The Lives They Lived
By Michael Pollan
The New York Times Magazine, January 7, 2001
History is written by the victors, it’s often said, but what about natural history? This invariably gets written by one human being or another, no matter what species’ triumph it trumpets, for the altogether trivial reason that (so far as we know) humans do all the writing around here. But what if it were otherwise? What if, let’s say, the plant perspective were brought to bear on the events of the past year? My guess is that the death of one Claude Hope, a man you’ve probably never heard of, would rank as a big, big story.
Claude Hope, known in horticultural circles as “the father of the impatiens,” was a legendary flower breeder and seedsman. A Texan by birth, he died last July, at the age of 93, at Linda Vista, his flower farm in Dulce Nombre de Jesus, Costa Rica. It was there in the 1950’s that Hope founded a seed company that became a pioneer in the mass production of hybrid flower seed, which has proved a boon not only to homeowners looking to colorize their yards on the cheap but, even more so, to the plant species involved.
Consider the impatiens, a species virtually unheard of before it made Claude Hope’s acquaintance. The natural history of this plant can be divided into two eras: Before Claude (B.C.), and After (A.C.). In less than a quarter century A.C., the impatiens has insinuated itself into the American landscape like no other flower before or since, conquering not only its shadier suburban yards but also its strip-mall window boxes and the tire planters in front of America’s nicer filling stations.
B.C., Impatiens wallerana whiled away the eons living the obscure life of a tropical weed native to the stretch of east Africa between Mozambique and Tanganyika. The plant, a denizen of riverbanks and the shady jungle understory, looked nothing like the way it does now: growing to a height of three feet, Impatiens was a gangly upright annual that bore only a few inconspicuous blooms on top, typically in orange. Early on the plant did show some Darwinian talent for getting itself around: it evolved an ingenious, spring-loaded seedpod that, when touched or otherwise stimulated, would—impatiently—fling its seeds halfway across a river. It also somehow managed to get itself transported to Central America, where it took up residence in the shade of fence rows, and where, one day in the 1940’s, it caught the eye of Hope, who would later recall being “immediately enchanted.”
That enchantment would prove to be the impatiens’ big break, its ticket to world horticultural domination. We think of domestication as something people do to certain pliant plants and animals, but it makes just as much sense to view the process as something the more clever plants and animals do to us—a sophisticated evolutionary strategy for increasing their number and range. By evolving in such a way as to gratify human desires, a handful of adaptable plant species have induced certain visionary humans—humans like Luther Burbank and Johnny Appleseed and Claude Hope—to spread their species’ genes far and wide.
We say that Hope “bred” the impatiens, crossing the spindly orange weed over and over again until the plant had evolved into a compact, branching, floriferous mound that blooms its head off in no fewer than eight colors. But of course it was the impatiens that proposed all those chance mutations and genetic combinations in the first place; what Hope did was create a great many interesting sexual opportunities for the plant, and then select the offspring that would survive and prosper.
And survive and prosper they did. Hope introduced the Elfin series in 1969, followed soon thereafter by Super Elfin and the Dazzlers, and within a decade or so the impatiens had acquired a vast new habitat, becoming the most popular bedding plant in America. As is usually the case in such evolutionary success stories, the impatiens had the good fortune to find itself in a wide-open ecological niche, called the Postwar American Suburb. By the early 70’s, the trees and shrubs that the first generation of suburbanites had planted around their new split levels and Capes had matured, and a flower that could thrive in their deepening shade had it made. Before long, Hope’s shade-loving hybrids had won the Darwinian competition to spread their leaves and flowers around the ankles of America’s maples, beneath the poised hindquarters of her dogs and above her decks and patios, spilling out from white polyethylene hanging baskets. Today Americans plant more than 800 million impatiens every year, the equivalent of about 29 square miles. Virtually all those plants can trace their genes to plants grown by Claude Hope at Linda Vista.
A success of such magnitude is bound to inspire derision, and certainly the impatiens has found its ungrateful carpers. (Hello.) Except for the white ones, which have their place in the shade garden, I confess I share the plant snob’s active disdain for the flower. There’s something synthetic about the flat, Day-Glo hues they come in; also, the sheer relentlessness of an impatiens in bloom seems somehow suspect, and very quickly wearies. Planting a bed of impatiens is a step up from putting out plastic plants, I’ll grant you, but it seems to me the two acts exist on the same aesthetic continuum.
We humans tend to be hard on evolution’s winners—the crows and the pigeons, the weeds and the grasses and all the other cosmopolitans in nature who’ve gone far by hitching their wagons to our own. These species never seem to get the respect we shower on the wild, the rare and the vanishing. But the impatiens has prospered by giving us exactly what Claude Hope understood we were looking for in a flower, and if that has turned out to be a plant with the durability and bright relentlessness of plastic, this is not the impatiens’ failing so much as it is its genius.