The first flowering plants generated the colonization of Earth. They took advantage of the already-present insects of the nascent planet and made them their sexual go-betweens. This led to the living Earth as we know it today.
My studies of history from ancient, Greek, Roman and medieval periods ignited my fascination with the role of plants in human history.
We know that the discovery of reseeding grains led humans on a trajectory from being part of nature to controlling nature. The discovery of agriculture led to ceramic technology to store grain, mathematicians to calculate the grain reserves, architects to construct granaries.
It encouraged trade and communication with other groups far afield. Agriculture created culture. We have fled from nature ever since. Few of us today have a personal connection to the food, the medicines, tools, teas or cleansers that we use. For the vast majority of human history, however, we relied on the plants in our environment for these needs.
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Today if we have a sore throat, we purchase throat lozenges. We have no need for mullein, coltsfoot, red clover concoctions or mallow plants to sooth our irritated tissues. We have forgotten the uses of plants that served humans until very recently and have severed our connections to the flora around us. The medicinal plant mullein is an example of how we have lost the connection to plants that we once relied upon.
English colonists brought mullein for their medicinal gardens but soon lost knowledge of its attributes. A tea from the mullein leaves will soothe the throat. Native Americans smoked it to relieve lung infections. I keep mullein oil that I derive from the flowers on hand. It relieves any epidermal irritation.
Mullein made it across the continent sooner than the settlers. By the time pioneers came to places like Texas, they had forgotten mullein’s uses. Native Americans had learned of its medicinal attributes and taught this to the white settlers.
Mullein also has a cultural history. Soaked in tallow, it was used in Dionysian midnight processions. Classical Greek red and black figure ceramics depict Dionysus holding a mullein flower stalk. Roman night festival processions also utilized mullein stalks.
Not surprisingly, human immigrants imported many invasive species because they were useful, including those from the common lands where villagers could forage and gather in times of drought, flood or human-made disasters such as war. In England, garlic mustard was one of these common land plants.
Last year, I realized why it was transplanted here. It was late February after a series of Arctic vortices and yet the garlic mustard was already sprouting. I realized that, after a long winter when food was scarce, the garlic mustard would be there for an early spring green. It’s here. It’s invasive. But it is delicious. The leaves make a great pesto.
People seek to reconnect with Earth in different ways. Some hike to awe-inspiring vistas. Some paddle down calm or turbulent waters. For me, reconnecting to nature includes learning about the plants in my environment.
OLLI at Penn State — open to adults who love to learn — is offering more than 90 courses this summer, beginning on June 14. I will lead two courses on herbs, one in a classroom and the other outdoors at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. To receive a free summer catalog, call OLLI at Penn State at 867-4278 or visit olli.psu.edu.
Ernest Boyd has taught courses on wild foods for more than 30 years.