Garden Books

Plants With Unusual Histories

Human civilization’s development is inseparable from the practice of gardening. The first meager farms were on forest edges, along riverbanks or in the damp foothills of monsoon regions. By 10,000 BC gardeners had advanced to building crude fences to protect cultivated plants. Vineyards and urban gardens containing grains, fruits and vegetables existed between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers by 3000 BC. Since many of these plants still appear in modern diets, the history of their early use as medicines and as aphrodisiacs is fascinating.

Two current books, Plants With Benefits and Plant World of the Bible, provide historical information on these plants in much different, but in equally interesting ways.

Local author Helen Yoest’s Plants With Benefits (St. Lynn’s Press, 2014) is a colorful, witty description of the aphrodisiacs growing in your garden and available in modern grocery shops. Yoest explains that in pre-Viagra times, a plant’s shape and scent were the keys to determining its supposed usage. Bananas, asparagus, cucumber, carrots, ginseng roots and celery are some common foods whose obvious phallic shapes determined their aphrodisiac reputations. The smells of basil, cardamom, cloves, lavender, nutmeg and vanilla are a few of the spices that drove our ancestors wild. In addition to the plants’ racy histories, Yoest relates in modern scientific terms the reasons why these plants might have worked as a sexual or fertility stimulant. If you are eager to produce your own sources of pleasure, growing tips are included with each plant. Scattered recipes and colorful photographs add to the delight of reading this book.

Plant World of the Bible (AuthorHouse, 2013) by Hans Arne Jensen, a Swedish botanist, offers a rather scholarly approach to the approximately 100 plants mentioned in the Old and New Testaments. Listed alphabetically by common name, the scriptures in which the plant ‘s name appears are followed by a history of its use. Each plant’s background includes the oldest archaeological time period and location of where its seeds or dried remains were found. Although the majority of the illustrations are black and white prints, the unusual colored pictures are reprinted from a 1500 year-old manuscript. Most of the cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruit, flowers and spices are plants familiar ones; others that grow in the Biblical surroundings of the Fertile Crescent and Mediterranean may be new to readers. A section that particularly interested me was a discussion of the plants that possibly provided manna to the Israelites fleeing Egypt.

In addition to being interesting to read, these books can help make a meal with friends more fun. Discuss the curious histories of plants from arugula to watermelons to perk up a dry dinner conversation. As your companions eat a sexy salad or a stimulating dessert, amuse and impress them with your new quirky botanical knowledge.

Christine Thomson is a Raleigh gardener obsessed with plants. She is a volunteer at the Raulston Arboretum and fills her spare time reading books, especially volumes about vegetation.

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