Study of a Tree

Georges Michel (French, 1763-1843)Georges Michel (1763-1843)


by Hope Jahren

A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. Neither the seed nor the old oak is growing; they are both just waiting.
What each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince the seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance–to take its one and only chance to grow.
. . . .
When you go into a forest … you probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting. They hope against hope for an opportunity that will probably never come. More than half of these seeds will die before they feel the trigger that they are waiting for, and during awful years every single one of them will die.
. . . When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least a hundred more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.

A coconut is a seed as big as your head. It can float from the coast of Africa across the entire Atlantic Ocean and then take root and grow on a Caribbean island. In contrast, orchid seeds are tiny: one million of them put together add up to the weight of a paper clip. Big or small, most of every seed is actually just food to sustain a waiting embryo. The embryo is a collection of only a few hundred cells, but it is a working blueprint for a real plant with a shoot and a root already formed.
When the embryo within a seed starts to grow, it basically just stretches out of its doubled-over waiting posture, elongating into official ownership of the form that it assumed years ago.
. . . .
After scientists broke open the coat of a lotus seed and coddled the embryo into growth, they kept the empty husk. When they radiocarbon-dated this discarded outer shell, they discovered that their seedling had been waiting for them within a peat bog in China for no less than two thousand years. This tiny seed had stubbornly kept up hope of its own future while entire human civilizations rose and fell.

With gratitude to Nicolas Silver for presenting me with the book from which this incomplete excerpt is lifted.
“Lab Girl” is a 2016 memoir by American geochemist, geobiologist, and professor Hope Jahren.

See also:



bloodrootJacob Bigelow (1787-1879)

Water Chestnut

Jacques le Moyne de Morgues (c. 1533–1588)

And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not make clean riddance of the corners of thy field when thou reapest, neither shalt thou gather any gleaning of thy harvest: thou shalt leave them unto the poor, and to the stranger



The Knowledge of Vegetables

root-sectionRoot Section
“An Idea Of Phytological History Propounded, Together with a Continuation of The Anatomy of Vegetables, Particularly Prosecuted Upon Roots”, by Nehemiah Grew (1641 – 1712)

If we take into account of the degrees whereunto the knowledge of Vegetables is advanced, it appeareth that their Descriptions, Places, and Seaſons are with good preciſeneſs and curioſity ſet before us. Likewise, that we are informed of the Natures and infallible Faculties of many of them. Whereunto ſo many as have aſſiſted, have much obliged by their Poſterity.

By due reflection upon what they have performed, it alſo appears, what they have left is imperfect, and what undone. For the Vertues of many Vegetables are with much uncertainty, and too promiſcouſly aſcribed to them. And of the Vertues of many they are altogether ſilent. And although, for the finding out and just appropriation of them, they have left us some Rules, yet not all. The Deſcriptions likewise of many are yet to be perfected; as alſo their Draughts, eſpecially as to their Roots. And their proper ranks and affinities much undetermined. But for the Reaſon of Vegetation, and the Cauſes of all thoſe infinite varieties therein obſervable (I mean ſo far as matter, and the various affections hereof are inſtrumental thereto) almoſt all men have ſeemed to be unconcerned.

That nothing hereof remaineth further to be known, is a thought not well calculated. For if we consider how long and gradual a Journey the knowledge of Nature is, and how ſhort a time we have to proceed therein; as on the one hand, we ſhall conclude it our eaſe and profit to ſee how far others have gone before us: ſo ſhall we beware on the other, whilſt we have a juſt value for thoſe who were but her Diſciples and inſtructed by her. Their time and abilities both being ſhort to her, which as ſhe was firſt deſigned by Divine Wiſdom, ſo may her vaſt dimenſions beſt be judged of, in being compared therewith. It will therefore be our prudence, not to inſiſt upon the invidious queſtion, which of her Scholars have taken the faireſt meaſure of her; but to be well ſatiſfied, that as yet ſhe hath not be circumſcribed by any.

Nor doth it more behove us to conſider how much of the Nature of Vegetation may lie before us yet unknown, than to believe a great part thereof to be knowable: not concluding from acknowledged, much leſs ſupported inſucceſſfulneſs of any mens undertakings; but from what may be accounted poſſible as to the Nature of things themſelves; and from Divine Providence, by infinite ways conducting to the knowledge of them. Neither can we determine how great a part this may be; becauſe it is impoſſible to meaſure what we ſee not. And ſince we are most likely to under-meaſure, we ſhall hereby but intrench our endeavours, which we are not wont to carry beyond the Idea which we have of our Work.

And how far ſoever this kind of Knowledge be attainable, its being ſo far alſo worthy our attaintment will be granted. For beholding the many and elegant varieties wherewith a Field or Garden is adorned, who would not ſay, That it were exceeding pleaſant to know what we ſee; and not more delightful to one who has eyes, to diſcern that all is very fine; and to another who hath reaſon, to underſtand how. This ſurely were for a man to take a true Inventory of his Goods, and his beſt way to put a price upon them.

Yea it ſeems that this were not only to be partaker of Divine Bounty; but alſo, in ſome degree, to be Copartner in the Secrets of Divine Art.

Infinite thanks to BibliOdyssey for  beauty &  scholarship, to Paul Peacay for lucidity, discernment, and insight.

[Please see the ‘translation’ there:

“. . . . Despite the incredible abundance of plants in our environment, it remains baffling that most people don’t seem particularly disposed to learning more about them . . . . It’s fundamentally illogical to assume that the amount we know about plants at the moment is all that there is to be known. Mother nature has evolved over a long time in comparison to our relatively short period on earth so we are wise to have some regard for the observations passed on by our forebears . . . . We just don’t know how ignorant we are and there is no way to determine the magnitude of that deficit . . . .
Our destiny imposes a duty to achieve a balance with our environment that goes beyond mere exploitation.”

Gardens “a balance of poetry and practicalities”

Thomas Bewick 1753 – 1828

A Little History of British Gardening
by Jenny Uglow

‘… a prosperous farmer’s wife was in charge of “ordering the kitchen garden; and keeping the fruits, herbs, roots and seeds; and moreover watching and attending to the bees”. There was art and invention in the garden too, and Uglow delights in telling us how the housewife worked “like a scientist with glasses and alembics, distilling purges and cough medicines as well as conserves and pickles”. They made perfumed oils for scents and soaps. Marigolds and violets were candied for sweets; elderflowers, irises and mallows made into lotions for softening wrinkles and rhubarb in white wine was used for dying hair blonde.

By the 1700s gardening had become a topic for coffee-house chat, with fashions provoking strong reactions from commentators. Alexander Pope, writing in a new periodical called the Guardian, decided that “persons of genius preferred nature”, whereas “people of the common level of understanding are principally delighted with the little niceties and fantastical operations of art”.’

Jill Sinclair

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