EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.
As the days turn colder, the skies grayer and raindrops crystallize into snowflakes, birds disappear from wood and field, settled now in their warm winter habitats where food is plentiful and bugs still flit around. Except for hungry hawks, gathering crows and parking lot ring-billed gulls, we are more likely to see a variety of birds at our feeders rather than when we are out and about. Gardens, too, react to winter. Unable to head south, the plants grow dormant providing only a stark beauty and a storehouse of seeds for the resident passerines and next year's floral abundance.
So as winter approaches, I turn to that pile of accumulated books for spates of armchair birding and gardening. I pass over the beautiful coffee table book on rare birds. I flip through a scholarly treatise on birds in the bible. I stare at the diagrams of bird song and decide that playing a CD and trying to compare the chart to actual song could wait for a few more weeks. I put down the book on how insects have enriched our lives and choose: "Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History" by Bill Laws.
That certain plants have changed history is not news, nor is it a new topic. There have been hundreds of books, some about a single species, others about categories of plants. Plants per se are passive, never a one to plan to change civilization. It always comes down to how people choose to "use, abuse or profit'' from crops.
The book is not only lovely to look at with its plant illustrations, woodblocks, telling advertisements and paintings, but also it is very informative, including the history of the plant and how and why it grew in importance to the world. Each plant is a separate chapter, some long, others quite short. Side bars provide a brief description of the plant and there is a chart to indicate whether the species is: edible, medicinal, commercial or practical. None of the fifty falls into all four categories although a number do fall into three: bamboo, hemp, lavender, nutmeg, barley and corn.
Papyrus which is not edible, medicinal or commercial, may be considered the most important as this plant was manipulated and used to record history from the beginning.
From thence, people experimented, domesticated and exploited plants to their own desires. We know the early search for spices (cilantro, saffron, cardamom, pepper) engendered a tumultuous race by European countries to annex portions of the world. We know of the tulip wars, a definite forerunner to the development of the stock market as we know it today. We know that potatoes, with the help of the Famine Queen, drastically altered the history of Ireland.
During the age of exploration, no ship left port without a naturalist aboard and no ship returned without chestfuls of preserved seeds for experimentation. As soon as plantations of profitable crops arose in the newly established colonies, the native cultures were fractured all in the name of desires and dollars. These countries even thought they have gained their independence today still have internal and external problems.
Rubber plants (from South America) with their latex sap rolled over and into the world of change with the invention of the automobile. Bamboo was and is an important construction material in China. Now though it is being used as a decorative garden plant. It is sad to see small bamboo forests growing now in the wild in the Hamptons.
Tea (China) and coffee (Ethiopia) calmed and stimulated the West and enriched the plantation owners, as more and more people became enamored and addicted to these drinks. Life-sustaining grains -- rice, barley, potatoes -- not only fed the masses, but also were used to produce drinks that soothed the mind when turned into sake, scotch and vodka. Even the crab apple (Central Asia) from which all other apples are descended gives us cider.
Other plants were searched out to soothe the body, to eliminate the suffering of sickness. Chincona (Bolivia and Peru), also know as Jesuit bark, combats malaria, a disease that still affects millions of people yearly. Foxglove (Western Europe) is one of the best cardiac drugs available even though the plant itself is poisonous which was well know back in the days of folk medicine. White willow (much of the Northern Hemisphere) gives us aspirin, the quintessential headache remedy.
Drugs first collected and still used as painkillers have become plain killers: coca (the Andes) from which cocaine is extracted and the opium poppy (Turkey and east) from which morphine and heroin are extracted. Hemp, used to make extremely sturdy rope for sailing ships, is now the source of the number one recreational drug across the universe: marijuana.
For those who have no desire for "drugs,'' try a little tobacco (from Bolivia possibly). But do note that this plant was first brought from South America by the Portuguese as a miracle cure. When made into an ointment it was said to cure: piles, toothache, obesity, ulcerated sores.
Once the body and mind is fine, dress it in silk (China) or cotton (from many places) and dye it with indigo (Southern Asia). Who knew that with the onslaught of the popularity of denim the world would need a substitute indigo and that the creation of a man made blue dye would trigger India's independence from the British Raj!
Lastly, plants may just be exquisite. All roses are descended from the dog rose (Europe and North Africa) and have solely a commercial value -- to enhance the beauty of the garden. Sunflowers (Southwest U.S. and Central America) also make the top 50 plants. For the natives back in the day, it was a basic food used for making flour and as a vegetable. It has since become a world wide crop producing sunflower oil and, to the delight for some of us, food for the birds!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.