The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) performs many well-meaning services, and among them is listing on their website the houseplants that are toxic to dogs and cats who may chew on or ingest them. It’s alarming to read just how many houseplants can be dangerous to pets, and of course to small children as well, who similarly are drawn to taste testing unfamiliar plants. Reading the list, one comes to the conclusion that the only truly safe solution lies in ridding the household of plants entirely.
The photographer’s cat, Emmy, sits among houseplants. Photo by Wikimedia user Mattes.
Closer examination of the information available on the ASPCA website and elsewhere reveals that such drastic measures are unnecessary. Houseplants (as their very name implies) have coexisted with adult humans, their pets, and even small children for centuries without calamity. Two factors account for the relatively peaceful, if not entirely harmonious, relationship of flora and fauna under one roof.
One factor is the mostly small amount of toxicity present in almost any plant you care to name, and the other is the common sense tendency of most creatures to cease nibbling on a plant that tastes unpleasant before ingesting a poisonous quantity. Plants manufacture toxins because they are a defense against nibbling animals. A toxin is not deadly in small amounts, while a poison is deadly in any amount. Production of poisons uses up more of a plants’ resources than production of toxins, and therefore plants have generally evolved to ward off nibbling creatures with unpleasant toxins rather than deadly poisons.
This explanation is an oversimplification of the state of affairs, but suffice it to say that if the situation were otherwise, unfortunate humans and animals would be dropping dead to the point of depopulating the planet. They are not. Toxins of some kind are present in most plants, indoors and out, but they exist as a warning to animals not to eat too much of the plant, and thus destroy the plant’s ability to make a living. On the scale of toxic household chemicals, houseplants overall probably weigh in favor of improving the health of people and pets since many of them do valuable service in cleaning the air. Still, no one can fault people for exercising caution when their children or animal friends are at risk, but only for acting heedlessly in reaction to insufficient information.
How hardy are the chrysanthemums sold at nurseries, garden centers, and grocery stores in the fall? What is a Dendranthema mum? Are any of the mums used for a fall display going to survive if planted in the ground afterward? The answers are “somewhat”, “no one really knows”, and “maybe”. Welcome to the wonderful world of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant second in popularity only to the rose, and just as susceptible to hybridization and the fickleness that is often a byproduct of botanical experimentation.
If a gardener is concerned at all about procuring a truly hardy, perennial mum when out shopping, he or she might be better off disregarding most of the confusing nomenclature and instead following the rough rule of thumb that the more daisy-like the chrysanthemum flower, the hardier the plant. All those pom-pom and button flowered cultivars have been created by plant hybridizers who were motivated by producing what they presumed to be the showiest flowers, in profusion and in a wide range of colors. As in anything else in life, there are trade-offs, and in the case of hybridized chrysanthemums, generally known as florists’ mums, the trade-off for an abundance of puffed up flowers in nearly every color was a weakened plant that many buyers treat as a tender annual.
A mass of Korean chrysanthemums in bloom in October 2014 at the Conservatory Garden of New York City’s Central Park. Photo by Flickr user David McSpadden.
Here is a plant that has a short season of bloom, typically lasting only a month, which is not bad for a perennial, but is terrible for an annual. What makes most annuals a good value for gardeners is their tendency to bloom continuously for three or more months. Plant them in a particular spot in the garden and they will fill it with color for a season. Some annuals reseed themselves, making them yet a better value. Perennials typically flower a month or two in the year, but since gardeners don’t have to buy new ones each year, they are a good long term value. Many perennials also increase themselves by various means, such as underground runners in the case of truly hardy chrysanthemums.
The florists’ mums that take over stores in the fall are a marketer’s dream plant. Firstly, they demonstrate very well the axiom that “the flower sells the plant” because they have flowers to spare when the plants are at their relatively brief peak period of bloom. Secondly, their fickle requirements for success when planted out among the other perennials in a garden ensures they are only nominally perennials and are in practice annuals, and that translates to turnover for sellers, a yearly marketing bonanza as buyers get new plants each year. Lastly, the genetic pliability of chrysanthemums rewards the efforts of plant hybridizers to produce new and unusual cultivars year after year, driving novelty in the market and the higher profits accruing to patented plants. Chrysanthemum zawadskii in Osaka, Japan. Photo by KENPEI. These are also known as Korean chrysanthemums. The confusion of names makes plant selection difficult for people, but honey bees have no difficulty choosing to visit the flat, open flowers of these truly perennial chrysanthemums, which they prefer over the often tight quarters of the flowers on florists’ mums.
