Bananas – Going, Going, Gone?

I am immersed in writing a book on gardening during the Covid-19 lockdown so sadly no time to write anything new for Allusive Fields. Instead, I’m posting an essay I published last year on the Living Archive Oceania website. It is light-hearted but also covers some serious issues. Hope you enjoy it.

Late in her life, my mother developed holes in her memory. This slow violence ate away at the links and connections in her mind, leaving her thoughts scattered like remnant ecosystems. In contrast to the rest of the family, she was unconcerned. Food, she said confidently, could fill these holes. It made sense, in a way, memory and food being so intimately linked. After all, Proust convinced us long ago that taste transports us into the past. His famous Madelaine with its distinctive ribbed shape, like a shell, is still sold as a souvenir – literally an aid to memory – to pilgrims on the Santiago di Compostela pilgrimage, whose emblem is a scallop shell.

My mother, however, wasn’t interested in Madelaines – or in Proust for that matter. Bananas, she announced, were the answer. Once again, this made sense of a sort. After all, surely everyone in Australia had memories connected to eating bananas. Generations of babies were made replete and content on mashed banana; school children devoured the banana in their lunch boxes while ignoring unappetizing sandwiches.

It was the favourite snack of adults on the run. If anything could reestablish lost connections it should be the ubiquitous banana.  As Australians’ favourite fruit it is firmly ensconced as a nationalist food tradition; part, you might say, of settler Australian cultural memory. And in place of the Santiago di Compostela’s Madelaines thousands of Australians can make their own home grown pilgrimage to the Big Banana in search of a deeper, authentic experience of the essence of banana.

But sadly the banana evoked no reminiscences for my mother. Her memories were gone, tragically wiped out. Was it that the mighty banana was not as potent as she had imagined? It had, after all, over her lifetime, suffered its own taste extinction and was no longer the tasty repast it had been. In fact, the banana is not what it used to be. In the first half of the twentieth century families were enjoying the taste explosion of the sweet, creamy Gros Michel banana. But no more. The Gros Michel fell prey to Panama disease in the 1950s and is now merely a laboratory curiosity. Wiped out in other words.

Nowadays almost all bananas are the Cavendish variety, a more or less bland and boring replacement. But there is even worse news. Although the Cavendish is resistant to panama disease it is being stalked by another fungal disease, Black Sigatoka, which first appeared in Fiji in 1963 and has been kept at bay by constant chemical spraying. Not only is Black Sigatoka becoming more and more difficult to control, Panama disease is making a comeback in a new form known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4). It attacks the Cavendish with particular virulence and destroyed the Northern Territory banana industry in the late 1990s. When it was detected in the nation’s dominant growing region in 2015 it looked like curtains for the banana.

Does it matter, you might ask? After all, many other foods that have slipped from memory and been lost are now being rediscovered. But although many heritage varieties of fruit and vegetables are undergoing a revival things are not so straightforward for the banana. For starters, it is genetically old and decrepit. In a way we can think of it as having lost its memory as it lacks the genes necessary to fight pests and diseases that are likely to create holes in the banana growing regions of the world. The Cavendish is the most viable large-scale variety but being a standardized food crop it does not have the robustness necessary to adapt and survive. Once Panama TR4 is confirmed as present, vulnerable banana strains can no longer be farmed in the area as fungal spores may survive in soil for up to 30-40 years. This is particularly concerning for the Australian banana industry as around 95% of its bananas are Cavendish. They are grown on monocrop plantations, some in Coffs Harbour but mostly in North Queensland within a 100km radius of each other. There appears to be no doubt that the disease will inevitably become endemic in the region.

So, despite having changed the landscape and food habits of Australians not only is the beleaguered banana sterile and unable to change itself, its continued existence is likely to be dependent on genetic engineering. At present new plants are started from cuttings and new banana trees are usually produced from an existing plant by replanting root stalks, known as rhizomes or shoots called suckers that grow from them. However, since 2012 researchers have developed and field-tested genetically modified Cavendish banana trees in Australia that have exhibited notable resistance to Panama disease. Well, then, you might think, all is not lost. It’s true all is not lost but let’s take a look at what has been lost.

To establish banana plantations large tracts of diverse flora and fauna were cleared, leaving holes filled by a plant that may have become emblematic of Australian nationality but is implicated in a forgetting, whether conscious or unconscious of what preceded it.  In what were once tropical and subtropical forests Aboriginal people had shaped the biodiversity for thousands of years. Their knowledge systems also identified the links that created the region’s biocultural diversity.

Sandra Pannell writes of tropical forest areas of North Queensland where, “beneath the palimpsest of European names that feature on contemporary maps of the region lies a dense and interwoven Indigenous semantic landscape where names not only signify Storytime events and beings but also refer to the flora and fauna of the locality.”[1]

Back in the late nineteenth century, white ownership of land now devoted to monocropping bananas was leased to Chinese immigrants who had been lured to the country by political unrest in China and the promise of riches from gold mining.


They brought banana plants with them and moved to clear additional land once their five-year leases expired. They played an important role in developing capitalist markets and wealth in the area but by the 1920s under the White Australia Policy their numbers declined and Chinese participation in the industry came to an end. The industry did not fully recover from the departure of the Chinese until the 1970s.

So, both imperial power and immigrant workers in search of betterment contributed to an ecological and cultural transformation in tropical Queensland, much of which settler Australians might prefer to forget. The Cavendish monocrops growing today could be described as a singular means to the singular end of profit-making. One that has replaced diverse ends and means. This is not good news. The Cavendish has been standardized for ease and predictability of market profit and growth. As a monocrop it is a stand-alone feature without connections to a larger whole. Such monocrops not only threaten biological diversity also often threaten cultural diversity directly and indirectly. And as varieties of food are lost through standardization so too are memories erased.

Like Proust we might seek to nostalgically remember the ‘good old days’ when bananas tasted as they should but perhaps life was simpler for Proust. For settler society Australians with our constant angst about who and what belongs in the landscape, a simple link to the past may be lost to us. There are many morals we might draw from the story of the banana but perhaps one simple truth is that to truly enjoy a banana we have to forget the past.

[1] Sandra Pannell, ‘Cultural Landscapes in the Wet Tropics’ in Living in a Dynamic Tropical Forest Landscape, eds., Nigel Stork and Stephen M. Turton, Blackwell Publishing, Victoria, Australia, 2008.

Thoughts on Giving and Receiving Gifts

St Valentine’s Day is another of my minor gardening bugbears. I look askance at hastily erected stalls at petrol stations and road-side parks selling bunches of red roses that scream, “buy me or you’re failing to appreciate your partner.” How did this dubious celebration become so ubiquitous in Australia? Why, I ask myself, is there this addiction to squeezing the pleasure of giving into a capitalist format?

For starters, let’s take a look at the origins of this day. Far from proclaiming love and good feelings, the holiday began as a liturgical feast to celebrate the decapitation of a third century Christian martyr. Various stories tell of several St Valentines who died on 14 February. Two were executed during the reign of Claudius Gothicus (269-270AD) at a time when persecution of Christians was common.

It is, however, likely that these several saints were one and the same person. An alternative story suggests the modern holiday is a Christian cover-up of the more ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia that was held in mid-February. Lupercalia originated as a ritual in a rural masculine cult involving the sacrifice of goats and dogs and evolved later into an urban carnival. During the festivities half-naked young men ran through the streets of Rome lashing people with thongs cut from the skins of the newly-killed goats. Pregnant women thought it brought them healthy babies. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius supposedly denounced the rowdy festival, although there is no actual evidence that the Pope purposely replaced Lupercalia with the cult of the martyred St Valentine. Whatever the origins of Valentine’s Day it has little to do with how we might conceive of gift giving in a postcolonial context where, I believe, an Indigenous understanding of gifts would be more appropriate.

However, for those interested in the influence of English history the more pertinent story comes from Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote in his Parlement of Foules that the February feast of St Valentius was a day for the mating of birds.

