Lawns

Beautiful, orderly, ecological problems.

It used to be that, if you owned land, you used it to grow plants for some kind of profit (food, timber, fabric, etc.). Decorative manicured grounds have no monetary value. To keep a grassy lawn was a sign of wealth – it was a status symbol that you had so much money you could use some of your land for pure ornamentation. Beyond being a “waste of space”, you also had to pay for people to maintain the lawn, making it even more expensive.

Our modern idea of a meticulously manicured grassy lawn has its roots in 18th century European aristocracy. While earlier palaces featured intensely manicured gardens with topiaries and geometric lines (such as the Palace of Versailles), 18th century English garden design drew inspiration from the pastoral landscapes of Italian paintings. This new style featured wide open spaces that, while manicured, looked more natural. For example, some estates used ha-ha walls as barriers to keep grazing animals away from the house while offering the illusion of an uninterrupted natural view of the grounds.

As for the upkeep, grazing animals were sometimes used to maintain the lawn in the distance (and were a visual addition to the “natural” scene) but the areas closest to the house were tended to by men using hand tools. Even after the invention of the lawn mower in 1830, which helped increase the number of grassy lawns, these trimmed green fields were found primarily around the homes of the wealthy.

Imported Grass

17th century colonists arriving in North America were generally preoccupied with trying to stay alive and didn’t have the time for decorative lawns. They were also missing the grass itself. The East Coast lacked the types of grasses necessary to turn into lawns. What’s worse is that these were the kinds of grasses that best served as food for the colonists’ grazing animals. As such the animals over grazed the native available plants, eventually turning in desperation to eating poisonous plants (to their detriment).

To solve this problem colonists began to import grass from Europe for their cows, sheep, etc. This is how many of the grasses that are so common in America got here. For example Kentucky bluegrass, one of the most popular grasses in America, is a non-native/invasive species and was imported from Europe.

Suburban America

As settlers spread around North America so too did grass. Throughout the 19th century as people became more established, grassy lawns slowly became a feature of homes and parks. After the Civil War the more prosperous northern states adopted lawns sooner than southern states. Public parks and cemeteries increased the popularity of grassy lawns. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed one of the earliest suburbs in 1868 with his plans for Riverside, Illinois. He set the homes back 30ft from the street and placed grassy lawns out front. What really democratized lawns however was the housing boom in the mid 20th-century.

With the 1944 G.I. Bill millions of veterans were able to receive home loans which helped them buy homes and move to the suburbs. Abe Levitt, who created Levittowns, said that “A fine lawn makes a frame for a dwelling …”. Millions of homes were suddenly being created with millions of lawns. As so many families were becoming home owners lawns became less about economic status and more about cultural conformity. A well-maintained lawn was the sign of a good neighbor, and an unkempt lawn was subversive. Lawn care became big business and articles about lawn care surged in post-war America. With color TV more people could watch professional sports (especially golf) and see what was possible for their own lawns.

The Wasteland

Today there is an estimated 40 million acres of grass in America. Grass is America’s greatest crop all while being (generally) inedible – lawns serve almost no functional purpose other than looking nice. Cutting grass regularly encourages it to spread out, edging out other plants and reducing biodiversity. Interestingly more affluent homes which can afford the time & money needed for a more manicured lawn actually have lower biodiversity than lower-income homes. The nicest looking lawns are, paradoxically, the worst for the environment.

As for carbon emissions grass is a carbon sink (which is a good thing), meaning it captures carbon emissions and stores it in its roots. Unfortunately the act of mowing the lawn contributes far more carbon dioxide than is captured. Gas powered lawn equipment produce more air pollution than cars over comparable periods of time (For example: the air pollution of 1 hour of mowing equals around 100 miles of driving). Lawn mowers account for around 5% of America’s air pollution. Having and maintaining a lawn ultimately produces more dangerous carbon dioxide than it captures. Further, lawn equipment in America uses around 800 million gallons of gasoline annually of which about 17 million gallons are spilled and never even used.

Homeowners use 10 times the amount of pesticides and fertilizers per acre than farmers, and many of these chemicals find their way into the water supply. Watering these lawns uses 30-60% of urban fresh water – all for a crop that isn’t eaten and just sits there.

