15-22 Story 2: Big, Bad Botany: The mysterious side of plants

 

Synopsis: Every spring, millions of gardeners head outside to spruce up their flower beds, trees, shrubs and vegetable patches, without thinking much about the history – and sometimes toxicity – of some of their plantings. We talk to a man who has researched the unusual side of gardening and find out about some very interesting plants, and how they were cultivated and used in the past as hallucinogens, medicines and tourist attractions.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Michael Largo, author of the book, The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The world’s most fascinating flora.

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Big, Bad Botany: The mysterious side of plants

Marty Peterson: A walk through a botanical garden or the local forest is a restful, amazing experience. But when you see all of the beautiful trees, plants and flowers do you ever wonder how they survive in the wild? How they manage to live and multiply through floods and drought? How even the most fragile flowers can withstand storms and even earthquakes? And, ultimately, what do they do for humans and animals besides offer shade and beauty? Michael Largo wondered about all of those things, so he decided to research the subject. The result is his new book, The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The world’s most fascinating flora. Largo says he chose his subjects based on their ability to live in a hostile world…

Michael Largo: How did these stationary beings, these creatures, these organisms survive? What was their technique? They can’t move, like we do, so they had to find a way and what they did was this amazing biochemistry they developed for this stationary existence. And so I tried to choose each different plant that had a different method of adapting in its environment in which it found itself. Plus, also unique plants, fun plants, like the corpse plant – it smells horrible – or different plants that offer psychotropic properties and also vegetables, you know, where did they come from? What was their history, what was their lineage. So it’s a mix that would hopefully be compelling and someone would want to read about all the types of different plants.

Peterson: Speaking of psychotropic plants, the first one Largo features in the book is absinthe. It’s making a comeback after being banned in this country and several others during the 19th century because it was thought to create hallucinations in people who drank it. It’s amazing that anyone would want to drink it, and finding a way to make it palatable wasn’t easy…

Largo: For many, many centuries they believed it was just a bitter weed. Even in the Bible, they would mention that it was something as bitter as wormwood, and that’s the actual plant that creates the absinthe drink. They believed that every plant was put on the earth for a purpose. So they tried different concoctions of using this, but it was considered worthless – they couldn’t find a way. So the story of how it worked was that they began certain recipes that if you put it with nutmeg and some other ingredients, you’d be able to distill it into a palatable drink.

Peterson: Although the hallucinogenic properties of absinthe are in question, Largo says artists of the period seemed to find it very inspiring, despite what the U.S. government and some European countries had to say…

Largo: It’s a green drink that became so popular among the artists of that 19th century, that Harper’s Magazine in 1879 started to realize that a lot of this toxicity from this – they used to call it The Green Fairy – was destroying a lot of people. And actually that was the drink that started the whole prohibition on alcohol. Van Gogh created his famous painting, Starry Night, while he was locked up from a mad binge rage on absinthe. So we did get something that’s immortal from that.

Peterson: The yew plant is one that has an interesting background. It’s one of the longest living plants, with specimens in the UK estimated to be more than a thousand years old. Largo says that ancient Celts used the yew to make divining rods; and that William Tell who, the legend says, shot an apple off of his son’s head, used a longbow made of yew, since it was considered the best wood for this purpose. You’ve probably seen yews growing in people’s yards in your neighborhood. It’s the evergreen with the soft, red berries that surround a hard, green seed. But don’t be tempted to taste those succulent fruits…

Largo: It’s super toxic. And one of the things that plants have done to survive is that — it’s almost like a selective type of toxin. Now it’s toxic to animals which may have destroyed the tree so they have some sort of protective way to dissuade animals from eating the tree – herbivores. But yet birds, which can eat the berry without being poisoned, can then take that seed and fly far away and disperse it. So that kind of complexity of biochemistry is really amazing that they could come up with that idea. I know it’s evolutionary adaptation, but nevertheless, such a modified scale of what it’s toxic to and what it’s not toxic to helps it to survive.

Peterson: Some plants are amazing just because of their size. One of these is the Amazonian water lily…

Largo: It’s called Victoria Amazonia, and that is just an amazing, gigantic plant. If you see a photograph of it you’d think it’s some kind of trick photography. You see people actually riding on this thing. It’s seven feet in diameter and it’s circumference is even a little bit longer. What keeps it afloat is these long, 20- to 30-foot anchors that are tied to the base. It has a buoyancy because there’s certain ribs within the leaves itself that allow it to stay afloat. But people actually used it as a float and it became popular in the Victorian period that people would bring it into Europe and try to grow these things and take photographs. And you can still some old photographs of these giant water lilies that people are riding upon as if they were pool floats.

Peterson: Many plants were used for medicinal purposes through the ages up to the present day. Largo says that the “cinchona” (sin KO nah) tree is especially fruitful. Quinine is produced from its bark, and has been found to alleviate the symptoms of a number of maladies…

Largo: It was a cure for malaria and they believed that it’s a certain alkaloid that’s in the bark that actually gives the quinine its compounds. And it’s, again, a certain mixture that almost no chemist could have come up with. It’s long known that it cured fever and was sort of discovered in the 1600s and brought back as an astringent, it also kills germs. It’s, again, one of the things that shows that most of the pharmacology, you know we live in an age of pharmacology now, originally started from studying plants.

Peterson: Compounds from the cinchona tree are also credited with being able to increase appetite, treating bloating, and some people even swear by quinine in tonic water as being able to alleviate muscle cramps. But medicine isn’t the only discipline where plants play a role. Largo says that mathematics looked to sunflowers and found a pattern that’s used in everything from art, to fashion to computer science. It’s called “the Fibonacci sequence”…

Largo: There’s a certain ratio of the seeds that they discovered that the florets come in patterns of 55 or a 144 and Leonardo Da Vinci had studied these plants and saw that that was this particular ratio that allowed for dimension. And actually some of those numbers are also used in computer science. So I found that to be incredibly fascinating that a plant had used some sort of mathematical formula and then we were able to get that. It really was only discovered into the late 70s that they saw that this sunflowers followed this formula. It’s called the Vogel Formula.

Peterson: You can see the pattern in the number of petals on some flowers, the spiral markings on a pineapple and in a pine cone spiral, to name just a few. One of the most amazing plants Largo writes about is the mimosa, or “touch-me-not” plant. It’s got a very unusual method of survival that, in some instances, can be fatal…

Largo: This plant, if you touch it or an animal brushes alongside of it, there’s a mechanism within it that immediately sends a hormone in the plant that drains the cells of water so the leaves seem to whither within moments, in seconds. So the herbivore that would be there thinking to munch on this plant would suddenly see a dead plant and walk away. So it’s almost like a plant playing possum that, again goes back to the idea of these plants at a different level of consciousness, that this plant developed this as a mechanism for survival. And if the herbivore goes away right away, the water will come back to the cells. But if it stays there for a long period of time, it cannot get the water back in. In fact, it dies.

Peterson: Some people who love their plants talk to them, and insist it has some beneficial effect. Has anyone ever – scientifically – figured out if that’s true?

Largo:  They do have a way of reacting to their environment, and many people who are gardeners and who love plants maybe their energy of taking care of the plants and speaking to the plants works in some way that we cannot even conceive. So I’m not totally dissuaded that it does have some sort of reaction.

Peterson: You can find a bounty of interesting plants, learn about the myths surrounding them, and how they help themselves and humanity survive in Michael Largo’s book, The Big, Bad Book of Botany, available in stores and online. He invites listeners to visit his website at Michael Largo.com. You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

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