He described St Valentine’s Day as the day when every bird gathered to chose a mate. He started a fashion and soon European nobility began sending love notes during bird-mating season. And so it went on until industrialization resulted in mass-produced cards, chocolates and red roses. It’s the red roses that I have a particular problem with. It’s not that I’m some grumpy old miser who doesn’t want to give or receive gifts. Quite the contrary, I find gift giving immensely pleasurable but when we buy flowers on Valentine’s Day we need to think very carefully of the consequences and whether there might be a better alternative.

Although a small proportion of the roses sold in Australia on 14 February are grown in Victoria the majority are imported, mostly from Kenya or Columbia and their lower prices have pushed Australian growers out of business. The ABC reported that since the start of February more than 6.46 million rose stems had been imported from Kenya, up nearly 1.25 million roses from the same period last year.

Think for a moment of the cellophane each bouquet is wrapped in. Apparently it adds up to 160 kilometres of plastic wrapping heading for landfill in one two-week period. And then there’s the study undertaken by Cranfield University in the UK that found that raising 12,000 Kenyan roses resulted in 6,000 kilograms of CO2. Of course, growing flowers en masse anywhere is going to produce CO2 but not being an edible crop means rose growers are typically exempt from regulations on pesticide use. As a result the cut flower industry is one of the biggest consumers of pesticides worldwide.

In Kenya and other countries, chemicals such as methyl bromide are regularly imported in significant quantities by flower growers for pest control. Not only is methyl bromide an ozone-depleting substance, but in some cases the run-off from such chemicals into adjacent lakes has resulted in the collapse of fish stocks that are crucial to both local communities and the ecosystem.

Many of the workers employed in the cut flower industry earn a wage that is inadequate for a decent standard of living and they form part of the working poor. Many are young women who work long hours and sometimes face sexual harassment. And of course, there is a colonizing story lurking behind all this. The owners of the rose farms tend to be wealthy white men who could afford to buy up farmland and their employees are poor blacks.

So why, with all these reasons not to give a Valentine’s gift of roses, do we still persist? Ultimately, we know very little about the reasons why we feel the need to give things to others. The anthropologist Marcel Mauss believed that in the modern world gift morality depended on “people and classes who uphold past customs.” He claimed that the giving to others in early societies reappears in our own society “like the resurrection of a dominant motif long forgotten.” He concluded that the essential features of gift transactions are the obligation to give, to receive and to make a return for gifts received. This is known as the norm of reciprocity but it is all too rigid for me. Where, I want to know is the thoughtfulness, the delight, the generosity of giving without a thought of getting anything back?

Levi-Strauss, another famous anthropologist who was fascinated by the potlatch culture of some North American Indians also believed that direct parallels could be drawn between it and gift giving practices in modern societies. He claimed that giving presents at Christmas “is nothing other than a gigantic potlatch” conducted in the pursuit of prestige. This conclusion holds that gift practices in modern western societies are merely an exaggerated version of the competitive struggles for power and status.

When I first read this I thought why take the practice of one culture and apply it to all? And more importantly, what were the pre-colonial gift giving practices in Australia? Might they offer an alternative?

According to Rauna Kuokkanen, for Indigenous people social order is maintained through giving and recognizing the gifts of others, including the land; the logic of the gift, in other words, is a radical critique of an entrepreneurial world-view. This attitude is in accord with how I think of my garden. It is both a gift and a giver of gifts. My gift to the garden is time and attention and care. In return I receive flowers, vegetables, fruit and the endless pleasure of birds, bees and butterflies.

In Braiding Sweetgrass Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that, “gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts, to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.” A garden proclaims that not all social life in a capitalist society is dominated by the rational acquisition of goods and influence. In addition, Nancy Hartsock suggests that “one could begin to see the outline of a very different kind of community if one took the mother/infant relation rather than the market exchange as the prototypic human interaction.” After all, conflict and competition is not at the core of the relationship between mothers and their children; it is instead, empathy. So next Valentine’s Day I will pick a bunch of beautiful crimson Callistemon from my garden and think about the words of David Mowaljarlai, senior lawman of the Ngarinyin people of the west Kimberley when he addressed a gathering of non-Indigenous people in his country in 1995:

“We are really sorry for you people. We cry for you because you haven’t got meaning of culture in this country. We have a gift we want to give you. We keep getting blocked from giving you that gift. We get blocked by politics and politicians. We get blocked by media, by process of law. All we want to do is come out from under all of this and give you this gift. And it’s the gift of pattern thinking. It’s the culture which is the blood of this country, of Aboriginal groups, of the ecology, of the land itself.”

“Many Australians understand that Aboriginal people have a special respect for nature… That they have a strong sense of community… That we are people who celebrate together. There is another special quality of my people that I believe is the most important. It is our most unique gift. It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our fellow Australians. In our language, this quality is called Dadirri. This is the gift that Australians are thirsting for.”

How wonderful to receive such a gift. How wonderful to be able to bestow such a gift on others.

Thought on Red and Green during the Christmas Holiday

            I’ve always been a little uneasy about the red and green colours that symbolise Christmas. They seem yet another colonial imposition, one that makes little sense in an antipodean mid-summer. Yet, each year I decorate a Christmas tree and enjoy small friends and relations who believe in Santa Claus in his jolly red outfit. The green, pine smell of a Christmas tree in the living room has a magic that is at odds with the numerous pine trees that flourish near my home in Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. I regard them with a jaundiced eye. They are, after all an overly successful invasive species. Adaptation is a powerful force, however, and their cones have become a popular source of Christmas food among the yellow tailed cockatoos.

I am always delighted when a foreign symbol is transformed into something local and relevant. Although we still retain the ubiquitous Holly and Ivy on Christmas cards the red of the northern hemisphere winter berries has been replaced in Australia by bunches of Christmas bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) and Christmas Bells (Blandifordia Grandiflora or nobilis) and in New Zealand by the Pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa).

Unlike those in the northern hemisphere we do not need cheering up in the middle of dark winter days but the colour red has a wider symbolism and universal relevance that is worth thinking about over the Christmas period. It was the first actual colour to be used, along with black and white, by the earliest humans. Black and white, of course, are not ‘real chromatic colours’ with fixed wavelengths but more expressions of our perception of light and darkness, while red is the first ‘real’ colour with a defined wavelength – in fact, the longest wavelength of any colour. It is the first colour babies are able to distinguish and the first colour to vanish as the sun sets.

Black and red were common in Palaeolithic art with red pigments produced from iron oxides or from ochre. Human blood protein was also a constituent of red pigment in two Australian caves dated to the late Pleistocene. The motifs in these caves were mostly hand stencils. In ‘Red: The History of a Color’, Michel Pastourean writes that red “is the archetypal colour, the first colour humans mastered, fabricated, reproduced and broke down into different shades.” It was a strong element dominating different cultures for thousands of years. Red is, of course, the colour of fire which, in times of cold and harsh weather, was indispensible. Fire was also the agent of transformation. If ochre was treated with fire, it was transformed and changed colour. If clay was burnt, it changed its structure and hardness.

In Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic, there was also a powerful symbolic relation between ochre and the feminine. Many Palaeolithic Venus figurines were painted with red ochre. A plant known as Madder also grew widely across Europe, Africa and Asia and was used to create a red dye, while the Aztecs used cochineal, a small bug that they scrapped off cacti, then dried and crushed.

Red was used to depict the skin colour of men in Egyptian wall paintings and many Roman villas were decorated with vivid red murals. During the celebration of Saturnalia, a festival honouring the god Saturn held between 17th and 23rd December, Romans wove holly wreaths and hung them on doors and walls. The wreaths signified their desire to see the rebirth of the sun and return of summer. Romans even placed ‘sigillaria’ or small figurines on evergreen tree boughs that they brought indoors.

When churches began celebrating Christmas on 25th December around the 4th century, the Roman followers of Christianity left their wreaths hanging during Christmas as well. This was essentially the time when green became associated with Christmas.

The Germans took this practice to another level and brought trees into their homes and decorated them with fruits and nuts. Christians performed Paradise Plays in several European countries on Christmas Eve during the Middle Ages. The play narrated the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The ‘paradise tree’ was located in the Garden of Eden and was basically a pine tree cut down with red apples tied to it.

