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HOW THE PROJECT BEGAN
In 1990 (a few months after taking early retirement from a Yes Minister-type role in the banking world in the City of London) I found a beautiful coffee table book during a visit to a large English garden centre. It claimed to be a ‘complete’ book of herbs, something which I have since learnt is impossible. I am not a botanist (and even now know little about gardening even) but a superficial inspection of the book’s contents excited me. I bought copies for friends and one for myself and, when I reached home, examined my own copy. That was the beginning of Plant Biographies and an extremely steep learning curve which continues, perhaps at a gentler gradient, to this day.
The comments below do not rehearse arguments already expressed in the Ramblings of July 2008, Plants are of No Consequence (included towards the back of the CD).
The Plant World’s Gradual Divorce from the General Public
Country lore and the wider knowledge of plants used to be handed down from generation to generation. But as the planet becomes ever more urbanized this tradition is being lost worldwide at an ever increasing rate. So much so that today plants are only extremely rarely the 'property of the people'.
Additionally plants have introduced themselves (or have been imported by man especially in the last five or six hundred years) to places outside their natural habitat. Not only are alien peoples and environments unfamiliar with their qualities but the plants themselves can also change or adapt to their new habitat in, say, appearance, virility or toxicity.
As a result plants have of necessity become the province of the specialist eg. the botanist, horticulturist, medical/homoeopathic practitioner, nutritionist, analytical chemist, dietitian, industrialist, environmentalist, farmer, economist, florist, designer, sociologist, engineer, chemist, carpenter, gardener, artist, trader, even journalist, cleric, musician, etc. etc.
Bearing this in mind I began to appreciate rapidly three vital facts. Most of us today
These Plant Biographies make a contribution to the reversal of this disturbing state of affairs.
In order to overcome language barriers and, theoretically, to recognise individual species anywhere in the world out of the thousands which exist on the planet, mutual worldwide identification is achieved through a botanical esperanto. This classification, with its sometimes daunting quasi-Latin appearance, is usually attributed to a remarkable man who lived in the 18th Century, Carl von Linné (1707-1778). A long-celebrated Swedish naturalist and physician, today he is most often referred to as Carolus Linnaeus. [It should perhaps be mentioned that he was by no means alone in promoting methods of classifying plant and animal (embracing man, birds, fish, insects etc.) life but his ideas seem to have been the most widely accepted ones.] Now there are many plants, especially some identified in more recent years, that are known by a scientific (botanical) name only – or even a number.
Although it is possible even for the layman to see how much is owed to Linnaeus, amongst the general populous (of which I am a member) scientific/botanical names have long tended to create a lethargy and discourage interest and enquiry. Think about it, realistically how many of us say that 'Jane is in the garden making a Bellis perennis chain' meaning, of course, daisy chain. During the first few years of my project, I met a lauded English horticulturist who informed me that he and his peers believe they are lucky if any of us recognise even ‘one in ten of the botanical names’ they (the horticulturists) use when addressing us. What a sad waste of interesting and valuable knowledge, as then we do not understand and appreciate what is being imparted to us as well as we might.
Published information is also dominated by botanical names as the material cannot be disseminated easily without them. But when it is appreciated how the same common name can be used for different plants and that any one plant can have a multitude of common names – in one language, let alone most languages – some grudging sympathy is roused. On the other hand the impasse continues for those of us who are not professionals and have prime interests in other fields, or who are dogged by inertia largely created by the effects of the necessary use of the Linnaean system. This project attempts to provide a bridge in order that the experience of the excitement, an apt word in so many cases, of plants' influence in and on the world is opened up again to more of us.
The individual Plant Biographies offer an entertaining and fascinating insight into the plant world’s participation in the life of the planet and the animal kingdom, including man. Every day (whether at home, work or play) we are actually handling ‘plants’ directly or indirectly a large part of the time – and are usually oblivious of this. Do you remember when you walk into a grocers or supermarket that the majority of the shop relies upon plants or parts of plants? I forget – but even the meat, fish, game and dairy products owe their ultimate existence there to plants at some point and if you have a look at the write-up for the cotton genus Gossypium you may be surprised also by its involvement early on in the invention of plastics (shelving, bags etc.), as other plants have been too.
Have a look at the Quiz on the website as well (www.plantlives.com) and perhaps you will see what I mean.
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