Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
Throughout history plants have played a significant role in shaping events, human destinies, economies, technological advances, and the physical landscape of nations. Some, including cotton, sugar, potatoes, opium, tea, and rubber, literally changed the world.
Co-sponsored by the Wildflower Center and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, the 2005-06 Distinguished Lecturer Series looks at some of the plants that have impacted America and the world. The series, which kicked off in September with a keynote speech by Dr. Toby Musgrave, a leading United Kingdom authority on garden history and landscape design, features speakers on a number of different plants that changed the world, including chocolate, quinine, and grapes.
We take a look at some of the plants explored in the lecture series, which will continue in the spring.
Few plants have had as defining an influence on U.S. history as cotton, both economically, especially in the South, and for its integral connection with slavery. Although not native to this country, cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) has been grown as a cash crop here since at least 1619, when the Virginia colonists planted it along the rivers. This marked the beginning of slavery in this country as the need for labor to plant and harvest the crop was great. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney revolutionized the cotton industry, making cotton a major U.S. export in the 19th century. "Before the cotton gin, from raw materials to the finished product, wool and silk were cheaper to make than cotton cloth. Cotton was the rich man's cloth," notes Franklin Wilson, director of operations at the Dallas Historical Society. "This all changed with the invention of machinery. As much as you could clean, you could sell, so production increased and the slave trade increased. Cotton became the common man's garment.
"Cotton made the South rich and slavery inevitable," Wilson continues. "By 1850 cotton and slavery had formed a fatal partnership." Just before the Civil War began, "cotton was king." The South produced about two-thirds of the world's supply of cotton, and Mississippi - with its ideal soil and climate for the crop - was the center of U.S. production. The Northeast also flourished because of its domestic textile industry and its shipyards, which aided worldwide transport related to cotton.
"We generally don't think of a plant as having such an impact on financial markets in the world, but this simple plant built empires," according to Wilson.
Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) was first discovered thousands of years ago in the South Pacific, although India was the first to "process" it for the raw sugar juice around 500 B.C. It made its way to the New World with Christopher Columbus, and it thrived in the warm, tropical climate and soil of the West Indies.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, the European taste for sugar created a highly influential industry in the Caribbean, according to Musgrave.
"Sugarcane became a staple crop for many fledgling colonies, notably those of Britain and France, which began to dominate the region as the Spanish and Portuguese presence declined. "Labor-intensive in its cultivation, sugarcane gave rise to vast plantations worked by African slaves, radically changing the Caribbean's culture and demography. The notorious 'triangular trade' brought West Africa, the New World, and Britain into a profitable economic nexus, but its human consequences have still to be resolved."
In the United States, cultivation of sugarcane began in Louisiana in the mid-18th century. Until then, sugar was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford. Like cotton, sugar brought great wealth to the South and created a lucrative trade commodity based on slave labor. In 1880 the first sugar beets (Beta vulgaris) were planted in America, and within a decade production here and in Europe virtually eliminated the need to import cane sugar from tropical countries, severely impacting those economies.
The introduction of sugar also changed how people ate, as it proved to be an effective preservative, thus increasing shelf life and year-round availability of a number of new foods. It also is an essential raw ingredient in alcohol and is used in pharmaceuticals and printer's ink, as well as for tanning leather and sizing fabrics.
For much of history, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) was considered an inferior food, a staple of diets of the lower classes and feed for livestock. It is indigenous to the South American highlands, where it has been grown as a food crop for more than 8,000 years. The Incas also used the potato to treat wounds and facilitate childbirth.
According to Larry Zuckerman, a historian and author of The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, in the late 16th century Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin classified the potato as a member of the Solanaceae or nightshade family.
Potatoes first arrived in America in 1621, a gift from Nathaniel Butler, Bermuda's governor, who sent two large chests of vegetables to Governor Francis Wyatt at Jamestown. However, it wasn't until 1719 that the first permanent potato plantings were established near Derry, New Hampshire.
In England the potato was the vegetable of the Industrial Revolution. Most English hated the potato for class reasons, but factory workers ate the vitamin-rich potato because it added bulk to the diet and was a labor-saving device, easy to cook using little fuel.
"Ireland was the first European country to fall in love with the potato," Zuckerman says. "Until 1829 Roman Catholics were not allowed to buy land, and since most Irish people were Catholic, the economy funneled them to subsistence farming. They needed a crop not requiring a lot of land, and nothing in the way of tools or labor."
In 1845 the fungus Phytophthora infestans destroyed the potato crop in Ireland, causing a devastating famine that lasted for six years and killed more than 1 million people, one-quarter of the population. It forced many more to flee, with close to 1 million settling in the United States and making up the country's first large group of immigrants.
Today the potato is a staple throughout the world. Zuckerman says that "worldwide the potato is the fastest-growing crop in terms of production, exceeding even maize, rice, and wheat. China is the leading producer of potatoes, with the United States coming in fourth." Remarkably, in October 1995 the potato became the first vegetable to be grown in space through technology developed by innovative researchers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The special properties of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), a native of southeastern Europe and western Asia, were recognized as early as 3400 B.C. when it was cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. It made its way to Europe via the early trade routes and to the United States with Chinese emigrants who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad.
The opium poppy is the source of several medically valuable alkaloids, including codeine and morphine. The latter was first isolated in 1803 by Friedrich Sert�rner, a German pharmacist. It was especially effective against the gastrointestinal diseases prevalent in many cities in America and England in the 1800s and eased the pain of countless soldiers in the Civil War. In 1856, the invention of the hypodermic syringe made injection of morphine possible.