For gardeners who can’t resist picking up a few florists’ mums in the fall, the good news is that they can plant them out and get more than one brief season of bloom from them if they educate themselves about the plant’s requirements and take great care with them the first winter at least. Many gardeners may decide coddling florists’ mums is not worth the trouble, and for them the most pleasing mum in their gardens will be the truly perennial chrysanthemum, and it goes by many names, most often Dendranthema. There is a confusing history to that genus name, a name which for much of the late twentieth century actually applied to all chrysanthemums. Or most of them. It’s hard to tell. Probably it’s best not to bother about it too much. The truly perennial mums can be hard to find in plant nurseries and shops, and much easier to find in old cottage gardens. They’re the waist high mounds of plants covered in masses of daisy-like flowers that honey bees love visiting. — Izzy
Figs are ripening now all across the southern United States, and by September the figs in the northern half of the country will ripen. If a gardener has 20 to 30 square feet to spare outside, preferably in a sunny spot protected from cold winter winds, then planting a fig tree would be a productive use of that space. For the gardener who doesn’t have enough outdoor space, then planting a dwarf fig tree in a pot and setting it by a sunny window is a great way to get plenty of fruits (technically a fig is not a fruit, but a fleshy stem with multiple ingrown flowers), and without a great deal of fuss over pests, diseases, and special requirements.
A squirrel nibbling a fig in the Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, Bihar state, India. Photo by Flickr user Anandajoti.
A self-pollinating dwarf fig variety does not require a tiny wasp to pollinate it, unlike varieties such as Smyrna figs. Contrary to common belief, most figs commercially available these days, either as fresh or dried fruits in grocery stores, or as plants for sale to home gardeners, are self-pollinating varieties and therefore it is unlikely consumers will eat a tiny, imprisoned wasp in a fig. Even if they did, there’s no harm in it, and anyway the enzymes produced by the ripening fig will have dissolved the wasp by the time the fig is ready for consumption. That delicate crunchiness inside any ripe fig generally comes from the seeds, and rarely from an insect exoskeleton.
In growing figs outdoors, southern gardeners have a big advantage over northern gardeners because they have to do relatively little to protect their trees from winter cold. Wrapping the branches in burlap and perhaps adding a layer of mulch around the roots are all that is required in the South. There will be some branch die back even so in an average winter, but usually nothing like the major losses incurred by fig trees in the North unless gardeners lay the trees down in trenches and pile mulch and wind protection on top of them.
For a 2017 album, Blakey Morton performed Scott Joplin’s 1908 song “Fig Leaf Rag”.
Once a fig tree has established a vigorous root system over the course of five to ten years it can withstand die back of the entire above ground portion and still bounce back in the spring with enough new growth to produce fruit later in the summer. But the difficulty in the North is that without sufficient winter protection the roots themselves may die, and of course that is the end of the tree. Italian immigrants to the northeastern part of the country deemed the extra work worthwhile for the sweet figs they could pluck off their own trees at the end of summer, and they introduced the practice of laying the trees down in winter when they first started arriving in this country in the late nineteenth century. The people of this country, almost all descendants of immigrants themselves, can surely appreciate the sweet taste of the fig along with its rich lore and its association with other immigrants and their generous sharing of knowledge; and since a fig is much more in cultures around the world than a simple fruit, perhaps the people of this country of immigrants can even find enlightenment under the fig tree, wherever it grows.
It’s May and the sweet, citrusy smell of honeysuckle blossoms fills the air. For many people around the country the honeysuckle smells are emanating from invasive Asian and European species that have come to dominate the native honeysuckles in the landscape in the past century and more. The honeysuckle genus, Lonicera, encompasses more than 180 species from around the world, of which about 20 are native to North America. The primary reason any of this matters to American gardeners is how the invasive species, once a welcome addition to the landscape, will overwhelm other plants given even a little leeway.
