To be an ethnobotanist is to study the scientific relationships that exist between peoples and plants. How do we interact as a society with the plants that we observe growing around us? If you live in a city, you may have noticed gardens turning into suburban elevated islands in places where you wouldn’t have believed possible 10 years ago. However, if you live in the countryside it may be difficult to identify how new growing techniques have affected the biological makeup of those rows of corn in a field down the road.
As the demographics of our contemporary landscapes change, the relationships that we as human beings have with plants also inevitably change. We begin to design buildings that integrate plant growth and our food begins to take on a new genetically modified composition.
Regardless of spatial limitations, plants can grow. With a limited budget, plants can grow. Even with a black thumb, plants can grow. That’s because plants grow by themselves. They do it all the time, in highly, variably exposed weather systems. When they develop a new trait through adaptation that is aware enough of potential challenges, they thrive. Some adaptations are inherently conducive to survival.
Take the deep root of the Russian dandelion. Structurally, the plant withstands attempted destruction at the hands of angrily playful children and dogs. It has a greater amount of space from which to draw water. It has managed to offer us nutritious leaves that contain ounce for ounce more vitamin A than carrots and more potassium than bananas. The sap of the root has a combination of chemicals that can be mechanically converted into a hypoallergenic rubber. A generic yellow flower stands opposite the root, the humbled bloom of a species of servitude.
If you’re walking down a sidewalk in the city, or along a coach road in the country, look for those weedy yellow blooms that sprout in the driest, toughest corners of the frame. That’s a dandelion, or dent de lion, a French take on the similarities of the shape of the plant’s leaves to the teeth of a lion. Kneel down and pull out a sprig of the plant, transplant it into a small container and water daily in full sun for a few days until new growth shows. Collect the seeds after flowering. Reinvent our relationship to the tire.
To improve the rate of growth of your new crop of rubber plants growing on your rooftop, use a compost tea made from an anaerobic oxygenate mixture of a microorganism rich soil that creates the conditions for exponential plant health. In a quickly developed rhizosphere, plants will have quicker access to nutrients and minerals in the soil, and will thank you for it with a growth rate of up to 4x as fast as an average city soil. This results in greater leaf growth, more sap, faster crop cycles and more rubber.
Pliny the Elder observed the plants growing around him in Ancient Rome, giving them names that reflected their habit and function to humans. Carl Linnaues developed a method of naming plants based on their similarities to each other’s comparative habit and shape. Charles Darwin began to study the relationships between the various groups of species in a genus, and identified their adaptations. The people who made up the cultures of these societies were – and always have been – the examples of those relationships that are necessary for mutual growth between human and plant.
The cultural landscape is changing as quickly as the function of that which is growing within it.
Take the Russian dandelion.
Plant it in compost tea rich soil.
Grow the lion’s tooth.
Circumnavigate the American wheel.
Samuel MG Robinson grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, during the last days of bottle cap collecting, boom box playing and stick ball swinging. He designs and builds green spaces that act as common grounds between environmental action and community organizing. He enjoys sculpture, bird calls and taking concrete naps.