There are several other theories and legends as to how the evergreen fir tree became a symbol of Christianity. One, which seems somewhat far-fetched is credited to the English Benedictine monk Boniface, famous for missionary work in Germany during the 18th century. Boniface apparently encountered a group of Germans performing a sacrifice in front of an oak tree that was sacred to the god Thor. Boniface is alleged to have seized the axe and cut down the tree to stop the pagans worshipping a false god. Legend has it that a pine tree grew out of the fallen oak and became a symbol of Christ.

Eventually the idea of bringing an evergreen tree into the house evolved into the Christmas tree. The custom was widespread among the German Lutherans by the 18th century but it was not until the following century that the Christmas tree became a deep-rooted German tradition. It was introduced into England in the early 19th century and popularized in the mid-19th century by the German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys and small gifts, candles and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbons.

Blown glass ornaments were offered for sale in England and America as early as the 1870s, many produced in small workshops in Germany and Bohemia, which also created decorations made from tinsel, beads and pressed paper. Of course it wasn’t long before capitalists spotted a marketing opportunity and by 1890 in America F. W. Woolworth was selling $25 million in ornaments annually. Electric tree lights were also available. In the 1930s artificial trees made of brush bristles were developed in America and the 1950s and ‘60s saw the mass production of aluminum and PVC plastic trees. And so the Christmas spirit contributes to vast amounts of unnecessary production and rubbish in landfill each year.

I feel a spoil-sport writing such comments but surely we have lost something as life has become increasingly consumer driven. The bright joy of glossy green leaves and red Holly berries in mid-winter pagan times seems preferable to a plastic tree surrounded by expensive and often unnecessary presents. Then there’s the history of advertising that has apparently played a sizable role in establishing the jolly red-attired Santa of today. Particular credit goes to the early Coca-Cola advertisements of Santa Claus who didn’t really exist in the collective cultural consciousness before the company advertisements.

Although Santa Claus is descended from the religious figure of St Nicholas who wore a red robe, his appearance and story have been shaped over many years to become the familiar, secular, jolly character of today (and some might be inclined to say, a symbol of greed). Prior to the Coca-Cola advertisements featuring Santa, he had been portrayed in a variety of ways – as tall and gaunt, short and elfin or distinguished. Some of these early versions were depicted wearing dull brown or green but the tradition of wearing red began in the 1870s with the American cartoonist Thomas Nast who introduced the red suit and cap, white fur and buckled black belt.

The Coca-Cola company began Christmas advertising in the 1920s and in 1930 the artist Fred Mizen painted a department store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. In 1931 Coca-Cola commissioned artist Haddon Sundblom to paint Santa for their annual advertisements. Each year Santa was featured holding a bottle of Coca-Cola, or drinking and enjoying Coca-Cola. This perennial feature helped to increase Coca-Cola’s sales during the winter and created a strong appeal to children. Before television, colour motion pictures or the widespread use of colour in newspapers, Coca-Cola’s magazine advertisements and billboards were for many Americans their primary exposure to the modern image of Santa Claus.

Does it matter? Probably not. After all red symbolizes a great many more things in contemporary culture than Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Red Rooster or other companies who specialize in red. Red stands for many things – all of them potent. It is the colour of heightened emotion, strength and power. It features on national flags and is beloved of revolutionaries. It is associated with romantic passion as well as violence, anger and aggression. It is used to capture attention, to say Stop! while paradoxically standing for action and energy. We talk of the red carpet treatment, red tape, being caught red-handed or being red in the face.

For the Greeks red was the colour of the gods of war – Phoebus and Ares, and in Chinese culture red is associated with weddings, high status and wealth. It is the symbol of love, health and goof fortune. Red is also the colour of one of the energy centres or Chakras within our bodies that are said to help regulate all its processes. The Base or Root Chakra, also known as Muladhara takes red as its colour. It is located at the base of the spine and is said to allow us to be grounded and connect to the universal energies. It is a symbolism for red that appeals to me as it connects us to the natural world and eschews connection with consumerism.

In many ways red is the opposite of blue. Red speeds up our heart rate, blood flow and body temperature. Blue on the other hand symbolizes serenity and stability. It is associated with the ocean and the sky. Maybe this is why I prefer to relax and enjoy a big jug of Eucalyptus leaves and rich, red dahlias from the garden to celebrate Christmas along with hopes for a better, brighter future for our beautiful blue and green planet.

Medieval Herb Gardens and their Medicines

I was surprised to discover that during the Covid-19 lockdown there was an increased interest in homegrown herbal remedies. The resurgence of interest in gardening was expected but apparently people have been researching herbal medicine at a much greater rate and buying many herbs that can be used for medicinal purposes. I’m not sure what has prompted this increase in interest but it got me thinking about medieval herb gardens and the plants, both leaves, flowers and roots that were once used to protect people against all manner of ailments.

In the medieval period gardens of one sort or another were a vital source of food and flavourings, medicine and pleasure to nobility, clergy and peasant. Most people had a garden of some kind – according to the Domesday Book in 1086 over 90% lived in the country and off the land.

For most, the garden consisted of the culinary basics – cabbages, leeks, garlic, onions and the essential peas and beans that made up the staple diet. We would certainly find in plain fare, if not downright indigestible. However, the simplicity of the actual gardens had a distinct appeal as there was no line drawn between utilitarian plants and decorative ones and most flowers were treasured for their beauty as well as their usefulness.

There were three kinds of medieval gardeners, and each produced very different gardens. There were the monks, whose gardens were mostly utilitarian, formal and with a particular emphasis on medicinal plants. There were the rich who prospered from the labour of the others and whose gardens were the outdoor playgrounds of courtly love depicted in painted manuscripts and tapestries. And there were the cottage-dwellers whose all-purpose gardens provided food, elementary medicines and an agreeable pastime.

The Benedictines in particular, saw caring for the sick as one of their roles and their monastic herberers had knowledge of the more arcane, potentially dangerous remedies whose formulae were generally kept secret. They were versed in the strictures for collecting herbs at certain seasons or phases of the moon. This practice, at one time ridiculed, has been scientifically confirmed. We now know that the potency of plants is affected by the time of year, the time of day and the phase of the moon. The European Lady Day in spring and Michaelmas in autumn were thought to be particularly propitious. Sunrise and sunset, using gold and hart’s horn rather than iron to gather the herb, maintaining complete silence and not looking back – these were the most common instructions for gathering herbs. I’m not sure how these practices might be transferred to antipodean backyards but it will be interesting to find out if this rediscovered interest is long-lived or not. Certainly it seems that a great many of the people who established a vegetable garden during lockdown have continued to garden with enthusiasm.

Back in medieval times there were well-established medical enterprises that endured for generations. In Wales there was a rational holistic and humane school of medicine at Myddfai in the sixth century, which continued to care for the sick and prospered until the eighteenth century. Their treatments were the slow and sure ways of infusions and poultices, and made up of the plants and substances that were universally familiar – milk, honey, egg white and lard were the vehicles for many of the herbs, whose effectiveness, has in some cases been vindicated in laboratory tests.

The poorer peasants and workers protected themselves with homegrown remedies as best they could. They made amulets from certain herbs and wore them as a popular protection against evil. They were usually comprised of betony, mugwort, vervain, plantain and yarrow. Scent balls were also popular and were used to sweeten houses, strewn among clothes and linen in chests and cupboards. They consisted of the same ingredients as the pot-pourri we make today from rose buds, lavender, lily of the valley, pinks, lilac, violets, meadowsweet, rosemary and spices such as cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. Bay salt and orris root layered between the dry ingredients is used to fix the fragrance. If you want to use scent balls in true medieval fashion you could try pounding the dried pot-pourri ingredients in a mortar and pestle with gum tragacanth. Then moisten it with rosewater to a dough-like consistency and shape into balls or beads to hang in cupboards.

