In Defense Of ‘Out Of Place’ Plants

12:08 minutes

A woman looking to the left with flowering trees in the background.
Jessica J. Lee. Credit: Ricardo Rivas

The new book Dispersals: On Plants, Borders, and Belonging unpacks how we think about the migrations of both plants and humans, as well as how those ideas shape our perceptions of what we call “non-native” or “invasive” plants like giant hogweed or English ivy.

Dispersals traces the history of how we moved plants around—including cherry blossoms, mangoes, and soy—and asks: What does it mean to be a plant out of place? And how does the migration of plants mirror our own?

Guest host Arielle Duhaime-Ross talks with environmental historian and author Jessica J. Lee about Dispersals and what we can learn from the histories of plants.

Read an excerpt from Dispersals.

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Segment Guests

Jessica J. Lee

Jessica J. Lee is an environmental historian and the author of Dispersals: On Plants, Borders, and Belonging. She’s based in Berlin, Germany.

Segment Transcript

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: This is Science Friday. I’m Arielle Duhaime-Ross. I’m filling in for Ira Flatow this week. Later in the hour, how the death of a young right whale led to the spread of misinformation about an offshore wind project. Plus, the astrophysics behind how the universe started and how it might end.

But first, unpacking how we think about the migrations of both plants and humans and how those ideas shape our perceptions of what we call non-native or invasive plants, like giant hogweed, or Japanese honeysuckle. A new book called Dispersals, On Plants, Borders, and Belonging, traces the history of how we moved plants around and asks what does it mean to be a plant out of place, and how does the movement of plants mirror our own?

Jessica J. Lee is an environmental historian and the author of Dispersals. She’s based in Berlin, Germany. Jessica, welcome to Science Friday.

JESSICA LEE: Thank you for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Thank you so much for being on the show. Jessica, what inspired you to write this book?

JESSICA LEE: I think, honestly, the question at the core of this idea, how do we think about plants out of place, plants that push at our understandings of what it means to belong. It was a question that had been sitting with me for many years before I started really writing the book.

I was hiking in the mountains in Central Taiwan. I’d stopped on a trail because I had encountered just a scent, actually. I didn’t even know what plant it was coming from. But it smelled like almond cookies, or like baked goods in some way.

I was, like, what? What is this? I searched and searched and found these flowers that were growing on the mountainside. Took a photo because I didn’t know what they were.

I went home and looked it up. And it was Chinese knotweed, a particular variety of it that grows in Taiwan that is native to Taiwan. I dug into it a little bit more, and then, of course, learned that it is considered a pretty severe invasive in other parts of the world. Something about, I think, the beauty and poignancy of the encounter I’d had with it, and this classification, the language used to describe it, I couldn’t hold the two things together.

I thought this is bizarre, right? How do you make sense of something that has these, I think pejorative terms attached to it, these negative connotations, when, in certain contexts, they’re so beautiful, they’re so enchanting? And I just I sort of sat with that question for a couple of years. I think, for myself, as a migrant who comes from three generations of migrants, as a mixed race person, a lot of that language felt uncomfortable to me, and I didn’t really know how to touch it for a long time.

Until eventually, I thought, OK, this is something I need to start unpacking. What do we mean when we call a plant out of place? And how does that resonate with how we speak about people?

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: We really do hear, over and over, that non-native species are bad and that they’re ruining our gardens and forests, outcompeting local flora and causing these cascading effects across our ecosystems. So how did you tackle that and balance that concern, which is a real concern, with an appreciation of these plants?

JESSICA LEE: I think that the big thing for me is not questioning those impacts. Right? I’m not making an argument that is in favor of, I think, denying the negative impacts of certain species. I think for me it’s about getting away from a language that wholly villainizes a plant that very often is a plant that we’ve picked up and moved–


JESSICA LEE: –that we’ve brought as an ornamental, or we’ve hauled around in ballast waters through our shipping industries. And just saying, what if we had better language for how to describe these plants, but also just told richer stories where we understood the agency of those plants, the agency of humans in creating those situations? If we understood and sort of wrote back into the story the richness and fullness of what those plants do in their home environments and the resilience that they have and, in some situations, really begin to also ask questions about potential positive impacts that there could be in some places.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: You really drive home, throughout the book, that context is important. You use the example of giant hogweed. Can you tell me about that?

JESSICA LEE: I wanted to write about giant hogweed because I was living in the UK for part of when I wrote this book. I’ve lived in the UK a lot in my life. It’s very often seen as the most dangerous plant. In Britain, it’s the sort of most offensive, most egregious weed.

It really is a plant that you want to avoid. It causes phytochemical burns that can cause problems for years after contact with the plant. So it’s definitely one that you don’t question that there’s a problem with it, and it really thrives in abandoned plots, in disturbed ground.

But one of the reasons I really wanted to look at it was this history of it. It was brought over to Britain as an ornamental plant. It was actually a prized Victorian garden plant until it jumped the garden wall, right? There’s that phrase from a historian named Harriet Ritvo, that it’s like plants are OK until they sort of misbehave, right, until they leap over the wall. I really wanted to explore that.

But then to say, these plants also aren’t staying in place. So we have giant hogweed cast as this villain at the moment. But actually, as the climate changes and becomes more unstable, it needs to move.

