A brief history of gardening



The pina, later renamed pineapple, is one of the many non-indigenous plants transplanted from its native land to a prodigious number of disparate locales, including Thailand. Also, it looks pretty.

Photo by David Monniax

A Brief History of Gardening

I get bored with ‘experts’. Far too full of their own self-importance for my liking. They’re just so… well… smug. These people are interviewed on television and appear in the newspapers espousing their supposedly irrefutable views on the most bizarre of subjects.

Then someone else with an equally silly haircut and 1960s National Health Service spectacles (not an attractive look) will come along and proclaim that actually they’d got it all wrong and that you should ignore everything previously mentioned on the subject and start again.

Salt is a good example. For years, salt was considered to be an essential part of the human diet. Then one of those scientist types appeared on the scene, shoved a few pounds of salt down a rat’s throat. The rat inevitably wouldn’t take too kindly to this, and inevitably a few of them must have died.

The conclusion was obvious – salt was deadly. It gained ‘evil’ status overnight, and the western world was told that should we consume too much salt in our diets, that imminent death was inevitable. So we stopped eating the stuff.

Then scientist number three pops his head over his laboratory parapet, and having watched a few of his rats do rather well on the stuff that we should all follow suit. These so-called ‘experts’ do have one thing in common, it has to be said. They’re all complete buffoons.

Additionally, why are they all so boring? Why do so many of them insist on wearing spotted bow ties and tweed jackets? Aren’t there any ‘cool and hip’ experts around? Thailand has its own of course, with Khun Pornthip, that lady with the crazy hair who spends her days running around the country solving crimes that the police can’t quite seem to understand.

Elsewhere, interesting experts are few and far between. They all seem to want to do their best to behave like those polo-necked Arran-sweatered chaps that appeared late night on BBC2 in the UK back in the sixties and seventies, when Open University used to broadcast in black and white. They just seemed so obsessed with their charts and algorithms.

These late-night feasts were entertaining in themselves for a maximum of about five minutes after staggering home from the pub, insisting on a little televisual stimulation. The problem was that once that time had elapsed, you just wanted to throttle them and bring at least a little excitement into their monochrome lives.

Today’s most exciting scientist is the one with the least in physical personality, ironically enough. Stephen Hawking. He’s brilliant, and particularly ‘cool and hip’ in his own way. He doesn’t have a wacky haircut or spotty bow tie; he just sits there and explains things in a way that even I sometimes understand.

He may not be able to talk in the same way that many of us do, but he has a knack of making even those obscure subjects that many of us would run way screaming from rather interesting. I have to say that I agree with the proposition that the unassailable sine qua non for a quantum physicist in that the quintessential homogenity of Hawking’s theory should not be entirely challenged by academic empiricists in absentia. No, I haven’t read it.

And so we move inevitably into things green and tropical. How about a Brief History of Gardening instead? Well, tropical gardening actually. There’s little point in droning on about tulips and crocuses, when they’re much more at home poking their heads through a blanket of frost.

Anyway, most people will know the story of Captain Bligh, and the Fletcher Christian-led mutiny on board HMS Bounty. Perhaps fewer people are familiar with why he went to Tahiti in the first place, and why a mutiny once he left the island was fairly inevitable.

He was sent there by a wealthy 18th Century botanist called Joseph Banks to collect 1,000 seedlings of a local version of the breadfruit, so that he could transport them to the West Indies and feed slaves working on the plantations.

It took almost five months for the seedlings to be ready to be transported, and during this time the sailors had become somewhat fond of the Tahitian ladies. In fact a writer at the time clamed that “every man had his girl”. I can’t really blame Mr Christian for being a bit miffed at being told they had to move on.

As it happens, Captain Bligh did actually deliver the breadfruit seedlings to the West Indies a few years later – the slaves didn’t even like breadfruit, as it turned out.

Captain Bligh and his merry men weren’t the only ones to move plants around the globe in years gone by. On a visit to Guadaloupe, Christopher Columbus was given a weird-looking cone-shaped fruit. The Spanish visitors thought it looked a bit like a pine cone, so called it a pina.

It later became known as the pineapple, and found its way to many other tropical parts of the world,  including Madagascar, India and Hawaii where it was cultivated and became hugely popular. Today, most pineapples come from the Philippines, Malaysia and here in Thailand.

Columbus also ‘discovered’ the capsicum, or chilli pepper. Bizarrely, the first seeds he sent back to Europe weren’t even used to grow plants to season food; people liked the look of the bright red and orange fruits, and used them for decoration. Very odd. They quickly became so popular in Asia that their Mexican/South American origins were probably for gotten quite quickly.

There are other famous plant imports that created whole new industries in this part of the world – Malaya (now Malaysia) was transformed by the introduction of the rubber tree from its native Brazil, and more recently the oil palm, which produces much of the world’s vegetable oil today.

Then there are the plants that made it overseas not because they were worth anything commercially, but people simply liked the look of them. The cordyline, or ti plant, for example doesn’t do a great deal apart from look good. In fact early Polynesian visitors to Hawaii thought it so impressive that they wove the leaves into leis and offered them to priests.

The distinctively fragrant frangipani’s origins are less certain, but it was either the Spanish or Portuguese that brought it to this part of the world, where it quickly became associated with local culture and religions, and took o a whole list of local names.

The ‘experts’ in the world of gardening will put forward a whole list of reasons as to why we have the plants we have in our corner of the globe. Most of them spout twaddle – they’re here because our forefathers either thought that they could make money out of them, or they looked good. Simple.

Unfortunately, my ‘brief history of gardening’ hasn’t been as brief as intended; in fact I think I’ll need to continue this at a later date. Now where did I put my spotted bow tie?



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