Although I much prefer to wear clothes make from nature materials I can’t imagine returning to the medieval practices of growing
hemp and flax to weave cloth. Wool was of course also common. Women used herbal dyes to brighten clothes. Most of the dye plants were readily available, and worked well on scoured and cleaned wool, though flax apparently required more extensive treatment to make the dye penetrate. The art of dying was common knowledge and the season and condition of plants was important. Lichens, for example, gave a better colour if gathered from stones rather than the bark of trees. Spring was the best time to collect new leaves, resinous bark, early flowers, and damp mosses and lichens. There is something wonderful about the intimacy with plants and seasons that we seem to have lost and hopefully, even if we never weave flax, make scent balls or dry medicinal herbs, time spent in the garden during Covid may return us to a sense of calm groundedness and the sheer pleasure of watching over and caring for our herbs, vegetables and flowers.

drawing of sage leaves

All the larger houses in medieval times had an herb garden that was tended by the mistress of the house. The garden included both edible herbs and those used to treat ailments. The large herb gardens of the monasteries were known as physic gardens and the herbs were referred to as simples. Although in medieval Europe virtually all plants were assumed to have some medicinal value, by the Renaissance, medicine, botany and horticulture began to slowly diverge. When herbalists became associated with witchcraft and paganism many of these remedies were seen as having evil aspects or dismissed as old wives tales. However, some have been researched and now provide efficacious modern medicines.

A whole branch of science dedicated to the study of traditional medicine, known as ethnopharmacology, has resulted in some remarkable discoveries. One of the recent winners of the Nobel Prize for medicine discovered a breakthrough drug after poring over 2,000 ancient herbal recipes. Dr Tu Youyou’s discovery, the anti-malarial drug Artemisinin, derived from Wormwood, is credited with saving millions of lives.


Both the ancient Egyptians and Hippocrates recommended using the bark of a willow tree for pain relief. In 1915 the drugs giant Bayer started selling it over the count with the brand name Aspirin.

willow tree

Milkweed or Petty Spurge (Euphorbia peplus) produces a white sap which Culpeper’s Compleat Herbalist (1826) described as a “good treatment for warts.” In 1997 the active ingredient, ingenol mebutate, was isolated and discovered to be toxic to rapidly replicating human tissue. Recent clinical trails of Picato, a gel derived from milkweed sap, suggest it is effective at stopping lesions turning into skin cancer.


Finally, Galantamine, derived from snowdrops and now used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, was first investigated by the Soviet Union. Folk law, however, tells of Bulgarians rubbing the flowers on their foreheads to relieve headaches.


But what can the backyard gardener do with the herbs and medicinal plants that were once commonly grown in medieval gardens? It is, of course, a relatively simple and cost-effective task to dry herbs grown over the summer and use them to flavour winter stews and casseroles. There are a few herbs such as winter savory, some oreganos, garlic and chives that will grow throughout the winter. Rosemary can also generally be used all year round, but Basil, Lavender, Coriander, Tarragon and Sage are best harvested and dried.

Today we have supermarkets that stock fresh greens throughout the year, but in the bleak medieval winters of England and Europe greenery was scarce and herbs were an important source of vitamins and nutrients. However, it is a very satisfying feeling to have a row of jars in the kitchen filled with dried homegrown herbs. One medieval favourite was rosehip jelly but it can be difficult to source the old-fashioned roses that form an abundance of hips. They are wonderfully attractive when in bloom despite their multiple thorns.

drawing of borage flower

Other plants that were included in medieval gardens are now grown mainly for their attractiveness. Pinks, or Dianthus for example, were grown for culinary purposes. They had a clove-like flavor and were used fresh to flavor summer dishes. They were known for their strong pleasant scent and were believed to promote general health. The Dianthus grown today has little smell or taste but it is still possible to source the old-fashioned varieties from specialist nurseries.

Among the many homegrown herbal remedies here are a few you might enjoy trying as they have been shown to have some degree of efficacy. They are not, however, a replacement for medical expertise or treatment.

Coriander or coltrane, is considered to be a powerful digestive aid and may be capable of removing heavy metals and other toxic agents from the body. It is, of course, frequently used in Asian cooking and grows easily though it will go to seed quickly in hot weather.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officialis) is a tasty addition to a green salad. The oils, tannins and bitters in the fragrant leaves and flowers have a relaxing effect on the stomach and may help to fight off herpes simplex when used topically. I haven’t tried this but love the leaves in a mixed salad during the summer. My plants tend to die back during the winter.

Peppermint makes a pleasant herbal tea and can soothe sore muscles when applied topically as a lotion or a liquid while Echinacea is commonly used as a cold cure. The Echinacea flowers are wonderfully handsome and bright throughout the summer and there are many hybrids of different colours available now but I still prefer the old-fashioned ones.

Thyme oil has antibacterial and antiseptic properties that help to prevent winter colds and flu. In the Middle Ages many believed in thyme’s ability to heighten bravery and ward off nightmares. Good be a good herb to keep an eye on during Covid clusters!

Today we are accustomed to a vast array of plants sourced from all parts of the planet but in Medieval times there were far fewer plants available. There is much to recommend in the simplicity of a medieval garden. Establishing a herb garden using medieval plants offers the opportunity to become aware of the qualities of each plant and to imagine a time when plants with their annual cycle of blossom and fruition were the calendar by which people judged the passing seasons. There is a quietness and a slowness associated with these activities that can be calming and comforting during stressful times.

Time moves on, however, and inevitably the medieval garden changed in many ways. The number of available plant species, for example, increased dramatically during the Middle Ages – from about a hundred at the turn of the millennium to three times as many by the beginning of the Renaissance. The art of the garden and its contents were recorded by various herbalists, encyclopedists, authors and painters. Charlemagne drew up a list of the plants to be grown in his vast empire around 88, called Capitulare de Villis. He required that his lands in every city should produce all the 73 herbs among which were roses, lilies, fruit and nut trees, flag irises, houseleeks, mallows, poppies, rosemary, sage, rue and tansy.

One consequence of these changes, that we refer to as progress, has been a loss of the rituals and shared memories that bound communities together. One of my favourite medieval rituals was the practice of covering beehives with flowers to mark important changes in the seasons. Instead of these annual events today we have fleeting fashions with newly bred or hybridized flowers marketed much like fridges or televisions. Perhaps one way to offset this and garden with a sense of history is to grow a range of old-fashioned edible flowers to decorate salads, cakes, and biscuits.

drawing of echinacea

It is true, this is a present-day fashion, but it harks back to a time when many of these blooms such as lavender were considered to be digestive aids. A simple herb and edible flower garden reminiscent of the medieval herb garden is one way to pay homage to the past, resist the commercialization of garden practices while also having fun experimenting in the kitchen. However, if experimenting, it is best to either research carefully or only use flowers you know to be commonly used in dishes. Those guaranteed to be safe include Borage, Clover, Dandelion, Dianthus, Hollyhock, Marigold, Nasturtium, Pansy and Violet. Enjoy!

Doctrine of signatures

Last week I sent off a chapter for a proposed book on gardening during Covid-19 and assuming it is accepted I’ll have my head down writing the remaining chapters over the next few months. So, no time for lengthy blog essays but as part of the research for this book I’ve been reading about folk medicine and the use of plants to treat plague victims in history. Some of these plants are in my garden and I decided to have some fun exploring the language of plants, otherwise known as the doctrine of signatures. This is ancient system or art of knowing from the outer appearance of a plant or its environment what its medicinal properties are. Reading its colour and shape is apparently an indication of what it heals. In other words, form points to function – the physical characteristics of plants reveal their therapeutic value. My Calendula, otherwise known as Calendula officinalis is in full bloom at the moment and will probably flower all summer. The Romans called the first day of a month the calendae and Calendula flowered so abundantly in Roman gardens that it seemed to be in bloom on the calendae of every month, and so it merited the name Calendula.
Calendula features in the doctrine of signatures because of its colour and as a member of the sunflower and daisy family – the compositae.

The doctrine of signatures is an idea found throughout the world and is alluded to in classical Greek literature. Dioscorides, for example, wrote “.. the Herb Scorpius resembles the tail of a scorpion and is good against his biting.” Personally that’s one signature I wouldn’t put my trust in it!
Paracelsus was the greatest proponent of the doctrine of signatures. He believed that God provided signs within plants to indicate their uses: “the soul does not perceive the external or internal physical construction of herbs and roots, but it intuitively perceives their powers and virtues and recognizes at once their signatures.” Paracelsus is known as the father of modern medicine but he was also an alchemist and there is a long history in western plant signatures of a correspondence with mysticism and alchemy. However, exploring these connections is for another time.

