Today we celebrate a botanist who is honored by the genus for the spectacular Baobab tree.
We’ll recognize the man who became a globetrotting botanist and even a food spy and ultimately introduced more than 200,000 plants to the United States,
We’ll hear some words from a poet gardener, ecologist, and naturalist, who celebrates his 251st birthday today.
We Grow That Garden Library™ with a book about the pioneering herbalist Nicholas Culpeper.
And then we’ll wrap things up with a fun little quote from an Iowa newspaperman.
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April 7, 1727
Today is the birthday of the 18th-century Scottish-French botanist and naturalist Michel Adanson.
Michel created the first natural classification of flowering plants. In fact, the great botanist Jussieu ("Juice You") adopted Michel's methodology to create his masterpiece called Genera Plantarum (1789).
Although today we think mainly of Darwin and Linnaeus when it comes to classification, these two men and others stood the shoulders of people like Michel Adanson. Michel was the first person to question the stability of species. When he saw breaks or deviations in nature, he came up with a word for it - and one we still use today - mutation.
One of the most profound experiences in Michel's life was the five-year period he spent living in Senegal, where he collected and described many new plants and animals.
That experience provided the foundation for his most famous work - the two-part Familles des Plantes (1763). In the book, Michel classified plants by evaluating a variety of plant characteristics in contrast to Linnaeus' more straightforward sexual system. Again, Michel's perspective on this was revolutionary and was embraced by Jussieu and other botanists. Today, it is called the natural system of classification.
Linnaeus honored Michel's contributions with the naming the genus Adansonia, which features the spectacularly unique Baobab ("BOW-bab") trees of Africa, Australia, and Madagascar.
The Baobab tree is remarkable and memorable - it has a Seussical quality - and it is one of the most massive trees in the world. In Africa, they are called "The Queens of the Forest" or "The Roots of the Sky." The last name refers to a legend that tells how long ago, in a fit of anger, the devil pulled the Baobab tree out of the ground, only to shove it back into the earth upside down - leaving its roots shooting up into the air.
Although they seldom grow taller than forty feet and they are generally sparsely branched, the trunks have astounding girth - and they can be almost thirty feet wide. In fact, some large Baobab cavities have served as jails, post offices, and even pubs. And there is a massive Baobab tree in Gonarezhou, Zimbabwe, that is called Shadreck's Office by the locals and was used as a safe by a famous poacher for keeping his ivory and rhinoceros horns.
And inside those enormous trunks, they can store up to 32,000 gallons of water. The outer bark is about 6 inches thick, but inside, the cavity is spongy and vascular. This is why animals, like elephants, chew the bark during the dry seasons.
The Baobab can grow to enormous sizes, and carbon dating indicates that they may live to be 3,000 years old. They go by many names, including boab, boa boa, Tebaldi, bottle tree, upside-down tree, monkey bread tree, and the dead-rat tree (referring to the appearance of the fruit).
Finally, the flowers of the Baobab bloom at night and they are bat-pollinated. The fruit of the Baobab looks like an oblong coconut with a brown velvety hard outer shell. But inside, the flesh is sweet and tastes a bit like yogurt. The Baobab fruit contains more vitamin C than oranges, more calcium than milk, more antioxidants than blueberries or cranberries, and more iron than steak.
And here's a fun fact: the cooking ingredient Cream of Tartar was initially made from Baobab seed pulp. Today, it is mostly sourced as a by-product of making wine.
In 1774, Michel Adanson wrote another masterpiece - an encyclopedic work covering all of the known plant families. Sadly, it was never published. But, that work was clearly meaningful to Michel, who requested that a garland for his Paris grave made up of flowers from each of the 58 plant families featured in his book.
As for Michel Adanson - his work - all of his papers and herbarium - were treasured and regarded as an heirloom by his surviving family. They privately held his entire collection for over a century before transferring everything to the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, in the early 1960s. The Hunt Institute was so energized and grateful for the gift that they republished Michel's Familles des Plantes in two volumes in 1963 and 1964.
April 7, 1869
Today is the birthday of the globetrotting botanist and food spy David Fairchild.
In terms of plant exploration, David hit it out of the botanical park. He was single-handedly responsible for the introduction of more than 200,000 plants to the United States, including pistachios, mangoes, dates, nectarines, soybeans, and flowering cherries. Prior to David’s work, the classic American diet was meat and potatoes. In terms of food history, David enriched lives and diets with a fantastic collection of fruits and vegetables.