Go Native

An alternative to lawns are trees or other native plants that require less maintenance (less gas powered machines) and improve biodiversity. Native plants are better for butterflies, bees, and other helpful insects. This in turn is better for birds and other animals. Planting native plants, not using pesticides, reducing the size of your grass lawn, etc. creates a healthier and more bird friendly yard. Break free of the conformist thinking that you must have a green carpet around your house.

Poinsettia

The Mexican plant that has become a standard part of Christmas (and isn’t poisonous).

The poinsettia comes from Mexico & Guatemala and, in its untamed form, grows to be fairly gangly and around 10ft tall. Over the centuries it’s been selectively bred to be about 2ft tall with very dense foliage. The most well-known characteristic of the poinsettia is of course the bright red leaves along the top of the plant. These red leaves are not flowers but are the bracts of the poinsettia – specialized leaves that are different than the rest of the plant (the actual flowers, aka. the cyathia, are the small buds at the center of the red bracts). These special leaves are green until late autumn when, in the cooler shorter days, they turn red.

Poinsett to Poinsettia

The plant had already been known & used by the Aztecs for dyes and medicine but it came to the attention of the Western world through US Minister to Mexico (and amateur botanist) Joel Roberts Poinsett. Specimens had already been collected around 1803 by German scientific superstar Alexander von Humboldt, but it was re-discovered by Poinsett who introduced the plant to the US.

In 1828 Poinsett sent plants & seeds to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (contrary to internet rumoring, there is no definitive proof that he sent poinsettia plants home to his native South Carolina). In 1835 Scottish horticulturalist and active member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society Robert Buist named the plant the Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of Poinsett. Buist also helped introduce the poinsettia to Europe.

Named for US Minister to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, the poinsettia has been a standard part of Christmas for over a century.

Paul Ecke Ranch

Over the next century the poinsettia was cultivated into different varieties – shorter, taller, different colors, different patterns. The Paul Ecke Ranch of California have cultivated and sold poinsettias since the early 20th century. Having successfully produced cultivars which were more beautiful, more compact, and sturdier than other varieties, the Ecke family began to create and then dominate the market.

For decades they would send free poinsettias from November through December to a variety of media outlets. Ecke Rach poinsettias appeared on the Tonight Show, Bob Hope Christmas specials, the Dinah Shore Show, in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens – all of which furthered the popularity and demand for poinsettias at Christmas. Today the Ecke Ranch (who were sold to the Agribio Group in 2012) is the largest poinsettia producer in the world with about a 50% share of the global market and around 70% of the domestic US market.

That Plant is … Safe

Poinsettias are not poisonous. While you or your pets probably shouldn’t eat the leaves of a poinsettia, you wouldn’t be struck dead if you did. The myth that they are deadly most likely goes back to 1919 when a child in Hawaii died of poisoning which was wrongly attributed to the poinsettia leaf. Research has shown that you would have to eat hundreds of leaves to produce mild irritation or vomiting at most. Given that the leaves are unpalatable and very bitter it’s unlikely you would eat enough to suffer the consequences.

Pineapples as Status Symbols

Because of their rarity pineapples became European decorative elements and status symbols.

The pineapple is native to South America but across thousands of years of cultivation it spread to Central America as well. The first European to encounter a pineapple was Columbus in 1493 who brought some back to the Spanish royal court (along with tobacco, gold, chili peppers, and the people he kidnapped). Europeans had never tasted anything like pineapple before and, because of their scarcity, to own one quickly became an exotic status symbol of the ultra wealthy.

Pineapples were in high demand but there was low supply so enterprising individuals set out to grow pineapples in Europe. The tropical conditions pineapples require make growing them in Europe a challenge. It took until the 17th century for farmers in the Netherlands to succeed, followed by the English in the 18th century. Mathew Decker even memorialized his pineapple growing achievement by commissioning a painting in 1720. These efforts produced more, albeit still not many, pineapples for the European & American markets. A single pineapple could go for around $8,000 in today’s dollars. A cheaper alternative was to rent a pineapple which people would do to show off at parties and such. These pineapples would be rented from person to person until the final person paid to eat it, unless it had rotted by then. A further down-market option was pineapple jam which could be shipped from Central/South America.

Because of their popularity, pineapples became a decorative element in a host of artistic mediums.

