I learned so many things from Eleanor Perenyi. Her book, Green Thoughts, a Writer in the Garden is a beautifully written classic in alphabetic order. She starts with “Annuals” and ends with “A Woman’s Place.”
In her essay titled “Naturalizing” she talks about plants that hitched a ride with the immigrants, some by chance, some by choice. Crabgrass was not always in America; it came with immigrants from Central Europe.
“The form most familiar to us is native to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, where the peasants knew it for a rapidly growing crop easily raised in many types of soil. They abandoned it eventually because corn and wheat were the staples of the new world they found, and fetched much higher prices. The millet seed was tossed away and in due time escaped to every corner of the country.”
Now that is good to know. Come the disaster, dig up the crab grass and pass the salt. What would that peasant from Poland think if he knew his pocketful of millet seed spawned a million dollar industry of pre-emergent herbicide? He would never believe it.
There is so much more botanical knowledge to be found in Perenyi’s book. She writes an essay on “Dahlias” which came from Mexico. Then she digresses into facts I had not known about European exploration in the Americas. In grade school we are left thinking that conquistadors were in search of gold. The Spanish were smarter than that. They knew vegetable riches might be far more valuable than minerals. In 1566 Spain banned all foreign plant-hunters and publication of the natural resources of Spanish America. Botanists were routinely part of their expeditions. Columbus regretted he hadn’t brought one, so he wrote himself of all the botanical wonders he found.
“There has never been a more knowledgeable group of botanists and horticulturists than the Spanish fathers in the New World. It is largely thanks to them that Spain’s American colonies were a flourishing garden at a time when England’s were mere specks on the map, constantly threatened with starvation…Not only did they discover the potato, the pineapple, tobacco, tomatoes, maize, etc., they paid their debt to Amerindian agriculture by introducing wheat, peaches, grapes, olives, figs, lettuce, oranges, pears, barley, onions, and countless other crops to the New World that, in Anglo-Saxon myth, they ravished.”
The history of our vegetation is lost to us if not for writers like Perenyi. Take the annuals we see every spring in the garden centers of places like Home Depot and Walmart.
“These are zinnias, marigolds, petunias, red salvia, ageratum, coleus, etc., in character mostly bushy, scentless and brilliantly colored. They owe their success to improved greenhouse construction about the middle of the nineteenth century, and new techniques of mass production that made it possible to market them on a huge scale. Victorian taste did the rest and they quickly became the basis for the only really hideous gardening style on record. “
She’s says it so well. Eleanor Perenyi makes me long for spring and lust for peonies, lilies and dahlias. Also, I might try some of the seeds I remember from my youth like pincushion flower and bachelor buttons.