Besides the bush honeysuckles which dominate the understory in woodlands and arch their branches into the space of neighbors in the garden, there are the twining vines of the Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), which make their way into absolutely everything, whether along the ground or into the canopies of trees, robbing their hosts of sunlight, water, and nutrients. Once the blooms are done, red or purple berries follow, which birds love to eat, making sure the plants spread everywhere the birds go. Honeysuckle bushes and vines can also readily spread by layering, which is to say that parts of them touching soil develop roots, creating a leapfrog effect of new plants. Cut one section down to the ground, and likely as not another new plant has already started a few feet away.
A ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sips nectar from a North American trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). Photo by jeffreyw.
There are a number of other aggressive plants which have less to recommend them than the honeysuckles. English ivy (Hedera helix), for instance, offers no sweet fragrance or much in the way of bird food. Misguided people encourage it to grow on buildings, when what they would be better off planting is Boston ivy (Parthenicissus tricuspidata), a better behaved climber which won’t invade the mortar on brick structures, corroding it and pulling it out. Wild grape (Vitis spp.) has only found cultivated use in contributing genetic material to vineyard varieties. No one plants wild grape itself. It is mostly found in woodlands and has no ornamental value, though of course that is in the eye of the beholder.
Japanese honeysuckle blooming along Franklin Farm Road in the Franklin Farm section of Oak Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Famartin. The blooms turn from white when they first open to yellow as they age.
Japanese honeysuckle and the bush honeysuckles are here to stay – there’s no eradicating such successful invaders who are popular with the native fauna, if not flora – and coping with them therefore becomes a state of mind as much as physical labor. Step outside in May and inhale the intoxicating scent of their flowers and observe butterflies and hummingbirds helping themselves to the nectar, and in summer take your ease in the shade or indoors while the berries form, knowing birds are noting their ripening until fall when they will descend on the plants and devour the berries, spreading new plants far and wide. It’s too hot and bothersome in summer to get after the honeysuckle with implements of destruction, but in winter when it’s cool and memories of their pleasant attributes are far away, get after those suckers and yank ’em out root and branch. Don’t worry – you’ll likely never get rid of them altogether, and come spring there will be a new birth of honeysuckle and with it a wonderfully sweet scent in the May air.
In most of the country, daffodils (genus Narcissus) bloom in March and are among the first signs of spring. Some places might have blooms as early as February, and others not until April. In all places, the leaves pop up from the ground while freezing weather is still frequent, and inexperienced gardeners and curious onlookers worry that the plants have come up too early and will suffer damage from the cold. Not to worry. The daffodils have been through it all before and will be fine. Any damage they do incur from late winter weather usually comes from being bent down to the ground or snapped by the weight of a late snow or ice storm.
Deer, rabbits, and squirrels do not eat daffodil bulbs, foliage, or flowers since they are toxic. The plants spread by jumping from place to place by seed dispersal as well as increasing into clumps formed by daughter bulbs dividing from their parent bulbs, rather like offspring who have matured and set up housekeeping next door. Not all daffodils are noticeably fragrant, and as often happens with flowers it is the older, original varieties that are most fragrant, because plant hybridizers sometimes lose that aspect in pursuit of other traits such as size or color. Trade-offs.
Despite a substantial list of pests, fungi, and viruses that can adversely affect daffodils, in practice they should not gravely concern the gardener since the daffodils seem to cope well on their own. The worst condition affecting daffodils, particularly their bulbs, comes from poor drainage or excessive water, particularly in winter. Hardly anyone likes cold, wet feet, and daffodils are no exception. On account of the wet winter in most of the eastern half of the United States, daffodil displays may be subdued this March.
In the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago, a long winter finally turns to spring, heralded by a field of daffodils.
About the only thing an American gardener can say against daffodils is that they are not native to North America or to any part of the Western Hemisphere. Daffodils originate from southern Europe and northern Africa. That daffodils are not native here is an academic complaint, however, since the genie can hardly be stuffed back in the bottle at this point. Most of the people living now in the Western Hemisphere do not belong here, either, and it’s possible to argue they have done far more damage to the native habitat than anything innocent daffodils could have done. On the contrary, daffodils perform a great service everywhere because their trouble free disposition, loosening of hard soils, and cheerful announcement of spring give a greater portion to the gardener and non-gardener alike than they require in return.
