species compared to the invasive plants. He also determined that the insects using the alien plants were generalists, and when he eliminated specialists from the study he still found that natives supported twice as much generalist biomass.

Apart from native plants and insects, Tallamy frames much of his argument around birds. Birds have been greatly impacted by humans. Their populations are shrinking at an alarming rate, and many species are threatened with extinction. Tallamy asserts, “We know most about the effects of habitat loss from studies of birds.” We have destroyed their homes and taken away their food and “filled their world with dangerous obstacles.” Efforts to improve habitat for birds will simultaneously improve habitat for other organisms. Most bird species rely on insects during reproduction in order to feed themselves and their young. Reducing insect populations by filling our landscapes largely with alien plant species threatens the survival of many bird species.

In the chapters “What Should I Plant?” and “What Does Bird Food Look Like?,” Tallamy first profiles 20 groups of native trees and shrubs that excel at supporting populations of native arthropods and then describes a whole host of arthropods and arthropod predators that birds love to eat. Tallamy’s fascinating descriptions of the insects, their life cycles, and their behaviors alone make this book worth reading. Other chapters that are well worth a look are “Who Cares about Biodiversity?” in which Tallamy explains why biodiversity is so essential for life on Earth, and “The Cost of Using Alien Ornamentals” in which Tallamy outlines a number of ways that our obsession with exotic plants has caused problems for us and for natural areas.

Pupa of ladybird beetle on white oak leaf (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Pupa of a ladybird beetle on a white oak leaf. “The value of oaks for supporting both vertebrate and invertebrate wildlife cannot be overstated.” – Doug Tallamy (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Convincing people to switch to using native plants isn’t always easy, especially if your argument involves providing habitat for larger and more diverse populations of insects. For those who are not fans of insects, Tallamy explains that “a mere 1%” of the 4 million insect species on Earth “interact with humans in negative ways.” The majority are not pests. It is also important to understand that even humans “need healthy insect populations to ensure our own survival.” Tallamy also offers some suggestions on how to design and manage an appealing garden using native plants. A more recent book Tallamy co-authored with fellow native plant gardening advocate Rick Darke called The Living Landscape expands on this theme, although neither book claims to be a how to guide.

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