The doctrine of signatures was, however, frequently used in herbal medicines during the Renaissance and was espoused by the famous Nicholas Culpeper who wrote “… by the icon or image of every herb man first found out their virtues.”

Today, many consider it a fanciful, primitive and unreliable system although occasionally a remedy is found to be true. Kreig, for example, in 1964 referred to willow bark’s efficacy in treating rheumatic pains, noting “at least one of these quaint beliefs had a fragment of truth in it.”

I lean more toward the late Stephen Jay Gould’s approach. He wrote: “I question our usual dismissal of this older approach as absurd, mystical or even prescientific … how can we blame our forebears for not knowing what later generations would discover? We might as well despise ourselves because our grandchildren will, no doubt, understand the world in a different way.”

One of the things it is impossible to ascertain is, when healers in traditional cultures first learned of the value of medicinal plants, did signatures influence their plant selection? And if they didn’t, then what did?
If the doctrine of signatures was a ubiquitous method of choosing medicinal plants then plants bearing signatures should be more widely used than those lacking a signature. But this isn’t the case. It is possible that many valuable herbs were in use before the doctrine and matches between ailment and plant were made later either as an aid to memory or to validate the doctrine. Many plants that lack signatures are used for the same purpose as those that have signatures while many species with obvious signatures are not used medicinally.

However, many plants that bear signatures are efficacious. Purslane, for example, is effective in controlling intestinal parasites and it is likely the plant’s resemblance to worms helped healers to remember and pass on this knowledge. The same is true for Eyebright, which can be used to effectively treat conjunctivitis.

Calendula officinalis has been used over the centuries for a variety of medicinal purposes and became a staple of British cottage gardens. Its leaves and flowers were used as a mild stimulant, to prevent or treat fever, for skin diseases, to cause sweating and to ease muscle cramps. In the old herbals Calendula has many other names: As the sponsa solis, it is the spouse of the sun, and solaris herba, the sun’s herb. Another of its names, Vertamnus, is the name of a shapeshifting Etruscan and the Roman god of gardens and orchards, seasons, change and plant growth.

Willima Coles (1654) considered the orange-yellow of Calendula flowers a signature for their action in jaundice. As a member of the compositae family of sunflowers and daisies the Calendula is known as herbal sunshine and is thought to bring a sense of inner centeredness and joy, a sunny mood. Here’s hoping!

Its petals have been used in cooking and were once used as yellow colouring in cheeses and butters. When used in stews and salads the petals add a spicy taste similar to saffron. I haven’t tried them in stews but often add the petals to salads mostly for the colour. Calendula is also said to stimulate the immune system and is used as an ingredient in many cosmetics. In the vegetable garden it is said to draw aphids away but I haven’t been able to find any proof of this.

The Transient Life of Flowers

This morning I strolled through my smiling garden. The weather was perfect. Who could possibly feel gloomy when surrounded on all sides by spring flowers? Daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, hellebores are all blooming their hearts out. The whispering buds of the cherry blossom are now caroling pink at eighty decibels or more.

A sudden, lush vitality seems to have sprung into being over night. So much robust vigor should offer comfort and hope; be a sign of resilience. Instead, all I see is fragility and impermanence. As I glance around, here and there the petals of earlier blooms flute and fall, my eye catching them in that indeterminable space where life crosses to death, the mysterious moment when matter becomes to heavy to bear. There is, too, a wider sense of the world beyond the garden, of the earth folding into itself rather than awakening. Climate change, Covid 19, escalating racism, looming recession, the decline of democracy – all speak not of joyous beginnings but of the end of times.

The government meanwhile seems determined to return our lives to ‘normal’ but what is normal when our bodies and minds have been irrevocably changed, when our safety and security are no longer guaranteed? At first, many of us experienced lockdown as an opportunity to rethink our life on earth. To consider possibilities beyond such human constructs as the ‘economy.’ But as time has gone on, Covid 19 has not only shattered our illusions of being the dominant species on earth, of being in control of our destiny, it has destroyed lives and freedoms. Now we find ourselves prisoners possibly facing a life sentence. We can no longer ignore death; it declares itself everywhere, endlessly, on the Internet, on Facebook, on the evening news. The anguish of loss, its finality demands to be acknowledged. How can we articulate our sudden helplessness? Is there any counsel from the past that can help us?

In his famous essay On Transience, Freud also considered, not only the different emotions we experience when confronted with the decay of natural beauty, but also our lived historical moment. The historical moment of his writing was the First World War but he could well have been writing of our present situation:

“The war broke out and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beauty of the countrysides through which it passed and the works of art which it met with on its path but it also shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization, our admiration for many philosophers and artists … It tarnished the lofty impartiality of our science, it revealed our instincts in all their nakedness and let loose the evil spirits within us which we thought had been tamed … It made our country small again and made the rest of the world far remote. It robbed us of very much that we had loved, and showed us how ephemeral were many things that we had regarded as changeless.”

Freud’s essay is framed within an imaginary walk in the countryside “in the company of a taciturn friend and a young but already famous poet.” The poet was troubled by shadows. All the beauty he saw was shrouded in sorrow. He was acutely aware that everything attractive was destined to become absent and so he could not even enjoy it when it was present. For the poet, the ineluctable decay of the beautiful destroyed its value and meaning. Freud, on the other hand, insisted that evanescence increased beauty’s value. He noted that, “each time [nature’s beauty] is destroyed by winter it comes again next year, so that in relation to the length of our lives it can in fact be regarded as eternal.”

Freud concluded his commentary on transience by affirming its power to change us in a way that can change the world we live in. “We shall build up again all that was destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly that before.”
I wonder would Freud be so optimistic today in the face of rampant bushfires, and Covid 19. How would he feel if confronted by rising temperatures that could render the world inhospitable to the flowers of spring; where a thoughtful stroll in the garden inevitably gives rise to fugue-like thoughts on the creeping precarity of these flowers that may not survive many more springs as the climate alters and the inevitable droughts increase.

Despite the elegance of Freud’s essay I’m unconvinced, although I am drawn to the potential for joy it offers. Instead, like Freud’s poet, I struggle to prevent my thoughts from shrinking and becoming trapped within a cage where nothing exists but my reaction to potential loss and finality. And so, I search on for solace and inspiration.
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Edgar states that “men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: ripeness is all.” This ideal of ripeness is one of dying one’s own death after a life untroubled by fatal accidents or unforeseen horrors.
In a similar vein, the English poet E. J. Scovell likens dying her own death to that of flowers. In Deaths of Flowers, she aspires to age and die like a tulip.

I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Till wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
Like flakes of fire, they piecemeal fall.

But such ideal flower-like deaths are in stark contrast to the lonely deaths of those who contract coronavirus. We live in times when dying like a flower is a forlorn hope. And so we must continue the quest for sustenance during this great unraveling.

Greek mythology offers possibilities. It returns us to spring flowers and asks how bright things can survive in dark places. It tells of the drifts of narcissi that flowered in profusion along the banks of the black river Styx, bringing sunlight to a dark land. It was here that Persephone was wandering in the spring meadows picking daffodils when she was overpowered by Hades and dragged into the Underworld. It is said that daffodils looked up until they played a part in Persephone’s abduction. Since then they have bowed their heads in shame, burdened by the knowledge that their beauty was the lure that enticed Persephone away. Now they remain forever associated with death and melancholy.

But Persephone did not die in the Underworld. Instead we read of her mother Demeter searching for her lost daughter. And when, eventually, she uncovers her whereabouts and Hermes is dispatched to the Underworld with a message for Persephone to return to the sunlit world, he finds, not a pale shade, but a radiant wife of Hades and queen of the dead. Personally, I find it hard to see Persephone as a conquering heroine. Instead her muted existence sheds a soft glow in the dark vault. Mistress of her circumstances she also cradles sheaves of unfulfilled dreams. She has, after all eaten of the fruit of the dead and there can be no permanent restoration to the sunshine. She returns home, arriving with the wet spring full of weeping and release, her arrival heralded by daffodils, symbols now of hope and rebirth.