Pineapple Art

The Caribbean custom of placing pineapples at the front of a friendly home as a welcome to strangers, combined with years of being displayed at happy European social gatherings, led pineapples to becoming international symbols of hospitality. This combined with their association to wealth & high society helped make the pineapple a popular artistic motif. From this we get carved pineapple embellishments as finials on staircases, at the tops of columns, on New England gateposts, above front doors, as fountains, as furniture accents, Christopher Wren placed gilded copper pineapples on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the centerpiece of the Dunmore Pineapple folly in Scotland is a massive pineapple, etc.

Added info: any association of pineapple with Hawaii comes after the fruit was introduced there by the Spanish in the 18th century. Pineapple is not native to Hawaii.

Coffee: Sun-Grown or Shade-Grown?

Coffee plants want to be grown in the shade, which is better for the flavor and the environment.

Coffee plants thrive in the warm (but not too warm) areas between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, an area nicknamed the “coffee belt” (although, with global warming the areas in which coffee plants can grow is shrinking). These evergreen plants grow to be about 12ft tall and, while they like the warmth, they also like the shade. Coffee plants naturally grow best underneath the canopy of trees. Traditionally people would collect the coffee berries from plants growing wild around the forest and then process the seeds to make coffee. Enter industrialization.

Sun-tolerant coffee plants grown in efficient rows for sun-grown coffee. Photo by Shade Grown Coffee film.

Here Comes The Sun

From the 1970s to the early 1990s coffee producers were encouraged by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to “upgrade” their processes and switch from shade-grown production to sun cultivation. Sun-tolerant plants had been engineered to better handle direct sunlight. With sun-grown cultivation you can grow coffee plants in greater density, harvest beans more efficiently through mechanization, producing higher yields, and make more money. This isn’t without costs.

One of the first steps for sun-grown coffee is deforestation (which increases global warming). Without trees there are no fallen leaves serving as mulch keeping weeds down. Leaves also biodegrade adding nutrients to the soil. This means sun-cultivated coffee requires more herbicides and fertilizers than shade-grown coffee. Further, when there are less trees there are less birds, and without as many birds to eat the insects, you need more pesticides. All of this means more chemicals on the plants and in the soil.

Made in the Shade

While still incorporating trees and other vegetation, modern shade-grown coffee farms can arrange their coffee plants more efficiently than former traditional practices. Even though this usually means lower yields and longer harvest times compared to sun-grown coffee, shade-grown coffee sells at a premium which can compensate producers for these factors.

The trees of shade-grown coffee farms serve as homes to hundreds of bird species. In Peru for example, the coffee plants of sun-grown coffee farms are home to around 61 bird species. This is in stark contrast to the trees of Peruvian shade-grown coffee farms which are home to 243 bird species. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has said that, “shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest.”

As for the coffee itself, shade-grown coffee plants produce beans with higher density, developing natural sugars, which makes for better tasting coffee. Sun-grown coffee speeds up the growing process, which is good for maximizing efficiency, but it also creates higher acidity resulting in a more bitter taste.

People in Ethiopia, sitting in the shade, processing shade-grown coffee.

So shade-grown tastes better, requires less chemicals, it helps hundreds of bird species, and it helps stop global warming. Next time you’re buying coffee spend the extra few cents for shade-grown.

Added info: Coffee beans frequently come with little logos attesting to various positive attributes in which the coffee was produced. The certification that best represents the environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee is the Bird-Friendly label from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Bird-Friendly is widely considered the gold-standard in coffee certification as it means the coffee is organic, shade-grown, and helps the local ecosystem. That said, given the various benchmarks that must be achieved, it’s hard to become certified as Bird-Friendly which means it’s hard to come by Bird-Friendly coffee.

Roses Instead of Cocaine

Most roses sold in the United States come from Colombia.

Most of the Valentine’s Day roses sold in the United States come from Colombia. Roses from Colombia make up around 60% of US florist rose sales and they account for most of the roses sold in supermarkets (and supermarkets make up about half of US flower sales).

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Colombia ships about 150 million roses to the United States. Walmart alone purchases about 24 million Colombian roses for the holiday. Upwards of 30 to 35 flights take off from Bogota each day filled with flowers, flying mostly to the United States.

