Border Whores

SOWING seeds is pleasant, desultory, not terribly challenging work; there’s plenty of space left over for thinking about other things while you are doing it. On this particular May afternoon, I happened to be sowing rows in the neighbourhood of a flowering apple tree that was fairly vibrating with bees. And I found myself thinking what existential difference is there between the human being’s role in this (or any) garden and the bumblebee’s.

If this sounds like a laughable comparison, consider what it was I was doing in the garden that afternoon: disseminating the genes of one species and not another, in this case a potato instead of, let’s say, a leek. Gardeners like me tend to think such choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space of this garden, I tell myself, I alone determine which species will thrive and which will disappear. I’m in charge here, in other words.

But that afternoon in the garden I found myself thinking that a bumblebee would probably also regard himself as the decision maker, opting for one bloom or another. But we know that this is just a failure of his imagination. The truth of the matter is that the flower has cleverly manipulated the bee into hauling its pollen from blossom to blossom.

All plants care about is what every being cares about on the most basic genetic level: making more copies of itself. Through trial and error, plant species have found that the best way to do that is to induce animals—bees or people, it hardly matters—to spread their genes. How? By playing on the animals’ desires, conscious or otherwise. The flowers that manage to do this most effectively are the ones that get to be fruitful and multiply.

That May afternoon, the garden suddenly appeared before me in a whole new light. All these plants, which I’d always regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realised, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do things for them they couldn’t do for themselves. Could it be that we are drawn instinctively to flowers?

Some evolutionary psychologists have proposed an interesting answer. Their hypothesis goes like this: our brains developed under the pressure of natural selection to make us good foragers, which is how humans have spent 99 per cent of their time on Earth. The presence of flowers is a reliable predictor of future food. People who were drawn to flowers, and who, further, could distinguish among them, would be much more successful foragers than people who were blind to their significance. In time the moment of recognition—much like the quickening one feels whenever an object of desire is spotted in the landscape—would become pleasurable, and the signifying thing a thing of beauty.

By the same token, natural selection has designed flowers to communicate with other species, deploying an astonishing array of devices to get the attention of specific insects and birds and even certain mammals.

Some plant species go so far as to impersonate other creatures or things in order to secure pollination or, in the case of carnivorous plants, a meal. To entice flies into its inner sanctum (there to be digested by waiting enzymes), the pitcher plant has developed a weirdly striated maroon-and-white flower that is not at all attractive unless you happen to be attracted to decaying meat. (The flower’s rancid scent reinforces this effect.) Flowers by their very nature traffic in a kind of metaphor, so that even a meadow of wild flowers brims with meanings not of our making. Move into the garden, however, and the meanings only multiply as the flowers take aim not only at the bee’s or the bat’s or the butterfly’s obscure notions of the good or the beautiful, but at ours as well. Sometime long ago the flower’s gift for metaphor crossed with our own and the offspring of that match, that miraculous symbiosis of desire, are the flowers of the garden.

There are flowers around which whole cultures have sprung up, flowers whose form and colour and scent, whose very genes carry reflections of people’s ideas and desires through time like great books. It’s a lot to ask of a plant, that it take on the changing colours of human dreams, and this may explain why only a small handful of them have proved themselves supple and willing enough for the task. The rose, obviously, is one such flower; the peony, particularly in the East, is another.

The orchid certainly qualifies. And then there is the tulip. Arguably there are a couple more (perhaps the lily?), but these few have long been our canonical flowers, the Shakespeares, Miltons and Tolstoys of the plant world that have survived the vicissitudes of fashion to make themselves sovereign and unignorable.

It isn’t obvious that the tulip belongs in this august company of flowers, probably because, in its modern incarnation, it is such a simple, one-dimensional flower, and its rich history of being so much more than that has largely been lost. The only way we have any idea what made a tulip beautiful in Turkish or Dutch or French eyes is through paintings and botanical illustrations. That’s because a tulip that falls out of favour soon goes extinct, since the bulbs don’t reliably come back every year. In general, a strain won’t last unless it is regularly replanted, so the chain of genetic continuity can be broken in a generation.

Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, Ambassador of the Austrian Hapsburgs to the court of Suleyman the Magnificent in Constantinople, claimed to have introduced the tulip to Europe, sending a consignment of bulbs west from Constantinople soon after he arrived there in 1554. (The word tulip is a corruption of the Turkish word for “turban”.) The fact that the tulip’s first official trip west took it from one court to another—that it was a flower favoured by royalty—may also have contributed to its quick ascendancy, for court fashions have always been especially catching.

But never before or since has a flower—a flower!—taken a star turn on history’s main stage as it did in Holland between 1634 and 1637. It was then that the tulip, still fairly new to the West, unleashed a speculative frenzy that sucked in people at every level of society. A single bulb of Semper Augustus, an intricately feathered red-and-white tulip, changed hands for ten thousand guilders at the height of the mania, a sum that at the time would have bought one of the grandest canal houses in Amsterdam. Semper Augustus is gone from nature, though I have seen paintings of it (the Dutch would commission portraits of venerable tulips they couldn’t afford to buy).

In France in 1608, a miller exchanged his mill for a bulb of Mere Brune. Around the same time a bridegroom accepted a single tulip as the whole of his dowry—happily, we are told; the variety became known as Mariage de ma Fille. Yet tulipomania in France and England never reached the pitch it would in Holland. How can the mad embrace of these particular people and this particular flower be explained?

