24 February 2011

Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws

“Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History” is historian Bill Laws’ new book that identifies fifty plants that influenced civilizations.

To illustrate the importance of these plants, Laws wrote, “If the world’s plants suddenly expired, we would have no tomorrow.”

The book is well researched and beautifully illustrated with photographs, art reproductions, and botanical illustrations. Each entry is described with its native range and function, as an edible, medicinal, commercial or practical plant.

The list includes plants you would expect to find such as coffee and wheat and others that come as a surprise such as ginger and pineapple.

Camellia sinensis, or tea, has grown wild for 5,000 years from India to China. To encourage fresh leaves, tea trees were harvested by hand pinching. The green leaves were withered, fermented, dried and graded. Expensive tea was bulked up with elderberry flowers, ash leaves boiled with sheep dung, clay or iron filings.

Monks living in Africa in the 1500s used the fruit of coffee plants to stay awake during prayers. Since then, coffee has made millions for manufacturers while keeping the producers poor. The movement to promote fair trade coffee is an effort to correct those injustices.

Fall-blooming Crocus and its saffron, have been used to dye clothing as well as rice. Saffron comes from the yellow-red stamens in the middle of the flower. It has been used medicinally to cure indigestion, lower blood pressure, and improve circulation.

Agave has been used to make sisal, poison arrows, bullets, tequila and surgical thread. The New Mexico Apaches were known as the Mescalero because they ate the mescal agave and used the leaves to make rope, sandals and baskets.

The Spanish brought pineapple to Europe from the Americas in the 1600s. Easily grown from the leaf tops, growing pineapple in cold climates became a competitive sport among the wealthy. As a result, it is credited with bringing greenhouses to hundreds of residences during the Victorian era.

Lavender, Lavendula spp, plants itself among the rocks and grows wild in the Mediterranean. It is called a fire plant because its stems are so high in volatile oils that it can spontaneously combust in the hot, dry, Italian summers.

Wheat is an example of a plant that feeds the world. Gaining wheat fields became a reason for invading other countries and growing wheat is a sign of world power – the power to feed animals and people.

White mulberry, Morus alba, is native to China and Japan where the wood is used to make cabinets and musical instruments. Its leaves are eaten by silkworms that spin the cocoons that make up the silk trade. A single silk blouse requires 8,800 pounds of white mulberry leaves.

Gardeners know about the ability of White willow water to stimulate root growth on plant cuttings. The active ingredient, salicin or sallcyllic acid, is extracted from the bark of White Willows or Salix alba. Many of us take it every day as our daily aspirin dose but Native Americans chewed the bark to relieve pain. Today, the wood is made into cricket bats and burned as a sustainable home heating fuel.

Animals, insects and humans depend on plants to sustain our lives. Learning more about them can make these everyday things come to life.

Bill Laws is an English writer and journalist. His previous books include: “Spade, Skirret and Parsnip: The Curious History of Vegetables”, “Byways, Boots and Blisters: A History of Walkers and Walking” and “The Field Guide to Fields”.

“Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History” is a 224-page hardback, $30 from the publisher www.fireflybooks.com and $20 at online book sellers.

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