Plant Language Shapes Reality

Plant language shapes reality – 

I just can’t say enough about Andrea Wulf’s book on Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) called  The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World.

As a retired professor of Communication Studies, I was happy to read her comments on Humboldt’s brother Wilhelm and the latter’s theory about language.

Wilhelm was an educator, interested in ideas and the pursuit of knowledge.

He identified the purpose for language as much more than simply a vehicle for the writer or speaker to formulate an idea.

Language, he said, shapes the way we look at the world.

Wulf writes, “According to Wilhelm’s radical new theory, different languages reflected different views of the world. Language was not just a tool to express thoughts but it shaped thoughts…It was not a mechanical construct of individual elements but an organism, a web that wove together action, thought and speaking.”

The way we talk about plants is the way we relate to them.

For example, as soon as you hear the word ‘succulent’ you probably have a general idea of the kind of plant it is and perhaps its growing habit as well as water and light needs.

I heard recently from a young gardener that succulents are in today. Just the mention of the word can make people who are into plants come up with their ideas of the best and worse ways to deal with this group of plants.

I remember seeing Sansevieria ‘Black Star’ in the landscape at the wonderful estate in Miami called Vizcaya. [below]

There were several beds and borders that included this Sansevieria.  It has a beautiful green color with cream edging. Thus it can add color and structure to the landscape.

Then I realized that I grow it as a house plant as you can see from this table in our living room. [below]

Sansevieria ‘Black Star’

The word ‘succulent’ applied to the genus ‘Sansevieria’  told me what kind of plant it was.

Thanks to the website for Stokes Tropicals you can learn more about this plant:

“Sansevieria ‘Black Star’ is an easy-to-grow, double-duty (indoors or outdoors), exotic-looking plant that thrives on neglect.  Tolerates low humidity. Tolerates low water and low feeding. Tolerates being root bound. Few if any plants are as foolproof to grow.

“Sansevieria is a succulent plant, and needs a well-drained soil. Sansevieria are great and hardy house plants in the United States. You do not have to have a green thumb to grow a Sansevieria. “

The word ‘ succulent’ can mean, as it does for me, Sansevieria.

Wilhelm’s theory about language helps gardeners to see and deal with the world of plants.

Of course, we can’t forget two plant words that stir up all sorts of ideas and subsequent action. They are  ‘native’ and ‘exotic.’

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Empress Josephine’s Dahlia Gift

Empress Josephine’s dahlia gift

I first came across the name Aime Bonpland, the nineteenth century French botanist, while I was researching the history of growing and selling dahlias.

Aime Bonpland (1773-1858) [Courtesy of Biografias y Vidas]

Bonpland (1773-1858) became the head gardener for Empress Josephine for ten years at her summer residence outside of Paris called Chateau Malmaison.

It is there Josephine insisted on the landscape style of the English garden of the eighteenth century. And so it was designed in that fashion [below]

View of the park at Malmaison [Gaverney]

Bonpland had been the travel companion in Latin America to Alexander Von Humboldt in their famous trip from 1799 to 1804. [below]

Humboldt and Bonpland in the Amazon rainforest (1850)

It is said that in the early 1800s Bonpland brought back from his trip dahlia seeds to present to Empress Josephine for her wonderful collection of plants.

Martin Kral writes in his well-researched paper “Of Dahlia Myths and Aztec Mythology: The Dahlia in History” that Bonpland and Humboldt saw dahlias growing all around them as they traveled in Latin America.

When he returned to Europe, Humboldt focused on writing his treatise on nature called Cosmos.

Andrea Wulf in her  book The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World writes, “Humboldt’s botanical publications in Paris were delayed because Bonpland was now the head gardener to Napoleon’s wife, Josephine, at Malmaison, her country estate just outside Paris.”

Bonpland was a botanist, interested in plants, and slow to respond to Humboldt’s request he help with writing about what they had experienced on their trip.

It was Humboldt who would record their five years in Latin America, leaving a lasting legacy in his writing. He saw in the trip a new way to look at nature, a forerunner to what we now call ‘ecology’.

Humboldt and Bonpland were, however, a good pair for traveling together since they complemented one another with their individual skills.

Bonpland returned to Latin America after Josephine’s death in 1814.

 

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