Moving (with) Plants

As a historian of botany, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading, writing and thinking about the transportation of plants. For early modern and nineteenth-century oceanic voyagers, this could an especially tricky business. Plants often fell victim to vermin, temperature extremes, poor management and salt-water dehydration. Seeds frequently rotted, germinated or dried out. Herbarium specimens could be damaged as well, depending on circumstances aboard ship, or on whether they had been suitably prepared in the first place.[1] And that’s if the ships themselves avoided sinking or falling into the hands of hostile foreign powers, eager to infringe upon lucrative trade monopolies.[2] When the sailors aboard HMS Bounty mutinied in 1789 and threw the ship’s exhorbitant cargo of potted breadfruit trees (uru, or Artocarpus altilis) overboard, moreover, they demonstrated that a plant’s well-being could be interwoven closely with domestic political fortunes as well.[3]

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“The Mutineers turning Lt Bligh and part of the Officers and Crew adrift from His Majesty’s Ship the Bounty,” painted by Robert Dodd, 1790. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Remarkably, my own experiences came to parallel some of these earlier concerns. I was in the final stages of a PhD dissertation on nineteenth-century botany,[4] no less, when our family learned that we would be relocating from Hamilton, Ontario so that my wife could take up a tenure-track position at the University of Delaware. Our plants’ fate was a topic of conversation and concern from the outset. We’d invested a hefty sum at gardening centers and hours upon hours of painstaking care: potting and repotting, watering, treating for aphids and spider mites, turning them so that they grew evenly into the sunlight. They repaid us by making our first home feel like home. They were also good therapy for the dogging frustrations attending the final stages of (my) dissertating and (Jai’s) book manuscripting. They made it easier to stomach the miasmatic brownish-yellowish-greenish tint that colored Hamilton’s many smog days. And they connected me with plants I had raised as a child and young adult – for my parents’ vegetable garden, my eighth grade science fair project, my first job at a plant nursery, the plants I kept in my bedroom and grew in my aquarium as a teenager. I came to realize that plants were, and in fact had always been, more than an academic fascination. The environmental philosopher Michael Marder cautions against attributing intelligence to plants.[5] Yet, as Michael Pollan might have predicted,[6] there was something uncanny in the way our plants had harnessed our regard for them, encouraging us to take elaborate measures to transport and care for them: amidst a hectic moving and holiday timetable, consumed by gripping health concerns, and, more pertinently, across an international border and in the thick of an east coast deep freeze.

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On the road.

The border issue turned out to be considerably less onerous than we had feared. Web research had prepared me for import permits, phytosanitary certificates, and lengthy border inspections. A phone conversation with a friendly USDA official quickly relieved these concerns. The temperature outdoors, though, was a more serious issue. It was a frigid 5 degrees (-15 celsius) when we left Hamilton, and it would be no warmer than 16 degrees (-9 celsius) throughout our drive. The journey required 8 hours under ideal conditions, not counting visa-processing time at the border, stoppages en route, or delays in traversing slushy, icy, accident-ridden highways.

Sensible friends and family members advised us to discard our plants or give them away. And the internet was frustratingly unhelpful as to how we might proceed. Yet if breadfruit seedlings from Tahiti could survive a chilly days-long journey around the Cape of Good Hope in an eighteenth-century ship,[7] surely our own plants could handle half a day or so in less-than-ideal conditions. We started with two large, clear plastic tubs with lids. In the bottom of these we placed six cheap rubber hot water bottles, filled to the brim with (contrary to instructions) boiling water. A layer of cardboard thrust between the plants above and the bottles below helped disperse the heat. It was then a matter of packing the plants themselves: two orchids (Phalaenopsis spp.), several spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum ‘vittatum’), a croton (Codiaeum variegatum), inchplant (Tradescantia zebrina), jade plant (Crassula ovata), and six species of fern: lemon butter (Nephrolepsis cordifolia), crispy wave or bird’s nest (Asplenium nidus), slender brake (Pteris ensiformis), maidenhair (Adiantum raddianum ‘Fragrans’), Japanese holly (Cryptomium fortunei ‘clivicola’), and what is probably a Cystopteris.  The containers were in turn wrapped in three layers of woolen moving blankets and sealed tightly with packing tape. Several others, too large for the tubs, rode with us in the cabin: a jasmine (Jasminium officinale), ming aralia (Polyscias fruticosa), lucky bamboo (Dracaena braunii), snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), and parlor palm (Chamaedorea elegans). For 500 miles, and the better part of twelve hours, Jai and I had to crane our necks to see around the (unpictured) plastic-wrapped leafy edifice that stood between us.

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Our clear plastic tubs filled with plants, and later wrapped inside woolen blankets. 

When we finally unwrapped the plants in our new home twelve exhausting hours later, I expected to see mass carnage: the cabin plants would be fine and the English ivy and spider plants would make it, certainly, but there were sure to be numerous casualties among the remainder. Incredibly, I’d not lost a single plant, only a few leaves that had suffered prolonged contact with the icy inner surface of the lids. The air inside the boxes toward the end of the journey had been cool but sufficiently above freezing to keep the plants from harm. My delight and relief were palpable – doubltess akin to that of many a nineteenth-century naturalist who opened a Wardian case to discover its botanical contents alive and well.[8] What is more, in the coming days many of the plants thrived, sending out fresh green shoots that contrasted markedly with the sluggish earlier growth. They have since integrated almost seamlessly into their new habitat, contributing familiar comforts and eliciting gentle compromises in the name of our collective well-being.

Notes

[1]. Stuart McCook, “‘Squares of Tropic Summer’: The Wardian Case, Victorian Horticulture, and the Logistics of Global Plant Transfers, 1770-1910,” in Global Scientific Practice in an Age of Revolutions, 1750-1850, ed. Patrick Manning and Daniel Rood (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), pp. 199-216, on p. 202; Nigel Rigby, “The Politics and Pragmatics of Seaborne Plant Transportation, 1769-1805,” in Science and Exploration int he Pacfiic: European Voyages to the Southern Oceans in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Bydell, 1998), pp. 81-100.

[2]. Neil Safier, “Fruitless Botany: Joseph de Jussieu’s South American Odyssey,” in Science and Empire in the Atlantic World, ed. James Delbourgo and Nicholas Dew (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 203-24.

[3]. Greg Dening, Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 88.

[4]. Geoff Bil, “Indexing the Indigenous: Plants, Peoples and Empire in the Long Nineteenth Century,” PhD diss. (University of British Columbia, 2018).

[5]. Michael Marder, “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodfication of Vegetal Subjectivity,” The Philosopher’s Plant (15 March 2018), http://philosoplant.lareviewofbooks.org/?p=255 (last accessed 4 April 2018).

[6] Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (New York: Random House, 2001).

[7] Dulcie Powell, “The Voyage of the Plant Nursery, H.M.S. Providence, 1791-1793,” Economic Botany 31:4 (1977): pp. 387-431, on p. 396.

[8]. Jim Endersby, Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 60-3.

 

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