The word “natural” on packaged foods does not mean much anymore since there are no standards to uphold it, unlike the case with “organic” on a label, but one area where consumers have been paying attention and making their preference known over the past 20 years is in the labeling of vanilla extract. A significant enough number of consumers have come to prefer vanilla extracted from real, natural vanilla pods that agribusinesses like Nestlé have switched from synthetic to natural vanilla. Synthetic vanilla is a chemistry laboratory product isolated from compounds in wood pulp or petroleum, and for decades in the latter half of the twentieth century it was the preferred choice of most consumers because it was cheap relative to natural vanilla extract, it’s flavor was at least acceptable, and for the most part consumers were not paying attention and didn’t make a distinction between the synthetically derived product and the natural one.
Food ingredient and nutrition labels provide more information to the consumer now, and more people are becoming label readers. Not all of them may know the provenance of synthetic vanilla extract, but a large segment decided they would prefer the natural stuff, and they voted with their dollars. The result was an increase in demand, something growers, the majority of them in Madagascar, were not prepared for since demand for their product had steadily dwindled for decades and they had cut back production or gotten out of the business altogether. Natural vanilla had always been an expensive spice, typically second only to saffron in price on the world market. Competition from synthetic vanilla producers had depressed prices, however, and combined with the drop in demand many farmers saw little profit in the lean decades.
Vanilla planifolia flowers. Photo by Michael Doss.
Vanilla planifolia vine growing up a tree on a plantation on the island of Réunion,which is east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and is a major producer of natural vanilla. Photo by David Monniaux.
The rather sudden spike in demand for natural vanilla in the past 20 years caused a scramble to reinvest in production, a process which lagged behind demand by as much as five years because of the the time and labor involved in growing and processing marketable vanilla pods. The type of vanilla most popular around the world is Vanilla planifolia, a climbing vine orchid native to Mexico and Central America. Oddly, even though the plant is native to Mexico, and Mexico continues as a big producer of natural vanilla, the place that grows the vanilla most people prefer is Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa. Soil and other environmental factors must play a role in the end result, because while the type of vanilla orchid is the same in both parts of the world, consumers express a definite preference based on variations they can detect in taste. At any rate, Madagascar currently produces up to 80% of the world’s natural vanilla.
Vanilla planifolia needs to growthree or more years before it will flower, and then each flower remains open for only one day, at which time in Madagascar it must be hand pollinated because of the lack of resident animal or insect pollinators. In Mexico, there is a species of bee that tends to the vanilla flowers. After pollination, nearly a year passes before the pods containing the seeds develop, and after that there is washing, sun curing, sorting, and other handling that goes into producing the dried black pods which have the tiny, flavorful seeds that are the ultimate object of all this careful tending. The labor intensiveness of producing natural vanilla, added to the time involved, drives its price up. It would be a mistake, though, to think individual laborers are well-paid for their work on such an expensive agricultural product; as always, it is typically the people in the middle, the traders, who reap the greatest rewards.
Dried, cured vanilla pods in a basket on the island of Réunion. Photo by tirados joselito.
A year ago in March,a cyclone made landfall on Madagascar with the force of a category four hurricane. Dozens of people were killed, and it was feared damage to the vanilla crop would worsen the worldwide shortage which had driven prices up to a record $600 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in 2017. The most recent low point in the price was 2002, when dried vanilla pods sold for $20 per kilogram. That’s the price for the agricultural product, of course, not the price after it has been further processed into the vanilla extract available to consumers at supermarkets. It turned out damage to the vanilla crop in Madagascar was not as bad as commodity brokers originally expected.
The opening of the 1984 David Lynch film Dune, with Virginia Madsen as Princess Irulan.