Sniff Flowers, Not Cocaine

Between 1990 and 2018 American grown roses lost 95% of their market share, from 545 million roses sold to less than 30 million. So what happened? In 1991 the US government passed the Andean Trade Preference Act with Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. This eliminated tariffs on certain products including cut flowers. The legislation was a carrot (as opposed to the stick) approach to encourage cocaine producing countries to produce & export something that wasn’t cocaine and make money in the process.

The system has had questionable success in curtailing the production of cocaine, but it’s been a big success for Colombian roses. Colombia now grows 20,000 acres of flowers across over 300 industrial farms. The flower industry directly employs around 90,000 Colombians and indirectly employs 40,000 more in adjacent industries. The biggest loser in this agreement has been the American cut flower industry. The American companies still in operation have transitioned to growing higher-end roses that sell for more money intended for weddings and other special events.

Herbs & Spices (and Salt)

Herbs come from the leaves of a plant, spices are from any other part of a plant (and salt is a mineral).

In cooking they are frequently used together to flavor a meal, and their names get used interchangeably, but herbs and spices are not the same. In short:

HERBS
Herbs are a seasoning that are the leaves of a plant

SPICES
Spices are a seasoning from any part of a plant other than the leaves (roots, stalks, bark, seeds, and sometimes even the fruit)

Herbs

In greater detail, an herb typically comes from smaller deciduous plants without a bark stem. There are exceptions of course as lavender, sage, rosemary aren’t deciduous and never lose their leaves. Either way, the key is that the green leaves become herbs when they are used in cooking, medicine, teas, cosmetics, etc.

Spices

Spices can come from everything but the leaves of a plant. For example cinnamon comes from bark, ginger comes from roots, pepper comes from seeds, and chili powder comes from the pulverized fruit of the chili pepper. Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world at around $10,000 a pound, comes from the hand-picked stigma & styles from the Crocus sativus flower.

Allspice, despite a misconception, is not a blend of spices but is just one spice which comes from the berry of the Pimenta dioica tree. Its name comes from the fact that it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

Herb & Spice Plants

There are a few plants that produce both an herb and a spice. The leaves of the Coriandrum sativum produce the herb cilantro while the seeds become coriander. Similarly the Dill plant produces dill the herb from its leaves, and dill the spice from its seeds.

Salt

The food seasoning odd-one-out, salt is a mineral and does not come from a plant (although salt is present in plants). There is a lot to say about salt but in short it’s been used as a preservative and a seasoning for thousands of years. It’s the only food seasoning that doesn’t come from a plant.

Acanthus Leaves

Acanthus: the plant you’ve seen in art more than you’ve seen in real life.

At the top of a Corinthian column (the kind of column found at the Pantheon, the US Capitol Building, a classical bank near you, or pretty much any Greek-inspired building that wants to be taken seriously) you will find carved acanthus leaves. Corinthian column capitals have been ornately carved with the leaves of the acanthus plant since at least 450–420 BCE but the style became popular after the Romans borrowed it (as the Romans borrowed many things from the Greeks).

The acanthus leaf motif has changed over the millennia.

The acanthus plant, and specifically the Acanthus mollis, is an invasive perennial plant that grows around the Mediterranean. Its big toothy leaves can grow to be 20 inches long and when it flowers the stalk can be taller than a person. Historically its big leaves were used to wrap and store food. The salt in the plant helped draw air out of food serving as a preservative. The acanthus was used medicinally for joint pain and burns, and for reasons that aren’t completely certain it is also called “bear’s breeches.”

The Acanthus mollis in bloom and a close-up of its giant leaves.

As the story goes, the Greek sculptor Callimachus supposedly saw a basket left on the grave of a little girl and acanthus leaves had grow around and weaved their way through the basket. Moved by this he used it as inspiration when he carved the first Corinthian column capital. The curved jagged edges of the leaves work well visually both up-close and far away (such as at the tops of columns).

Over the following millennia the acanthus leaf motif migrated its way around art. It’s everywhere. You find it in the 19th century Arts & Crafts patterns of William Morris, it’s in arabesque patterns, it’s in carpets, furniture, wall sconces, lamps, churches, jewelry, clocks, funerary urns, etc. The acanthus is one of, if not the, most artistically represented plants in the world.

Just a few of the ways the acanthus has been used over the years.