In conducting his work, David traveled around the globe numerous times. In 2019, David’s incredible adventures and contributions intrigued author Daniel Stone so much that he wrote a magnificent biography of David called The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.
Without David Fairchild, the Washington Mall would not have the beautiful Japanese flowering cherries. When that first shipment of cherry trees arrived in the United States, it was infested with insects and diseases. It was a blessing in disguise. Japan was so embarrassed by the shipment that they immediately shipped new specimens. And, Japan sent some of their top horticultural experts to the States to make sure that the trees were taken care of properly.
While plants like kale seem to be a relatively new phenomenon in gardens across the country over the past decade, it was actually David Fairchild - not Trader Joe's - who brought kale to the United States. David Fairchild also brought the avocado to America as well. David loved the Avocado, and wrote,
“The avocado is a food without rival among the fruits, the veritable fruit of paradise.”
Looking back over David's life, it's clear he had a few lucky breaks that helped change the trajectory of his life. For instance, on his first collecting expedition, he met a world traveler and wealthy benefactor named Barbara Latham, who funded many of his adventures. And, in 1905, he married Mary Ann Bell; his father-in-law was none other than Alexander Graham Bell - who, along with his wife, also enjoyed gardening.
Finally, the next time you’re in Florida, stop by the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, which is filled with many of the plants that were collected by David Fairchild, and it's named in his honor.
It was David Fairchild who said,
“I have always liked horticulturists, people who make their living from orchards and gardens, whose hands are familiar with the feel of the bark, whose eyes are trained to distinguish the different varieties, who have a form memory. They… have the patience and fortitude to gamble their lives and fortunes in an industry which requires infinite patience, which raises hopes each spring and too often dashes them to pieces in fall. They are always conscious of sun and wind and rain; must always be alert lest they lose the chance of ploughing at the right moment, pruning at the right time, circumventing the attacks of insects and fungus diseases by quick decision and prompt action. The successful horticulturist spends much time alone among his trees, away from the constant chatter of human beings.”
April 7, 1770
Today is the birthday of the English Romantic poet, ecologist, and naturalist, William Wordsworth.
In his Dove Cottage garden, William grew roses and honeysuckle, red-flowered runner beans and parsnips, gooseberries and rhubarb, lettuces, and spinach.
William even built a little hut for himself - even lining the inside with moss, “like a wren’s nest”.
On February 25, 1797, William wrote,
“I have lately been living upon air and the essence of carrots cabbages turnips and other esculent vegetables, not excluding parsley, the product of my garden.”
It was William who wrote,
How does the Meadow flower its bloom unfold?
Because the lovely little flower is free down to its root,
and in that freedom bold.
William Wordsworth loved daffodils and wrote,
If one daffodil is worth a thousand pleasures, then one is too few.
It's no surprise to learn then, that William wrote the mother of all daffodil poems and it starts out,
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
It was William Wordsworth who wrote,
He is the happiest who has the power to gather wisdom from a flower.
Grow That Garden Library
This book came out in 2004, and the subtitle is Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth-Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People.
In this book, Benjamin brings us the first full biography of the great botanist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper.
Culpepper was a non-conformist, and he was also a business owner. Ten years before his death, he found a spot in East London and opened the doors to his own apothecary. Culpeper catered to the needs of the people. He took medical books that were written mainly in Latin and translated them into English. The masses were grateful. However, the medical and academic communities frowned on Culpeper’s work since they had a monopoly on training doctors and reserving medical information for their paying students.
Publisher’s Weekly wrote this about Benjamin’s biography of Culpeper,
“Culpeper is best known today for Culpeper's Complete Herbal, a comprehensive listing of English medicinal herbs along with directions on their use. Still in print after more than 350 years, the Herbal is, in Woolley's words, "one of the most popular and enduring books in publishing history, perhaps the only non-religious book in English to remain longest in continuous print."
...In a time preoccupied with empowering patients and making information available on the Internet, this tale has particular resonance.”
This book is 416 pages of the fascinating story of a rebellious botanist and doctor who changed medicine forever.
Today’s Botanic Spark
Reviving the little botanic spark in your heart
April 7, 1897
Today is the birthday of the Editor and publisher of the Mason City Globe-Gazette, W. Earl Hall.
Hall wrote one of my favorite quotes about spring:
“Science has never drummed up quite as effective a tranquilizing agent as a sunny spring day.”
I hope you have some sun-shiny days this spring. It’s the best time of the year for gardeners - the season is before us and the garden offers limitless possibilities.
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