It’s not actually doing that well where it is in the UK, and it’s going to be moving northward because it needs colder winters. So there’s this part of me that, I don’t know, I’m really fascinated by this idea of a plant we’ve moved, villainized, and now because of anthropogenic climate change, also needs to move again.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: By the way, I had no idea that part of the USDA’s founding mission was to import new seeds. How does that affect what kind of crops we grow here in the US now?

JESSICA LEE: So in the book, I spent a bit of time diving into the history of the USDA’s plant acquisition program and one plant explorer, to use their term, named David Fairchild. You know, he brought over essentially hundreds of thousands of accessions, seeds primarily, that were desirable for US agriculture. His work and the work of his department in terms of plant acquisition has been described as just transforming ecosystems entirely in the US.

If you think about it, the huge amount of things that we grow, that we eat regularly, from citrus fruits, to soybeans, to mangoes, to loads of vegetables, they come from abroad, and they were brought from abroad, many any of them, through the 19th and 20th centuries.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: There’s more really good USDA information in this book. For instance, you talk about mangoes as migrant fruits. Why did you name them that way?

JESSICA LEE: I wanted to capture this idea that mangoes, first off, we don’t have an exact location for where they originated. But broadly, let’s say, in South Asia. Then they moved across Asia. So they begin with migration. They move with people because they’re so valuable.

But then, when the USDA acquires them, they’re brought to Florida to the plant breeding program there and pretty much every supermarket variety of mangoes that we have today, the ones that they’re designed to travel well, they all originate from those plant breeding programs in Florida. I don’t know.

Something about this, it really fascinates me. You know, I live in Germany. I go to the supermarket here. Admittedly, the mangoes are not great at the supermarket in Germany. But I think of this fruit that originated in India, perhaps, and you know, moved eastward across China, through Southeast Asia, and then is picked up and brought to Florida, bred to be a reliable, transportable variety, like Tommy Atkins, which is what we often find in the supermarkets here.

And that’s what I encounter. Something about that story, for me, it’s so resonant with what it means to be a migrant.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: My father’s from Trinidad, right? Trinidad has a huge Indian population. So mangoes are incredibly important for our culture. And the mangoes that we get in Canada just really don’t cut it, right?

JESSICA LEE: All fruit in Canada. I think fruit in Canada ruined fruit for me growing up.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Oh, boy. No, OK, I will say, Ontario peaches rock. Right?

JESSICA LEE: Oh, well. That was the one exception. And I still can only eat peaches in Ontario. Apologies to Georgia, apologies to everywhere else in the world. Ontario peaches are the very best.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: We’re on the same page about that one, yeah, for sure. You also write about seed banking and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the most famous seed bank.

You said something about it that really struck me as quite different from what I’ve heard about it before. You talked about looking at it through an imperialist lens. Talk to me about that.

JESSICA LEE: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t want to pick out Svalbard too particularly and too specifically. But it felt really symbolic to me. Because I think it’s the seed bank that many of us know. We call it the doomsday vault.

While I was working on the book, I was actually a researcher on a project at the University of Cambridge that was looking at crop breeding histories, plant transfers, food crops, in particular, over the past 100 years. A number of the researchers I was working with were specialists in seed banking. And it was a really fascinating thing for me, because I think I went in with this very optimistic idea of what seed banking was, that it was this hopeful thing that we do for the future.

And I hadn’t really unpacked, number one, the ways that seed banking itself actually has loads of problems, simply from the fact that seeds, they’re extracted, they’re banked. But then they also aren’t viable forever. They have to be grown out, which means so that we can reharvest the seeds, which means we’re kind of banking copies of copies of copies at a certain point.

But then, beyond that, this question of extracting a seed as germplasm from its context, it forgets the fact that plants have knowledge cultures that go with them. They have a landrace in particular that belongs in a certain valley in a certain place, stewarded into existence by, say, Indigenous farmers in one place. When you extract them from that knowledge, what do we lose? The seed alone is not the whole story.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Right, no, absolutely. There’s a whole environment that allowed it to become, you know, what it is today. Attitudes, entire cultures.

JESSICA LEE: Absolutely. And you know, one of the things that I also touch on is a lot of current research saying OK, when we’re also extracting seeds from their environments, from in situ environments, right? So ex-situ seed banking is like taking them and putting them in cold storage somewhere, like in Svalbard. When you’re taking them out of that context, as our climate is changing, we’re also losing the ability, the opportunity for those seeds to adapt with us to the changing climate. So we’re kind of banking old seeds that will not be caught up with how the climate has changed.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: That’s interesting. So if the word invasive is maybe a little too negative or too narrow, what should we call these plants instead?

JESSICA LEE: Yeah. So I think one of the really exciting things have has been in recent years proposals for new terminology, whether that’s novel species, even just as simple as saying introduced species. I’m really interested in the idea of, like, local as a term. But what I have found most exciting is sort of in parallel to this, proposals for saying, OK, we’ve had this framework of invasiveness that is kind of pejorative and it’s led to a lot of research that looks at negative impacts of these species.

But what if instead we looked for positive impacts of species that are introduced to places and just tried to start anew from there. So that, for me, I think is a really exciting possibility in terms of what’s being proposed to rectify this.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: I really appreciate that. Jessica, thank you so much for joining me.

JESSICA LEE: Thank you for having me.

ARIELLE DUHAIME-ROSS: Jessica J. Lee is an environmental historian and the author of Dispersals, joining us from Berlin, Germany. To read an excerpt from the book, head to sciencefriday.com/dispersals.

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