But each autumn when she departs for the Underworld her mother slides into mourning. So their reunion each spring is a bittersweet occasion, the time when darkness and light are in balance, when the root system of a plant and its flowers are in balance. Although this myth speaks of the changing seasons and the sprouting of new life each spring, it also speaks to us today of this time when darkness and light are clearly not in balance and plants, like Persephone herself, that should be flourishing on the earth may be destined to become mere shades, confined to the underworld.

Yet shade can also be life giving. The shadow that has fallen on the world has created an area of shade and there are many shade-loving flowers. Like Persephone they live a quiet, muted existence until spring when they unfold their delicate hues. They gesture imperceptibly as if pausing between blooming and fading. They endure differently; they have none of the brash discord of summer blooms. They sing in dulcet tones. Their language is lyrical.

The shade is calm and cool, a place of repose and waiting, but lurking intimations of dread and fear remain. There is no guarantee of a continuing existence. There is no physical solution for the ‘problem’ of transience. We must navigate our own unique paths through life’s inescapable impermanence and in the process, if we are lucky, open ourselves to life like a flower brimful of hope although towards what is unclear. This is our gift to the world and in giving a gift we leave behind a voice. A voice that must ultimately lament its own undoing, sing of its own dissolution.
This poetics of disappearance has the voiceless voice of a flower that leaves no shadow, only the unseen glory of what once was.

To be Touched By Gardens and Writing

Gardeners (assuming they are not sight-impaired!) need an attentive gaze. Let’s face it, if a garden is going to be in any way appealing the gardener has to consider colour, shape, height, light and shadow among other things. This means a lot of looking and thinking and planning, all of which can be a balm for the mind in these times of Coronavirus. But gardening is also a powerfully sensuous activity in which touch, although often ignored, is paramount. No gardener is unaware of the feel and texture of rich warm soil, of tough and obstinate roots, of the fragility of petals or delicately pliant leaves.


In the garden I become acutely aware of the thinness of my skin, how easily it is blistered by secateurs, stained by plant juices. And, of course, the sharp stab of a rose thorn is a poignant reminder that these days touch is a dangerous business. We have to maintain distance between ourselves and strangers; we no longer hug friends and relatives. We stare in dismay when others cluster together carelessly. Can gardening – and garden writing – I ask myself, compensate for the lack of physical touch, provide a sort of tactile wisdom, allowing us to feel our way towards a sense of wholeness and flourishing?


If I wander around the garden, brushing my hands over the tops of box hedges my fingers tingle, I feel more vital, and want to explore other touch sensations that are often forgotten in the need to weed, water, prune or generally busy myself with seemingly urgent tasks. Putting these to the back of my mind I immediately become aware of a whole world of touch sensations crying out for attention. Feathery grasses, the velvety lamb’s ears, the tickle of bundles of tiny delicate stamen flowers on the Callistemon, the smooth, leathery leaves of the Japanese laurel. Of course reaching out to grasp plants in the herb garden fills the air with fragrance – rosemary, lavender, dill, fennel, the beautiful citrus aroma of lemon verbena.


So much stimulation brings my attention back to my hands. I look at the skin on my hands – gardener’s hands that have suffered in all sorts of weather so the skin now appears paper-thin, much like the paper I use for my garden diary, although sadly much more wrinkled and blotchy. Today, wet, windy and cold weather sends me back inside to thoughts of paper made from breathing wood, to explore diary entries, neglected books on gardening and tomes of philosophy that have been gathering dust.

Merleau-Ponty (one of my favourite philosophers) argued that the paper and I are of the same flesh. And then there’s Kant who declares that my holding hand is ‘an outer brain’ deeply involved in spatial cognition. With this understanding, we can be open to the world, to the tactile sensation of the garden because we are of the same structure as the world. We are of the same flesh as things and others. Yet, it is astonishingly easy when gardening, writing and reading to forget touch, ignore our hands and concentrate on sight.

When I come inside and sit down to write I feel grounded in the same way as I feel grounded when my fingers enclose the root ball of plant I have lifted from a pot. My holding hand as ‘outer brain’ involves me in space and thought whether writing or digging. These days, when showing visitors around the garden is much less common, I hope writing will create a sort of touch at a distance. After all, narratives affect us, change us, touch us literally and metaphorically.

My garden diary is a messy affair – much like my garden. I have friends who are supremely organised and have all their plants on spread sheets. Not so me. My diary is paper-based as I like to add drawings, sketch and scribble as well as write.


There’s the turnips ready to add to lentil soup for lunch. There’s a little nest exposed when the Maple shed its leaves.


And there’s a portrait of Blossom, the silver-laced Wyandotte who likes nothing better than bossing the other hens around. Much of the writing is merely disconnected phrases that come into my mind while outside – oddments I imagine might find a place in an essay some day.

IMG_1492 (2)

It’s true that looking, writing and drawing can collapse our three-dimensional lived and embodied knowledge into two-dimensional paper-based (or computer) inscriptions. To forget touch and other bodily senses can leave us stranded in abstractions; the garden can become relegated to a shadow and when nature is no longer felt as a palpable presence it becomes open to exploitation and maltreatment. It is therefore in these times important not to let ourselves feel that the world outside is a dangerous place but one which we must all attempt to nurture back to health.

Famously in his ‘First meditation’ Descartes suggested a thought experiment of having no senses. ‘I will consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, as not having a single sense’ (100). A more wilful form of forgetting the senses could hardly be imagined. Descartes looked to the hard inner core of certainty, pure reason, as a model applicable in all cases to the phenomena of the outside world.

The verb to forget is from the Old Teutonic getan‘to hold or to grasp’. Etymologically to forget is to lose one’s hold on something, to let it go. Descartes’ desire to actively forget was the catalyst for touch to be written out of the cultural history of the west. If to forget touch means it has lost its hold then it is important to call its history and meaning back into being.

We need to beckon to, to invite back, what we consigned to the background and to also allow our hands and feet to draw us into the world. Henri Focillon writes that:

Sight slips over the surface of the universe. The hand knows that an object has physical bulk that it is smooth or rough, that it is not soldered to heaven and earth from which it appears to be inseparable. The hand’s action defines the cavity of space and the fullness of the objects that occupy it. Surface, volume, density, and weight are not optical phenomena. Man first learned   about them between his finger and the hollow of his palm. He does not     measure space with his eyes but with his hands and feet. The sense of touch      fills nature with mysterious forces. Without it nature is like the pleasant    landscapes of the magic lantern slight, flat and chimerical (Focillon, p. 162-63).

Irigaray (1999) claims we have forgotten not only our senses but the air around us and in doing so we have also forgotten that we are nourished and supported by air. She argues that space is not empty but filled with the density of air that connects and separates everything on earth. Emotionally this sense of air enables us to experience space as thick with the flesh of the world and the texture of light (Vasseleu, 1998). One of the difficulties in these days of mask wearing and fear of contagion is that our sense of pleasure in air and light can be overwhelmed by anxiety. Those of us fortunate to have gardens are still able to explore the textured, resonant quality of the garden’s presence. I believe this is an experience essential to develop the ability to care for the natural world and I hope that garden writing can to some extent offset the sense of loss of the tangible world of flesh.

Merleau-Ponty uses the relationship of mother and infant as a model for nature’s presence and implicitly links it to a call for care. It is, he states, the mother’s idiom of care and the infant’s experience of this language of care that is the first human aesthetic. It is the most profound occasion where the content of the self is formed and transformed by the environment. The rapt attention, the absorption characterises this experience as aesthetic rather than cognitive. Eventually this aesthetic of handling yields to an aesthetic of language and the experience of being becomes integrated with the experience of thinking. Our positioning in nature is imbued by the rapport established in infancy. If this relationship has been ‘good enough’ nature can be experienced as an intimate collection of material sensations where dreams of who we are, of where we belong and of how we get on in life are consigned.


