Triptych image: Catasetum Saccatum, “Botanical Drawing”
GROWING UP in the San Fernando Valley, we had a jungle of morning glory in our backyard. It consumed a once-grassy patch the size of a half-court. Previous tenants of our house had capitalized on the morning glory’s fervid, rhizomatic growth by throwing trash into it. Beneath the purple blossoms my brother and I discovered a rocking horse, folding chairs, lampshades, and kitchen utensils, which formed crannies for us to play in. Eventually my parents tore out the morning glory jungle, but it was too late: the plant had already shaped the landscape of my childhood.
Plants form an inextricable part of our biographies, but they also have biographies of their own. Or so Reaktion Press is claiming with its new Botanical series of “biographies of plants,” which combine history, botany, and literary criticism, among other discourses, to tell how plants have actively shaped human culture. Two titles, Geranium and Oak, are already out; according to the publisher, Pine, Lily, Yew, Bamboo, Willow, Palm, and Orchid are all forthcoming. All the books can be read as contributions to a fledging interdisciplinary field known as “human-plant studies,” or “the philosophy of botany.” More than 99 percent of the earth’s biomass is composed of plants, “despite their marginalized and passive position in Western worldviews,” the scholar John Charles Ryan noted in the journal Societies last year:
Plant physiologist Anthony Trewavas, a prominent proponent of floristic intelligence, observes the capacity of plants for adaptive behavior; they “possess a fine ability to adjust and optimally exploit the local environment” […] In countering the notion of plants as passive and somewhat fixed objects of science and culture that lack brains, botanical research across disciplines could consider principles of process and their implications for human understandings of plants as non-passive, as agentic and active participants in socioecological systems.
Ryan and other human-plant studies scholars draw heavily on the Danish biologist Jesper Hoffmeyer’s theory of “biosemiotics,” which states that all organisms live, participate in, and respond to their own niche of stimuli, or sign processes. The sum of an organism’s interpretation of this niche, Hoffmeyer argues, constitutes a kind of intelligence. Biosemiotics, he writes in his 1997 book Signs of Meaning in the Universe,
[r]eleases the genie of reason from the well-guarded bottle which we know as the human brain and accords it an immanent position in the natural history fairy tale. This move enables us to unite the two separate spheres: Cultural history runs parallel to natural history; at one time they were one and the same.
In Geranium, literary scholar Kasia Boddy does not make any explicit argument for plant intelligence, or for an overhaul of our moral universe to make room for plants. But she would agree with Hoffmeyer that “cultural history runs parallel to natural history.” In the book, Boddy skillfully traces the humble houseplant’s rise from its native southern Africa to every windowsill in South London, and beyond. “Pelargoniums,” she writes, “have found ecological niches everywhere from the sandy foreshore and mountain rock faces to desert and savannah.” (Although Geranium exists as a genus, Pelargonium is the true classification for the flower we’re talking about. Boddy uses both common and Latin names; so will I.)
Pelargonium appeared first to Europeans in the nursery of John Tradescant, a famous collector of New World curios. The year was 1632. As the Age of Discovery gained momentum, the genus’s fat tubers, luscious pink petals, and varied pharmacological uses made it a popular sample on Euro-African trade routes. It proved an exceptionally hardy sailor. Due to the development of greenhouses, pelargonium survived and thrived across Europe, even in the continent’s frostiest tips. And because it grew so easily, and bowed readily to the whims of human hybridization, pelargonium drove a revolution in European botany. By the end of the 18th century, colonial plant collecting had tripled the number of known plants, enflaming Europeans’ desire to foster these green wonders. Boddy writes that women, especially, “collected plants, drew them, studied them, and named them, taught their children about plants, and wrote popularizing books on botany.” By the time the Victorian era was underway, flowers had become perennial symbols of upper-class domesticity, propriety, and femininity.
Pelargonium fared well in the homes of new urbanites; the flower was also thought of as a source of clean air in the crowded city. They were signs of aspiration (in another sense) in 19th-century “Bloomsbury” competitions, in which London’s working classes entered carefully tended houseplants — often geraniums — for prizes sponsored by the nobility. Caring for potted blooms was considered a respectable activity for the working poor, something that enlivened the dimmest, scuzziest homes.
