Plant Hunters, Survival Instinct
Edgar Anderson (1897-1969) was the kind of teacher I wish I’d had at least once. He liked to help students surprise themselves with what they could learn about botany and science by simple observation--of just a potato. If you want to try this challenge skip the next paragraph.
Okay, a potato has eyes, more of them at one end than the other. The eyes are arranged in a spiral. A potato has two ends. These observations and others suggest that a potato is part of an underground stem, a compressed, thickened part, with buds as an aboveground stem would have (the eyes). There’s more, but you should learn it from the source, which is Anderson’s sublime book Plants, Man and Life (reprinted by Dover).
Anderson studied corn in Mexico sixty years ago, when farmers owned only small bits of land and kept their own family corn pure for generations in spite of very different strains of corn growing side by side and sharing pollen. The plants ranged from dwarfs to giants; the kernels from hard to soft, yellow to red to many-colored, dented, pointed, plump, thin; and the ears varied too, long and thin, stubby and plump, blunt and pointed with varying numbers of rows.
Anderson invented a way to record the differences graphically. This cataloging led him and others to discoveries in the genetics of corn. He wrote about his work as clearly as if he were talking with you over the garden fence.
Along the way, living among the Mexican farmers, Anderson grew curious about local gardens. At first sight they seemed to be untended and unplanned. He discovered, however, that every plant in those gardens was useful in some way--for food, fiber, or medicine--and he soon realized that the gardens were planted and managed with care and were more diverse, productive and healthy than typical U.S. gardens.
Scientists are rarely good writers and that is a pity. Anderson was much better than good. By reading Plants, Man and Life, you will learn more about botany, science and gardening and enjoy learning it more than you might think possible. Reading Anderson’s book will make gardening deeper and richer for you.
When Anderson wasn’t writing, he was a plant hunter. Once he began at Missouri Botanic Garden in 1931, he noted that the gardeners of St. Louis had no reliable ivies or boxwoods. The common ivy of his time (English ivy) and the boxwood disliked the muggy summers and dry winters of St. Louis and often died or burned in the winters.
So Anderson studied the climates of the world and recognized that parts of the Balkans had the same hot, muggy summers and outbreaks of deep cold as St. Louis. He organized and led an expedition to the Caucasus, on the eve of World War II and came back with ancestors of the hardy boxwoods and Balkan ivy that grow today in North America in Zone 5, even Zone 4. Though they look identical to other species, Anderson knew that “they must be different on the inside.” Here is the specimen Buxus Sempervirens ‘Vardar Valley’ Anderson brought back in 1934, still growing today.
(There are other kinds of plant hunts, less specific than the type that Anderson led, which are more a search for serendipity: searchers travel to distant countries and bring home their finds to see how they will fare in hometown climates. This is how the giant, grass-like native phormiums of New Zealand come to be growing in many gardens of northern California, and the thought-to-be extinct dawn redwood, once found in one village in China, is now growing in public and private gardens around the world.)
And then there are the plant hunters of today - in the style of, and inspired by Edgar Anderson - who understand the extreme adaptations that allow a native plant to perfectly exist in its exact location.
An Edgar Anderson scholar working at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Peter Del Tredici, is a plant hunter in the area bounded by Montreal, Boston, Washington DC and Detroit – an explorer in our cities. His book, “Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast: A Field Guide” (Cornell University Press, 2010), covers 222 species that flourish without human assistance – or approval! Del Tredici not only notices them but, like his hero Edgar Anderson, he recognizes and appreciates their contributions, and speaks respectfully of the “wild children” of the plant world who grow up happily in sidewalks cracks, improving the quality of modern urban life.
Practicing the same kind of mixed, synergistic gardening - but with cultivated plants - Bill Mollison started the permaculture movement some forty years ago. If you google "permaculture," you will find books by Mollison and several followers. Bill Mollison appears in a permaculture tour video of Village Homes, a venerable green development in Davis, CA.
Horticulture combining natives, cultivars and vegetables is another type of mixed synergistic horticulture. The “edible landscaping” books by Rosalind Creasy and Robert Kourik will make you reconsider what plant might find a happy, productive life in what would otherwise be bare dirt going to waste between rows of vegetables. One such garden can be found at the University California, Davis; plant communities thrive, sharing the same planting beds with natives.
And then there is my backyard, a nearly mature ornamental garden. I like it, I’m proud of it, yet this year I’m moving pieces of it into vegetables and fruits. Eventually, I hope, it will be the kind of garden Anderson saw in Mexico, with squash vines roaming under fruit trees and grapevines on the fences. A different kind of beauty, like the botany of a potato.