For good reason, the Dutch have never been content to accept nature as they found it. Lacking in conventional charms and variety, the landscape of the Low Countries is spectacularly flat, monotonous and swampy. In his famous essay on tulipomania, the poet Zbigniew Herbert suggests that the “monotony of the Dutch landscape gave rise to dreams of multifarious, colourful and unusual flora”.

Such dreams could be indulged as never before in 17th-century Holland, as Dutch traders and plant explorers returned home with a parade of exotic new plant species. Botany became a national pastime, followed as closely and avidly as we follow sports today.

Land in Holland being so scarce and expensive, Dutch gardens were miniatures, measured in square feet rather than acres, and frequently augmented with mirrors. The Dutch thought of their gardens as jewel boxes, and in such a space even a single flower—and especially one as erect, singular and strikingly coloured as a tulip—could make a powerful statement.

It is hard to date with precision exactly when tulipomania in Holland started, but the autumn of 1635 marked a turning point. That is when the trade in actual bulbs gave way to the trade in promissory notes: slips of paper listing details of the flowers in question, the dates they would be delivered and their price. Before then, the tulip market followed the rhythm of the season: bulbs could change hands only between the months of June, when they were lifted from the ground and October, when they had to be planted again. Frenzied as it was, the market before 1635 was still rooted in reality: cash money for actual flowers. Now began the windhandel—the wind trade.

Suddenly the tulip trade was a year-round affair and the connoisseurs and growers who shared a genuine interest in the flowers were joined by legions of newly minted “florists” who couldn’t have cared less. These men were speculators who, only days before, had been carpenters and weavers, smiths and cobblers, schoolmasters and lawyers. Rushing to get in on the sure thing, they sold their businesses, mortgaged their homes and invested their life savings in slips of paper representing future flowers. Predictably, the flood of fresh capital into the market drove prices to new heights. In the space of a month the price of a red-and-yellow-striped Gheel ende Root van Leyden leapt from 46 guilders to 515. A bulb of Switsers, a yellow tulip feathered with red, soared from 60 to 1,800 guilders.

Every bubble sooner or later must burst. In Holland the crash came in the winter of 1637, for reasons that remain elusive. But with real tulips about to come out of the ground, paper trades and futures contracts would soon have to be settled—real money would soon have to be exchanged for real bulbs—and the market grew jittery. Within days tulip bulbs were unsellable at any price.

In the aftermath, many Dutch blamed the flower for their folly, as if the tulips had, like the sirens, lured otherwise sensible men to their ruin. This is going too far, though there are plants in the garden that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.

Why in the world should this be so—why should evolution yield plants possessing such magic? The manifold and subtle dangers of the garden, to which a creature’s sense of taste offers only the crudest map, are mainly the fruits of strategies plants have devised to defend themselves from animals. Some plant toxins, such as nicotine, paralyse or convulse the muscle of pests which ingest them. Others, such as caffeine, unhinge an insect’s nervous system and kill its appetite. Toxins in datura (and henbane and a great many other hallucinogens) drive a plant’s predators mad, stuffing their brains with visions distracting or horrible enough to take the creatures’ mind off lunch.

By trial and error, animals figure out—sometimes over eons, sometimes over a lifetime—which plants are safe to eat and which forbidden. Evolutionary counter-strategies arise too: digestive processes that detoxify, feeding strategies that minimise the dangers (like that of the goat, which nibbles harmless quantities of many different plants), or heightened powers of observation and memory. This last strategy, at which humans particularly excel, allows one creature to learn from the mistakes and successes of another.

The “mistakes” are, of course, especially instructive, as long as they’re not your own or, if they are, they prove less than fatal. For even some of the toxins that kill in large doses turn out in smaller increments to do interesting things—things that are interesting to animals as well as people. Goats, who will try a little bit of anything, probably deserve credit for the discovery of coffee. Pigeons spacing out on cannabis seeds (a favourite food of many birds) may have tipped off the ancient Chinese to that plant’s special properties.

For most of their history, after all, gardens have been more concerned with the power of plants than with their beauty—with the power, that is, to change us in various ways, for good and for ill.

I once grew opium poppies in my garden—yes, with felonious intent. I also grew marijuana, back when that was no big deal. The demonising of a plant that less than 20 years ago was on the cusp of general acceptance will surely puzzle historians of the future. They will wonder why it was that the “drug war” of the late 20th century was fought mostly over marijuana.

There has been another dramatic change in the story of marijuana since my brief career as a grower and that is the change in the genetics and the culture of the plant. It is richly ironic that the creation of a powerful new taboo against marijuana led directly to the creation of a powerful new plant.

American gardeners have managed to transform “homegrown” domestic marijuana into what is today the most prized and expensive flower in the world. Top-quality sinsemilla sells for upward of $ 500 an ounce, making cannabis the country’s leading cash crop. Two hundred million years ago, there were no flowers. There were plants then, of course—ferns and mosses, conifers and cycads, but these plants didn’t form true flowers or fruit and so couldn’t support many warm-blooded creatures.

Flowers changed everything. The angiosperms, as botanists call the plants that form flowers and then encase seeds, appeared during the Cretaceous period and they spread over the earth with stunning rapidity. Now, instead of relying on wind or water to move genes around, a plant could enlist the help of an animal by striking a grand co-evolutionary compact: nutrition in exchange for transportation. By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of large warm-blooded mammals.

Without flowers, the reptiles, which had prospered in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule. Without flowers, we would not be.

 
 
Michael Pollan