Useful Plants

Useful Plants

December 02 2020

Not long ago I was working at a local greenhouse/nursery and a customer told me that her husband would only let her buy useful plants. As soon as I quit sputtering over the ‘let’ word, I politely asked her to define useful, though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer. Human food producing, of course, is what qualifies a plant as useful. I beg to differ.

I suggested to her that maybe one could see any flowering plants as useful since they feed the bees, and we need those bees and other pollinators to grow a lot of our food crops. We are dependent on each other.

Humans have long gone beyond the utilitarian, changing need into desire. We love flowers simply because they are beautiful and we create new varieties all the time just because we can. Lucky, lucky us, to have that ability. I spend countless hours (and a fair amount of money) slaving away at what is mostly a desire to create beauty. There are definitely plants in my gardens that produce food, feed the bees, provide shade, even medicine, but I would wager that a very large proportion are there simply because I find them beautiful.

Tulips come to mind. In my neck of the woods, they bloom before many pollinators are out and about, they are arguably inedible (some have eaten them, and some have ended up in the hospital), the snow frequently flattens them, we wait 6-8 months after we plant them to see the flowers and then they flower briefly, die back, look scruffy, and disappear altogether until next year. Yet we plant tulips, because darn they’re cheerful after a long, cold winter. So many bright, primary colors.

Everyone’s probably heard of tulipomania in Holland in the 1600’s. Whole fortunes were lost in speculations over tulip bulbs. It seems there is a virus infecting tulips that causes the color to ‘break’ or develop streaks and splotches of different and contrasting colors. This virus will eventually kill the tulips, with each generation (grown from the bulblets on the sides of the mother bulb) getting weaker and weaker. Since this color variation is random, when the color combo is gone, it’s gone forever. (Note:variegated tulips to exist that are the result of breeding, not the virus.) These color breaks were thus unique, and as someone once said -all you need is a bigger fool to sell something for more than it ought to be worth.

At any rate, there’s a ‘useless’ plant, you could rightfully argue. Except for the appreciation of sheer beauty, perhaps the greatest use of all, one that speaks to the best of humanity.

Oh, I swear I didn’t say a word about whether her husband could tell her what she could or couldn’t grow in her yard. I think.

Tulip-genus Tulipa, from the Turkish word for turban, over 3000 varieties divided into 15 groups based on shape and/or origin