“Pound those stakes in deep so it doesn’t get away” my neighbor called out as he walked by. I was planting a tree in a windy spot adding stakes for stability.
I didn’t want to ruin his joke and explain that actually plants do move – quite a lot it turns out.
Some plants spread through underground rhizomes or runners creating sizable colonies. Others send their children out into the world equipping them with wings or parachutes to catch a breeze, hooks and barbs to grab hold of transient critters or wrap them in tasty coatings to entice passersby to bring them along.
Wind, water and animals have always Ubered plants around the globe. Those botanical arrivals thrived, adapted or perished in their new location and things had a way of working out.
Then, people got involved and plants traveled farther faster and in great numbers, sometimes to the benefit of all and sometimes things didn’t work out so well.
Our country plays a big role in the movement of plants. Initially we were a source of botanical wonder for European explorers who carried potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peppers and tobacco back to their Old World. Then the cycle reversed and imported plants helped fuel the economic engine of our developing nation.
Plants continue to flow across national boundaries and the controversy over who benefits endures.
Since its earliest days our government encouraged the exploration and importation of new plants. Thomas Jefferson, a champion for new plants, felt “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add (a) useful plant to (its) culture.”
More than 100 years ago, David Fairchild rendered that great service to our country as an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and today we are still eating his life’s work.
At the dawn of the 20th century American farmers had access to plenty of fertile land, a population anxious to succeed and an evolving transportation network that could take crops to faraway markets. However, the problem was they didn’t have anything unique to sell.
President William McKinley wanting to go beyond feeding our domestic population sought to create an agriculture industry that was bigger and better than anything anywhere else in the world.
McKinley tasked David Fairchild with searching the globe for plants that could invigorate American agriculture. During his career, Fairchild helped introduce over 200,000 exotic plants to our country. Fairchild’s childhood friend Charles Marlatt, an entomologist also working for the USDA, saw the danger of so many exotic plants pouring into our country potentially carrying a veritable Noah’s Ark of unknown pests.
He fought Fairchild throughout his career and was responsible for Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 which regulated the movement of plants and plant products. His work lives on in the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services which is an agency that protects the health of the animals and plants we eat today.
Our horticultural and agriculture history brims with examples of beneficial exotics and disasters caused by importing foreign plants. The opposing views of David Fairchild and Charles Marlatt ultimately broke their friendship and continues to supply fodder for debates around exotic versus native plants today.
Daniel Stone tells the story of these men and how their work shapes the food we eat in his book, “The Food Explores.” It’s a detailed telling of the history of the food in our refrigerators; a story that is easily unseen when reaching for a tasty treat.
Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email email@example.com.