Still, for individual consumers living in cool climates outside the natural growing range of Vanilla planifolia, hedging against a volatile, expensive world market for natural vanilla, with too many of its bets placed on the crop in one place, Madagascar, hedging against all that by growing this orchid in a pot by a windowsill may be a bit of a stretch, considering the advice of some growers who say the plant needs to grow more than ten feet before it will produce flowers, and even then there’s no guarantee of getting pods that will yield recognizably tasty vanilla seeds. It might be a better bet to buy a lot when the market is low, or in other words, hoard it. Vanilla extract always contains a hefty percentage of alcohol, after all, as people who are apt to sneak a drink now and then have always known, and the alcohol is an excellent, natural preservative.
The palm fronds used for the procession of Jesus into Jerusalem on the original Palm Sunday would most likely have come from the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). There were and are other types of palm trees in the Near East, but the date palm had the most day to day significance for the people of the area because it provided a staple food in their diet, and largely because of that the date palm also acquired symbolic significance for them. Date palm fronds were associated with peace and victory, and when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey – the mount of a king on a mission of peace – the symbolism of the moment for was complete.
A date palm in Jerusalem, with the al-Aqsa Mosque in the background. Photo by Meg Stewart.
A parlor palm at the Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Bachelot Pierre J-P.
Some Christians have struggled with whether harvesting fronds from wild plants in the rainforest and shipping them halfway around the world for a once a year celebration makes sense environmentally and economically. There is irony, too, in that the common name – parlor palm – for the type of plant growing in the understory of the Guatemalan rainforest tips off its other use, which is as a quite popular houseplant. People in colder climates who are determined to use palm fronds to commemorate Palm Sunday rather than any locally grown foliage could very easily grow the plant they are used to in their own parlors. Since parlor palms usually grow to four to six feet, and eight to ten feet at most, they would be much easier to accommodate in the average living room than a date palm at 75 feet, nice as it would be to have the dates at other times of year.
Growing ginger (Zingiber officinale) is not all that difficult in most parts of the United States as long as the grower understands that except in the warmest zones of the country, ginger is unlikely to produce mature rhizomes. Ginger has a nearly year long growing season, and in three fourths of the country that means it will only produce baby ginger rhizomes even with assistance from the grower to keep the plant warm at the beginning and the end of the growing season. Baby ginger is catching on in culinary circles, however, where it can be used to lighter effect than the full grown type.
Ginger plants (Zingiber officinale). Photo by Ramjchandran.
The portion of a ginger plant generally used in cooking and medicine is the rhizome, which is technically an underground stem, but to most people it appears to be a tuber or root, and for practical purposes it makes little difference to them what that part of the plant is called. Like a potato, the ginger rhizome has eyes which are starting points for new growth and indicate to gardeners where to divide the rhizome when propagating the plant. Cut up the rhizome with one eye to each section and then plant the sections. In cases where a gardener is concerned with growing only enough ginger for home consumption, the simplest method of planting is one section of rhizome each to wide, shallow pots, which the gardener can move easily from indoors to outdoors and then back again over the course of the 8 or 9 month growing season.
Why go to even that much trouble for a non-native, tropical plant? There is after all a distant relative that is native to North America, known as wild ginger (Asarum canadense), which Native Americans had used in the past as a spice and a medicine, much like its Asian relative. The difference is that scientists have determined American wild ginger can be poisonous, while Asian ginger is safe to consume. In addition to its salutary effect in food and drink recipes, many people believe Asian ginger has anti-inflammatory, anti-arthritic, and anti-nausea properties. Scientists have not necessarily agreed with all those assessments, though they recognize that in the amounts typically consumed by most people there is no harm to eating ginger spiced foods or imbibing ginger infused drinks.
Wild ginger plants (Asarum canadense). Photo by Michael Wolf.
A ginger (Zingiber officinale) rhizome on a Delft blue European porcelain plate. Photo by Lucyin.
Of all the South Asian and East Indies spices that are well known to Europeans from earliest trading days, only ginger rewards the gardener who attempts growing it outside its native region or outside tropical climate zones without resort to expensive greenhouses. Start it indoors in late winter on a sunny windowsill and keep it there until mid-spring, when it should be safe to move it outdoors, but always with an eye toward nighttime temperature dips. In the fall, bring the potted plants back indoors and start harvesting baby ginger to last the winter while enjoying the beauty of an unusual houseplant with a tropical feel and a warm, spicy scent.