Boddy uncovers the geranium’s symbolic significance in literature of the day:
Its much-vaunted brightness came into play — as a kind of dirt searching spotlight. “I must keep everything extra clean,” says the eponymous heroine of Harriet Boultwood’s novel Dot’s Scarlet Geranium (1890). “Or the geranium will make the room look dirty — the flower is so bright.”
Little wonder that geraniums became objects of contempt for modernist writers in the inter-war era. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, enemy bombing has “ploughed a hole in the geranium beds” of a minor character, the war rendering the pretensions of bourgeois gardening absurd.
Today, roughly 120 million geraniums are grown annually in the United States alone. They accompany us everywhere, Boddy writes, “from the maternity hospital car-park to the shopping mall, with its pyramid-shaped planters filled with half-dead specimens, to the grave.” In subtle ways, their presence continues to inform our notions of gender, class, and race. (In Chicago’s summer of 1964, a geranium in a white person’s windowsill signified that they opposed racism.) This is what’s extraordinary about Boddy’s short book: she convincingly argues for pelargonium’s influence on the shape of Western culture.
While geraniums have enjoyed near monogamy with Homo sapiens, oak trees maintain close ties with other species as well. “Wild boar and farmed pigs eat acorns, free food for the taking,” Peter Young writes in Oak. “Wood pigeons can consume over 100 acorns a day and carry some in their crops.” Deer browse on oak leaves; so do some silkworms. Oaks host fungi that grow as fan-shaped stacks along the trunk: “Best known is ‘chicken of the woods,’ so called because its flaky white flesh tastes like chicken breast.”
These facts are available in the chapter “Home,” which details the many ways living organisms have used oaks as shelter or shelter-building material. Other chapters, such as “Diversity,” “Wood in Words,” and “The Arts,” focus mostly on humans, and the usages we’ve developed for oaks across the millennia. The reader will learn of the countless place-names containing the word “oak.” She will learn about timber-frame construction during New World settlement; about phallic oak figurines in pagan Denmark; about images of oaks on Hitler’s bookplate, the kepis of French generals, and the sleeves of Elizabeth I.
“Since time immemorial,” Oak’s back cover proclaims, “the oak has been a symbol of loyalty, strength, generosity and renewal […] in locations as diverse as the Americas and tropical Asia.” The information packed into Oak certainly supports this basic thesis, but rarely does Young go further than that. It is difficult to grasp a sense of the oak’s socio-ecological evolution, since the chapters delineate specific usages of the oak, jumping from era to era and culture to culture somewhat haphazardly. The reader gets a hint of a more satisfying analysis in the sixth chapter, “Symbols and Superstition,” in which Young discusses the oak tree’s role in the transition from paganism to Christianity: “[T]he old ways helped smooth the process of conversion. It might have been something as simple as building a primitive church […] on or near the site of a familiar oak.” He then briefly discusses oaks in both pagan rituals and in Christian hagiography, mentioning that the “pagan/Christian dichotomy was an excellent example of structuralism, an underlying common structure built up from basic contrasts.” Such an observation might have flowered into something fascinating, but, disappointingly, Young allots it all but two paragraphs before moving on to the unrelated matter of oaks in fairy tales.
For a book marketed as the “biography of a plant,” Oak reinforces the “passive-flora” paradigm that human-plant scholars are eager to leave behind. The oak is depicted as a quiet provider of strength, sustenance, and shelter: standard connotations Young rarely attempts to trouble or complicate. In its sturdy, slightly dull stolidity, Young’s study reflects the conventional image of the oak itself.
The disparity between Boddy’s and Young’s books suggests we don’t yet exactly know how to write the biography of a plant — or of people, for that matter. Accounts of human lives have their conventions and protocols; the lives of vegetables are less familiar, and seem to demand a more experimental style. But perhaps biographers of persons could learn something from Boddy’s approach, wherein telling one story in fact means telling many. In an essay published here in the Los Angeles Review of Books in March, the philosopher Michael Marder writes:
[T]he idea that plants are intelligent living beings is not a veiled attempt at anthropomorphizing our “green cousins” […] The point is, rather, to argue that human intelligence, much like that of animals and plants, is a response to the problems each life form in question faces.
Life, intelligence, culture: these are not strictly human concerns; nor do they occur in a vacuum. The biological network of influence is endless, and quite a lot of it is green.