Plants that Changed the World, and the way we live

Speaker: Rosina Brandham
28th March
Year: 2013

Rosina with some of her visual aids

Rosina with some of her visual aids


This was a talk with a difference, even the visual aids were different, see above. Rosina took us from the beginnings of oxygen in the atmosphere due to plants developing through hunter/gathers becoming settled into agriculture, where in the Fertile Crescent mankind first developed edible grains, rice, wheat and barley and domesticated animals. After they became settled they developed other ideas, religion, writing on clay tablets and community life leading to cities.

She explored dies for cloth and for painting ourselves with woad to make us more attractive to the settled cities of Northern Europe. Vellum was developed to write on and spices from the Silk Road to preserve food. Pepper was the most important and expensive. Silk and flax were needed for clothing, silk worms fed on the leaves of the white mulberry. Explorers sailed west form Europe in search of pepper and discovered the rest of the world. Tobacco was discovered in the late 1500s first sold as a medicine.

“[Smoking is] a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” James I (1566-1625)

Maize didn’t do well in Europe but was a staple for the settlers in the New World. Tomatoes from Central America were grown here first as decorative plants, as they were thought to be poisonous. The Italians first used them in 1863 and changed their cuisine. Potatoes from Peru were again thought to be poisonous but became the staple diet of the whole of Northern Europe. The Irish used to eat 25 potatoes a day and the devastating potato blight changed the world again as the Irish emigrated to America.

Sugar cane came from New Guinea and as a result dentistry developed! From the tropics we had bananas and today they are eaten more than any other fruit.

The demands for cotton led to the slave trade and eventually to the industrial revolution as spinning/weaving machines were developed to cope with the demand. In the 1851 Exhibition the Gallery of New Textile Machinery fascinated Southerners.

25% of western medicine is based on plants – the willow gives us aspirin, digitalis (foxglove) for the heart, the yew for breast cancer treatment and quinine for malaria from the bark of the cinchona tree, which made it possible for white people to rule the Empire. Margarines have been developed to combat cholesterol.

The rubber plant has had a great effect providing rubber tyres and wellies to name but a few benefits.

It seems our whole civilization is based on plants and we are now starting to abuse them. Palm Oil harvesting from the Philippines and the Amazon is having a devastating effect on where it is grown. Power still comes from mining oil and coal. Rosina’s big question was will we turn the whole world into a desert?

Finishing on a more optimistic note she spoke about the Victorian plant hunters and their legacy in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, a hope for the future safeguarding plant life worldwide.

This was a wide ranging and thought provoking talk of great interest.

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