Clones, seed strains, laboratory sex: how does uniformity in the horticultural
market affect you, and why does it matter? Chauncey the Gardener, in Hal
Ashby's classic film "Being There," would have a reassuring answer. For
a more reflective response, read below.
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
1/29/05, with minor changes to the text
"All is well in the garden," Peter Sellers kept assuring bigwigs and public
alike in Hal Ashby's classic film, "Being There." Presidential advisor
and pop soothsayer, Chauncey the Gardener was also a moron.
The film was released
in 1979, and by now there's a need to update. Because these days, the
State of the Garden can no longer be taken as a simple story device or
metaphor in a political fable, as our backyards are now literal grounds
for global issues.
And no, all is not
well in the garden. Its nature has been programmed, and traditional plants
replaced by duplicates and clones. We're fast approaching the day when
everything there is uniform.
is nothing new in a world of mass production and franchises, consequences
are another matter. It's a whole other ball game when conformity starts
to crash the garden gate.
And what a gate. With
84 million gardeners tilling the soil in the United States, annual sales
of the lawn and gardening industry reached $38 billion at last count.
rare exceptions, this green has proven too big a honey pot to leave to
the vagaries of nature. Open- pollinated plants, like man himself, are
genetically unique. But breeders say that pollination left to the birds
and the bees gives results that are too pokey, too unpredictable. Instead,
they want control. And so they promote assembly-line production and distribution
of identical proprietary plants: clones of perennials, trees and shrubs
(a.k.a. cultivars) propagated vegetatively by divisions, cuttings or tissue
culture; patented seed strains (a.k.a. seed cultivars), the uniform offspring
of in-bred annuals altered genetically to achieve desired traits; and
of course F1 hybrids, the most proprietary of all, the uniform offspring
of crossed, uniform parents.
The industry defends
its work. `Improved' is the word on everyone's lips. Native plants that
can take summer watering. Annuals that produce non-stop. Yet can you really
improve on a native that has evolved over eons to survive drought? Is
it progress when hybrids and seed strains require a surplus of water,
fertilizers and pesticides to perform at their top? Many of us are aware
of dwindling water tables and the increasing chemical sterility of our
soil. But consequences like these are just the obvious price of such tinkering.
The hidden danger is the possibility that, in the embrace of the new and
improved and uniform, gardeners are abandoning forever species plants,
like wild petunias, and old-fashioned varieties once found in commerce.
And with that, we're
moving from the personal to the global, where there's a whole lot more
GLOBAL WARMING, ANYONE?
Everyone's heard of endangered plants in drippy jungles and windy steppes,
but a surprising number of domesticated plants are also threatened. Take
our food plants. Whereas at one time 50,000 species of plants were consumed
by humanity, now it's estimated that ninety-five percent of our nutrition
is supplied by only thirty plants, and fifty percent by only three: corn,
rice and wheat. And within this impoverished range, there's a disturbing
reliance by agribusiness on only a few, genetically uniform `elite' varieties.
The use of these on a global scale restricts the use of traditional varieties,
which are increasingly abandoned and lost. As if this weren't bad enough,
these `super' plants have been so narrowly bred that they've lost their
broad genetic base that allowed them to adapt to changes in climate, and
pests and pathogens.
Global warming, anyone?
As for those pests,
The National Academy of Sciences 1972 report on crop epidemics found that
the more genetically uniform a planting is (read monoculture), the greater
the insect damage. And the greater the attempt to stop the pests, whether
by chemicals or by elite breeding (`New! Improved!'), the faster the pests
will mutate in order to ensure their own survival.
Heard of the soybean
rust, for example, that's making the rounds in the United States? It's
not the cause of current agricultural woes, it's just the symptom.
And it's not just
food crops that are on the pests' plate. In recent years the monoculture
of lavender clones in Provence, France, has been badly attacked by a pathogen;
in Columbia, it's been the broca, or coffee borer, that's decimating
plantations; in California, Monterey pines -- the most widely planted
pine species in the world and a favorite monoculture of the Christmas
tree trade -- has been under siege by the pitch canker fungus; and since
its discovery in 2000, daylilies in over half of the United States have
been infected with daylily rust. These are just samples of contemporary,
THE TREND MILL
may think the above doesn't concern the average gardener who's not into
monoculture, after all, but just growing ornamentals and a few odds and
ends in the vegetable plot. But these days, with so little undeveloped
natural land left, everyday backyard gardens around the world may end
up becoming more than personal refuges or spots to grow a bit of fresh
food for the family. Increasingly, they could become repositories of genes
that could actually stave off famine or revigorate species plants. Witness
the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens search for open- pollinated plants of chocolate
cosmos, Cosmos atrosanguineus. The species is believed to be extinct
in its native Mexico, and Kew wanted to replant its original habitat.
