Ever notice how, when you read about a plant in an encyclopedia, there’s a blurb at the bottom about how it was first discovered or described? Sometimes it’s a few sentences, but often no more than a name? Ever wonder what happened to those original plants? I never did… Until I found out they’re still around. This month’s Garden Confidential is a plant geek’s summer trip to the natural history museum.
In this episode, I’ll talk with my first guest, Julie McIntosh Shapiro of the Harvard University Herbaria, about what these “original plants” still tell us about themselves, the world, and the human race, today and yesterday.
“All told, in the building, we hold about 5 million dried plant specimens,” says Shapiro. “And every expedition, we get specimens in every day, from all over the world.” The Harvard Herbaria are among the largest herbaria groups, but hundreds exist in cities and at colleges and universities around the world. These facilities hold massive collections of distinctive preserved plants, like plant museums (except not open to the public). “I call it a plant morgue because it’s very quiet and the plants are on sheets of paper,” Shapiro says.
Meanwhile, Fine Gardening Contributing Editor Billy Goodnick posits a cable TV-inspired hypothesis about what plants can tell us about an ancient West Coast people called Wisterians. “Professor Goodnick” has been on an expedition of his own, into the jungles of television. “We have cable. That’s why I’m such an intellectual force to be reckoned with,” he says. He theorizes that “the math-phobic Wisterians planted wisteria vines along their migratory route to mark their path. How else do you explain the sprawling purple wisteria vines bursting forth along Highway 101 through my fair state?”
“Natural History” is the month on Garden Confidential. We hope you’ll tune in for more.