Writing about gardens is one way in which writer, text and reader can be re-positioned as palpably ‘of’ the world, oriented topologically and topographically ‘on’ and ‘in’ the world and surrounded by air thick with non-corporeal tactility. Garden writing can be a narrative that touches, that calls us to dwell within a nature full of mysterious forces that we can no more ignore than we can an infant’s cry in the night. It creates narratives that are open to healing the other within us and the other that is nature.

Such writing calls forth care. A call for care is defined by its direction, by its drift towards attachment. It is a desire to protect, to move towards as well as to hold and be held. The engagement that flows from and between both the bodies of writer and reader leads to a deepening or calling forth of new perceptions. This is not a relationship characterised by passivity on the one side and activity on the other. Instead, it is creative, mutual, reciprocated and actively constituted by both parties.

Although I believe this is the promise held out by garden writing there is no certainty that it can affect change. As Boch remarked, ‘a body that becomes hopeful inevitably holds the condition of defeat precarious within itself’ (Boch, 1998, p. 341). And language can never say all that can be said, but writing understood as flesh holds out the promise of aliveness and works against objectifying what it expresses. I imagine it like a tree trunk, a palimpsest of growing layers. Of spreading and branching joints of language, of sap rising and falling. As timber its rough rings release the song of the place, echoed in the timbre of voice laid down as inscriptions on porous paper, literally shapely words, lines curving like a cupped hand around space that appears empty yet reveals something, touched and held by translucent eyes and skin.


Boch, E. ‘Can Hope be Disappointed’? in Literary Studies. Stanford UP, 1998, pp.339-345.

Focillon, H. The Life of Forms in Art, trans. C. B. Hogan & G. Kubler, London, Zone, 1989.

Irigaray, Luce. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger, trans Mary Beth Mader. London, Athlone, 1999.

Merle-Ponty, M. ‘The child’s relations with others,’ in The primacy of perception, ed. J. M. Edies. Evanston, Northwestern UP, 1989.

Vasseleu, Cathryn. Textures of Light: Visions and touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Mzerleau-Ponty. NY. Rutledge, 1998.



Respecting Vegetal Life

Since my last post we have endured devastating bush fires and the ongoing Corona Virus. I’m going to write very little about either as long ago Rachel Carson summed up such situations succinctly – “No witchcraft, no enemy action has silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people have done it themselves.” If you are interested you can check out my chapter on the fires, ‘Signs but No Wonder’, forthcoming in Continent Aflame, published by Pandera Press. As for Covid-19, the best we can say is that it has encouraged a great many people to start gardening! The rub, of course, is that gardening has often been touted as a form of control over nature, and it is largely the attempt to control nature or make it subservient to our human desires that has got us into this pickle. Once again Rachel Carson is apposite: “the control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

My own attitude is that although gardeners may at times have been guilty of the futile attempt to control nature, much present-day gardening philosophy refutes the notion of a garden as an enclosed area of civilization set against an encroaching wilderness. The idea that we need to save ourselves from wilderness by creating gardens in which we are supposedly safe shows how divorced we have become from the life systems on which we depend. In contrast, the languages of most Indigenous peoples do not have a word for wilderness. To them the wild world is simply home. Increasingly also, gardeners are exploring notions of plant communities, of groups of plants that thrive together rather than placing plants solely on the basis of the aesthetics of colour, size, foliage shape, flowering time and so on. We now know without doubt that trees form communities and support each other’s flourishing, and in the same way some plants simply enjoy the company and companionship of particular plants more than others. So one possible way of accommodating plant preferences as well as redressing our alienation from the uncultivated world is to adhere to an ethically responsive, humble gardening that is self-reflective and respectful of the intentionality, agency and power of the vegetal world.

I understand respect for vegetal life to mean that it is essential to take cognizance of the goals of all plants from the smallest potted cactus to the largest tree. The goals of plants and those of gardeners however do not need to clash. In vegetable gardens, for example, it has become commonplace to use companion planting so different vegetables, herbs or flowers can assist each other in some way. This includes deterring pests, improving growth, enhancing flavor, attracting beneficial insects and fixing nitrogen in the soil.

So, for example, planting chives under apples trees helps to prevent apple scab and sage protects cabbages from cabbage white moth. French Marigolds produce root secretions that kill nematodes in the soil. Borage increases the yield from strawberries while Nasturtiums attract beneficial insects and Zinnias among Brassicas attract ladybirds. However, the best thing about companion planting is that it increases biodiversity. We end up planting a range and mix of plants that provides abundant food for bees, insects, birds, lizards, as well as ourselves.

Flower gardens and herbaceous beds call for a somewhat different approach. To respect the life goals of ornamental plants requires, I believe, the ability to appreciate things as they are rather than setting about to try and perfect them. The Japanese aesthetics of imperfection or wabi-sabi is instructive here, as it typifies the creative relationship between culture and nature. Wabi-sabi is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism and espouses finding beauty in imperfection, profundity in earthiness, and especially revering authenticity. An early Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenko (c1283 – c1350) is credited with writing what is regarded as the manifesto of the aesthetics of imperfection:

Are we to look at cherry blossom only in full bloom, the moon only when it is cloudless? To long for the moon while looking at the rain, to lower the blinds and be unaware of the passing of spring – these are even more deeply moving. Branches about to blossom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration.

My own garden confronts me with particular issues in this regard. Much of the basic design layout was in place when I acquired it and although I have made significant changes I have retained long lengths of box hedging and other smaller box topiary balls and cones. They are well-established and their attractiveness makes it difficult to see them as either an aesthetic affront or a contortion of natural processes. Fortunately they are not stand-out examples of contortion but the question remains, are these plants harmed by regular trimming into shapes demanded by the human eye? Is this practice disrespectful?

Topiary is, all things considered, a strange practice and has a somewhat checkered history as it originated in Roman villas where slaves created and maintained all manner of fanciful topiary animals, peacocks and even sailing vessels. During the Italian Renaissance an appreciation for things Roman reemerged, including the creation of topiary gardens. The style also became popular in seventeenth century England where once again low paid gardeners worked in grand estates shaping box, yew and holly according to the whims of the owners.

However, it is not the exploitation of workers alone that is the problem in such gardens but the imposition of ornamentation on a plant that overrides its own goal-directed behavior towards thriving. To manipulate nature for the sole purpose of entertaining humans is an aesthetic imposition or indignity.

The topiary creations in Disney Land are a typical example. They point to a worldview that is human-centered.

Gardens should create harmony between nature and humans and although a topiary garden can be seen as a symbol of human control, as emblematic of the errors that have brought us to our present sorry state of environmental degradation, this need not be the full story.

In the areas of burnt bushland close to my garden I can see first-hand the resilience and urge towards flourishing among plants that return despite being burnt, cut, or toppled. They branch out in all directions proclaiming their vigor and persistence in the face of adversity. Likewise, a topiaried hedge in a garden may also flourish as its various systems that work to provide its needs do not necessarily conflict with the gardener’s work of shaping and pruning. A topiarist may want a sphere formed from a box plant but she wants one that is alive and thriving. As Isis Brook writes, “aesthetically good topiary enables the viewer to see and appreciate the tree and its own qualities, in contrast to bad topiary which negates or hides them.”

As in many gardens, the box hedges I have inherited juxtapose the structure of the garden with the informal mixed herbaceous areas. These clipped dividers bring attention to the plant communities that have been chosen using ecological principles.

Recently I read William Bryant Logan’s book Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees, in which he discusses the age-old practices of coppicing and pollarding, two practices of which I was largely ignorant. Logan, an arborist and enthusiastic pruner and shaper of trees, writes that coppice and pollard are words we should come to know again as “by means of them, people built their world out of wood for ten thousand years. The persistence, power, intelligence, patience and generosity of trees guided them. Home, culture, poetry, and the spirit were shaped by the cutting of trees. Long before the word ‘sustainable’ had ever been coined, human beings learned a way of living with their woodlands that benefited and sustained them both.” Pruning trees didn’t destroy them but created the healthiest, most sustainable and diverse woodlands we have ever known.