The greatest genetic diversity was needed, but since nurseries were using
clonal stock, a wide-ranging call for help went out. Historically, cottage
gardens have been an important resource for "lost" plants. But if gardeners
continue the trend of planting hybrids, strains and clones, will there
be any cottage gardens with unique plants left?
Already way too many
flower and vegetable varieties in Europe have been lost, thanks to the
European Union's requirement that all seed sold by commerce be stable
and uniform. In theory, anyone selling varieties not listed in the legal
catalog can be prosecuted in order to enforce plant patenting laws.
It's enough to make
some gardeners call for arms, or at least take up the cause. But for those
who may not care about saving the planet, gardening with one-of-a-kind
plants offers other saving graces besides cultivating good karma. Such
as a chance to jump off the trend mill and, as a corollary, to fatten
the wallet. With few exceptions, the horticultural trade carries such
a narrow range of the most popular and most profitable items that consumers
soon become jaded by these me-too plants and line up for a whole new round
of purchases -- not only of the latest plants, but also of fertilizers
and pesticides and water from the water company in order to get them settled
Plants raised from
traditional seed, on the other hand, are ridiculously varied and ridiculously
cheap, plus many horticulturists maintain they are stronger and healthier
than the attenuated clones of species, and clones of improved plants.
They certainly demand less in the way of artificial imputs and natural
resources than hybrids, and if happy in their habitat, can even provide
seed year after year, for free.
For those trying to
re-create a little garden of Eden, it's liberating to leave money and
materalism outside the garden gate.
But we need to act
fast, or we're likely to be seeing more of those plant commercials that
are sneaking in behind our backs. Like `KLM,' the strain of nemesia that
appeared on the market awhile back, named after the Dutch airline and
carrying the company colors. Personally, I couldn't see the thing without
thinking of KLM's lawsuit against Northwest Airlines. Are these the sort
of associations we want in the garden?
Aesthetics are another
incentive for reverting to traditional plants. For those who recoil before
humungous snapdragons or white marigolds, a shift to the generally more
modest and graceful species should be an easy call. But breeders know
the color of money. They've noticed the interest in old- fashioned `romantic'
varieties and are now offering their own versions of romance. Yet like
their flashier commercial counterparts, these new plants are genetically
uniform. They've lost their nature at the breeder's lab.
Labs with increasingly
sinister procedures, like the use of deadly viruses and bacteria as propagating
If this is progress,
I'll take tradition and the birds and the bees. Because this is finally
one of the greatest satisfactions derived from growing species and old-fashioned
plants. Untamed plants provide the nectar for hummingbirds, bees and other
insects that keep a garden alive and humming, not to mention the seed
for foraging birds. Hybrids are often sterile, or partially sterile, their
sexual parts atrophied or inaccessibly buried under ever-frillier flower
petals. While hybrids can occur naturally on occasion, gardeners may be
surprised to the degree that native plants -- the selection of choice
for nature buffs -- have been deliberately cloned and hybridized.
the reality: it's not always easy to find "unimproved" plants. Not everyone
has the will to join specialist plant societies, or the time to order
from heirloom and wildflower catalogs and grow plants from seed. You'd
think more nurseries out there would consider a marketing niche devoted
to `free-range' seedlings. Although it would be naive to think traditional
gardening would ever catch on big, anything would be a start. Consumers
would begin to question their suppliers, as well as their relationship
to the garden itself. Like their grandparents, and their grandparents
before them, they'd find that a garden is wonderfully individual and out
of their control. The best a gardener can do is to select and save seed
for the next year's crop. It's an important ritual, nonetheless, one that
Sensibility like this
can't come too soon. Contemporary gardens aren't well. If we don't get
our noses out of the dirt and look up at the big picture, who knows what
Chauncey the Gardener,
of course, would have a reassuring, pithy answer. Thing is, this time
it won't wash. There's a new subtext to the fable.
(c) Copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.
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