Since the loss of most of the Gros Michel, or Big Mike, banana plantations due to a destructive root rot by the middle of the twentieth century, the Cavendish has taken over as the most productive banana variety worldwide. By all accounts the Gros Michel was a more flavorful variety than the Cavendish, but growers who wanted to continue producing on a vast scale for the international market had no choice but to switch after fungus reduced the productivity of Gros Michel to an uneconomical level. Now the Cavendish faces similar destruction from another strain of the same fungus, and agronomists are scrambling to find a replacement for the Cavendish.
The Cavendish banana, like the Gros Michel, is a clone. One plant of Cavendish is exactly like the next plant of Cavendish. Such a monoculture is extremely susceptible to pest and disease problems because it cannot adapt through genetic accidents brought about by sexual reproduction. It’s a stationary target. Growers could turn to the extraordinary variety of other, sexually reproduced bananas, and they do just that locally in the tropical areas of the world where bananas grow. The problem for growers who sell internationally has always been finding disease and pest resistant varieties that would hold up under less than ideal shipping conditions and still be economically viable on a large scale.
The first in a series of animated commercials produced by the United Fruit Company in the 1940s for display in movie theaters. The singer was Monica Lewis. Bananas naturally contain numerous large, hard seeds, making eating them a challenge. It is easier to comprehend the relationship of bananas to berries when confronted with all those seeds. Besides being unavoidable to banana eaters, the seeds were also viable. Modern commercial varieties like the Cavendish have been bred to have seeds that are barely noticeable, turning those varieties into convenience foods. Peel, eat, and don’t worry about the seeds. In the process of hybridizing banana varieties for less inconvenient seeds, agronomists also rendered the seeds unviable. The Cavendish, like the Gros Michel before it, reproduces only exact replicas of itself from parts of an existing plant, without benefit of differing input from any close relatives.
Reliably predictable results are great news for economic giants in any sphere, and agriculture is no exception. The American agribusinesses United Fruit and Standard Fruit, which eventually morphed into Chiquita and Dole, respectively, built themselves into indomitable international forces largely on the predictability of first the Gros Michel and then the Cavendish. They became enormously powerful, vertically integrated corporations that controlled the internal politics of many Latin American countries – the so-called banana republics – and pulled the strings of the United States’ foreign policy. All so that people in wealthy, temperate zone countries could enjoy a fruit that grew only in the tropics.
It is possible to buy bananas in the U.S. that have been grown in a more ethically sound and environmentally friendly manner than those produced by the huge international companies, but expect to pay a premium. Photo by Axxis10.
Unlike the spice trade, which also dealt in commodities that mostly grew in the tropics, bananas were and are a superfluous item in the diets of people outside the tropics. Spices were valued in the days before refrigeration on account of their utility in preserving other foods or making them more palatable. Bananas are high in potassium, an essential mineral, but so are potatoes and beans, both of which grow well in temperate zones, as well as being available for winter eating due to their good storage qualities. Bananas sold in temperate zone countries are luxury items available at affordable prices due to the ability of powerful international corporations to exploit cheap labor in tropical countries for growing a dependable crop capable of surviving shipment halfway around the world and arriving in salable condition.
The economic model developed by United Fruit and Standard Fruit in the early twentieth century has been copied and adapted ever since by growers and shippers of other produce, from grapes to mangoes, available now in temperate zone countries even in the middle of winter. As nice as it would be for large international banana producers to abandon monoculture with its reliance on pesticides and fungicides, only to have to abandon that one variety when its production is no longer economically sustainable, they may have no other choice if they want to continue with business as usual. It’s in the nature of their economic model. Locally sustainable small scale agricultural production would of course apply to bananas consumed in the tropics, as it always has, but not in colder countries, where they do not grow.