From a gardener’s point of view, this attitude of reciprocity with the living world could be summed up by saying that to appreciate fine topiary does not indicate an inability to appreciate a flourishing ecosystem. Trimming and pruning does not in itself exploit plants or people but when power and wealth intrude to control and dominate both workers and plants the world starts to go awry. I shall leave the final word to Logan who asks, “What if new life does not come only from the centers of power, wealth, resource gathering and exchange? What if it comes too from the margins, the extremities, the growing tips, the sproutlands? Maybe new ways will come to us from places distant in time or space or both, where a living connection to the world renews.”

Clever Plants

On the evening when the Federal Elections results showed a clear winner for the Coalition I have to admit I went to bed in tears. I got up the next morning in a rage and joined Extinction Rebellion, vowing to get arrested in necessary. How else to cope with three more years of pignoramuses in power; how else to deal with this disaster for the environment, for refugees, for the poor, for our sanity?

In search of solace I buried my head in books and recalled a review I was asked to write for Matthew Hall’s book Plants as Persons way back in 2011. It was one of the first publications on plant intelligence and I remember writing at the end of the review, “This is a book I wish I had written.” Since then, not only has the idea of plants as intelligent, ‘thinking’ beings become almost commonplace but the notion that we humans would benefit from becoming more ‘plantlike’ in our thinking has gathered force. Could I discover some modicum of hope hiding in the foliage in the garden?


What might it mean to think like a plant? Can we possibly know what and how a plant thinks? It seems easier to imagine how a cat or elephant or even a spider thinks, even though we may be accused of anthropomorphism. But a plant? What, I wonder might my Daphne be thinking today as it struggles to open buds in the bitter wind and squally rain. Is it quietly cursing the weather as much as I am?


On warm sunny days it’s so much easier to imagine a plant’s state of mind as it lifts its leaves or flowers aloft and seems to stretch out to welcome the bees.


There are few activities more pleasurable than sitting watching a peaceful plant embedded in the soil, quietly drinking up water and opening itself to the elements. Even though it is not mobile it is dynamic, connected and always changing and adapting in relation to the world in which it grows. Not a bad way to be, I think. Perhaps our politicians could be persuaded to contemplate plants.

Fat chance!

Still, it’s worth exploring how our world might look if we were able to think the way a plant develops. Have ideas that could grow, transform themselves and even die away. First, we would have to ask the plants: What do you have to teach me? I imagine putting this question to my favorite Grevillea and hearing it reply, that the essential qualities of life are unfolding, growing, transforming, creating; all of which are enlivening.


This is not the sort of growth our government talks about. The capitalist, free-market kind of growth is unlimited and supposedly the key to a ‘healthy’ economy. Nowhere in the garden or in the bush does unlimited growth appear and if it did it certainly wouldn’t be healthy. Rather, there is limited growth embedded in a context, regulated by death and decay. This is a healthy life process. It is these animate processes that should be our teachers. We need these qualities of the living world to become part of a thinking process informed by the characteristics exhibited by life itself. Unfortunately, our government sees nature as a resource to be used, supposedly for human benefit. Carolyn Merchant in The Death of Nature summarizes this process:

“The removal of animistic, organic assumptions about the cosmos constituted the death of nature – the most far-reaching effect of the Scientific Revolution. Because nature was now viewed as a system of dead, inert particles moved by external, rather than inherent forces, the mechanical framework itself could legitimate the manipulation of nature. Moreover, as a conceptual framework, the mechanical world order has associated with it a framework of values based on power, fully compatible with the directions taken by commercial capitalism” (1983, p.193).

So here we are apparently living within a ‘natural’ world that has no ‘inside’ as it were, no volition, no intelligence, no selfhood. No wonder we have ended up in a culture of separation and isolation. Yet, there is a wealth of evidence that plants do not exist in isolation. The plant’s life unfolds as it grows out into, and connects, with the world in such as way that the world supports its development.

How can we humans develop a more living relation to the world? Goethe suggests that, “if we want to behold nature in a living way, we must follow her example and become as mobile and malleable as nature herself” (2002, p. 56).

First, for all those skeptics who pooh-pooh the idea of plant sentience, there is ample evidence of sensation, signaling, intelligence and even brains in plants. As far back as 1824 Henri Dutrochet proposed the idea that the growth responses of plants to light was a behavioral responseand not simply a mechanical movement. Further experimentation proved this and laid the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s investigation into the tropic movement of plants. In his Power of Movement in Plants (1880) Darwin describes plant movement and the capacity of plants to sense and choose. He attributed brain-like characteristics to the plant’s root-tip, writing, “ It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tip of the radicle … acts like the brain of one of the lower animals (1880, p. 573). Matthew Hall describes how “Darwin recognized the possibility that plants could receive impressions of the environment. Although he was not aware how, it was clear that plants were able to communicate with the environment, and the sensory parts had the means to communicate this information on the state of the environment to other parts of the plant” (2011, p.140).

We now know a great deal more about how plants function. Touch is the most well-known sense in plants and with their extreme sensitivity to touch plants are able “to explore, with an animal-like curiosity, their environment in a continual search for water and solutes” (2006, p. vi). Their phototropic response to light also shows they are able to perceive light and work out whether they are likely to be shaded by other plants in the future. This information enables them to make decisions about future branching and flowering behavior.

In 2002 Anthony Trewavas proposed that plants possessed intelligence, defined as the possession of “Adaptively variable behavior within the lifetime of the individual.” Trewavas describes how the growth and development of plant organs is “adaptively variable”: it changes according to environment conditions in order to maximize fitness. This ability to alter the phenotype is, by definition, intelligent. Perception, awareness and active assessment are elements in the behavioral repertoire of plants, directed at increasing their well-being by acquiring resources and maximizing reproduction. By adjusting to environmental changes, plants show they are capable of basic decision making, problem solving and reasoning.

Studies in what is now known as plant neurobiology suggest, “that plants may actually have thousands of brain-like entities that are involved in the emergence of intelligent behavior. These entities are a type of tissue known as meristems. Current theories suggest that the meristematic tissue, located at the tips of roots and shoots, combined with the vascular strands capable of complex molecular and electrical signaling, may well comprise the plant equivalent of the nervous/neuronal system” (Hall, 2011, p.147).

There is much, much more to this research that I could summarize but I’m more interested in thinking about the possibilities that open up for us if we can only find the humility to learn from the plant world that for so long we have denigrated as passive, immobile and lacking in mental capacity. In Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of vegetal Life, Michael Marder compiles a list of attributes that he refers to as offshoots of plant thinking, some of which I’ll attempt to summarize. They all have implications for gardening that I will explore in a later post.

Ethically, we can no longer treat vegetal life as a mere object as it is also an agent, one deserving of respect.  Marder writes: “vegetal life enlivens plants, as well as, in different ways, animals and human beings; the common life at its barest, is in equal measure an end-in-itself and a source of vitality for-us. An offense against vegetal life harms both the plants we destroy and something of the vegetal being in us” (p.182). From this perspective the accelerated rate of land clearing that is occurring in Australia under our present government, something that is supposed to benefit us, is in fact diminishing us and will ultimately hasten our self-inflicted destruction.


We now know that trees live in connected communities, a network of relations. Peter Wohlleben describes in The Hidden Life of Trees, how trees nurture and talk to each other. Tree parents live together with their offspring, communicate with them, support them as they grow, and share nutrients with those that are sick and struggling. No apparent class divisions, no heroes, no victims. Instead, a conversation which, although we seem hell-bent on denying it, we are part of.


And of course, there are many more species of plants, all of which are an inherent part vegetal life and when it comes to the commodification of crops under the capitalist agro-scientific complex, once again we see plants exploited, their life-span and growth confined within the temporality of capital. Marder argues that an ethics of eating requires “a complete and concerted decommodification of vegetal life, a refusal to regulate the human relation to plants on the basis of commodity-economic logic.” In other words, we need to eat locally grown, organic plants whose lives have been respected. We need to refuse the use of genetically modified seeds that do not yield renewable crops and view all pesticides as the poisons that they are.


My own concerns, not raised specifically by Marder, are to do with how to respect vegetal life in the flower garden. What might this mean for the traditional herbaceous border, for mixed shrubberies and bedding plants, clipped hedges and topiary, not to mention the multi-national nursery business. I shall attempt some plant-like thinking on this conundrum for my next post.