For all the convenience in the past century and more of being able to pick up a bunch of bananas at the grocer’s in countries where the average person would be more likely to see sub-tropical citrus fruit orchards than tropical banana plantations, not everyone enjoys bananas, or at least not the texture of actual bananas. They may like banana flavor, but they don’t care for the texture, which can be mushy and sticky, activating their gag reflex. For those people, the absence of bananas from the grocer’s would not be a painful loss. Certainly they would still like to have overripe bananas to use in banana bread and other delicious recipes. But unlike the supposedly fresh bananas for eating out of hand, bananas for cooking don’t have to look perfect. In that case, imperfect is just fine.
The last scene of Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot, with Joe E. Brown and Jack Lemmon.
Sugar can be derived from numerous plants, including beets, corn, and the fruit of trees, but it has come into its own since the Middle Ages in Europe as the refined product of the sugarcane plant, a perennial grass. The plant originated in New Guinea, and from there traders introduced to Asia, where it eventually found its way to southern Europe by way of Arab merchants. As noted from its origin, the plant grows in tropical or sub tropical climates. Europeans quickly developed a taste for refined sugar, but since the plant would not grow well in Europe or northern Africa, they needed to find either another source or another place to grow, or forever be at the mercy of Arab merchants, who kept the price high.
When European explorers stumbled upon the New World in their search for a trade route to the Far East that bypassed Arab middlemen, they were interested in exploiting sugar resources as much as spices. The tropical and sub tropical bands of the New World – the Caribbean, much of eastern South America, Central America, and the far southeastern portion of North America – turned out to be well suited for raising sugarcane. The problem was finding a suitably cheap labor source for the backbreaking and dangerous labor involved in sugarcane cultivation as well as refinement. The Europeans, after exhausting the Native Americans as a labor source, turned to Africa as a source of slave labor.
There were other plantation crops that Europeans raised in the New World exploiting slave labor, such as tobacco (a plant native to the western hemisphere) and cotton, but sugar was the big money maker for them, the linchpin of Atlantic trade from the 1500s well into the 1800s. Sugar grown on plantations in the New World traveled, some in the form of rum, to northeastern ports of North America and then on to Europe, where it was traded for manufactured goods; some of the manufactured goods then were traded in Africa for slaves, who were loaded onto ships destined for plantations in the New World, their voyage across the Atlantic being known as the Middle Passage of this triangle of trade. Some didn’t survive the voyage, and of the ones who did, many suffered abominably under harsh conditions in the sugar growing regions and elsewhere.
Pancakes with syrup, or syrup with pancakes? Photo by jeffreyw.
Hundreds of years later, sugar is still exacting a toll from poor black people, as well as poor and working class people generally. The European quest for cheap sugar succeeded all too well. Now it’s found in far too many supermarket foods and beverages, where in the case of processed foods it masks the loss of wholesome flavors. Sugary beverages like soda and many fruit drinks are especially egregious sources of the endocrine disrupting carbohydrates present in refined sugar that can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes. These processed foods are easy to prepare and are relatively cheap and, because of the sugar in them, to some people they taste good enough.
“Big Rock Candy Mountain”, first recorded by Harry McClintock in 1928, is about a hobo’s idea of paradise. McClintock claimed to have written the song in 1895, based on tales from his youth hoboing through the United States. McClintock’s 1928 recording was used by Ethan and Joel Coen at the beginning of their 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
People could cut back their consumption of processed foods, and certainly they could drop sugary sodas and fruit drinks out of their diet and not lose any essential nutrients. People can use will power and self control, even though there is evidence that sugar’s effects on their health are more insidious than industry mouthpieces would have everyone believe. People can do all those things. But they don’t. Why not?
What if crack cocaine were as cheap as sugar? How about cigarettes? Opioids? What levels of consumption would we encounter then among the general population, and among the poor and working classes specifically? All those substances stimulate pleasure centers in the human brain, just like a good hit of sugar does in a smaller way, and all are ultimately destructive in high enough doses. Is sugar as destructive as those other addictive substances? No, not in the short term, and it would be ridiculous to equate a cookie with a hit of cocaine. In the long run, however, over the course of ten, twenty, or thirty years, sugar consumption at modern American levels of a hundred pounds or more per person per year is proving destructive enough. Time to turn some of that exhausted soil in the tropics over from growing monocultures of sugarcane for export to growing fruits and vegetables the locals could consume for themselves. We could easily cut back from two or three lumps of sugar to just one.