Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Spectacular Rise of Ornamental Plants

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MIT Press has an article excerpted from George Gessert’s book Green Light: Toward an Art of Evolution:

Aesthetic appeal may have played a role in the domestication of plants and animals, but the rise of pure ornamentals, that is, plants cultivated only for their aesthetic characteristics, is a much later development. Long after the emergence of urban civilization, ornamental and economic uses of plants seem not to have been distinguished. For example, the elegant gardens depicted in Egyptian tombs of the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1415 BCE) consisted, as far as we can tell, of multiple-use plants. Among those that have been identified are date palms, grapes, pomegranates, papyruses, and figs.

A few Egyptian tomb paintings show flowering plants that may have been pure ornamentals, but could just as well have been medicinals. Even blue water lilies, which are ubiquitous in Egyptian art, were more than symbolic and ornamental. The rhizomes of Nymphaea caerulea yield a powerful hallucinogen that the Egyptians probably used to make contact with the gods.

The earliest gardens that seem to have been intended primarily for pleasure were in Mesopotamia. The Gilgamesh epic, which refers to events in 2700 BCE, contains descriptions of what may have been ornamental gardens; however, the first unmistakable evidence of plants cultivated for pleasure is from Assyria. There, kings had hunting preserves and parklike tree plantations. Tiglath Pilesar I, who reigned about 1100 BCE, brought back cedars and box from lands he conquered. Other Assyrian kings left records of parks planted with palms, cypresses, and myrrh.

We do not know what these parks looked like. The first nonutilitarian gardens that can be loosely reconstructed date from the sixth century BCE. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were created by Nebuchadnezzar, who, the story goes, built them for his Persian wife, who was homesick for the mountains of her childhood. Babylon was situated on a river plain. The terraced gardens, which covered three or four acres, were said to resemble a green mountain. The earliest records of the Hanging Gardens are by the Greek historians Diodorus and Strabo, but no remains have ever been found. However, remnants of Cyrus the Great’s (ca. 585-ca. 529 BCE) garden at Pasargadae still exist. It had trees and shrubs planted symmetrically in plots.

Records of Mesopotamian parks and gardens emphasize trees. Why trees rather than flowers? In the case of Cyrus the Great’s garden, only the remains of trees and shrubs have survived the centuries. Herbaceous plants, if they existed, have vanished. The Greeks, whose records we must rely on for much of our information about Mesopotamian gardens, were not horticulturally advanced, and may have been unduly impressed by the largest, most obvious plants. Still, trees were almost certainly important features of Mesopotamian gardens. Trees provide shade, a necessity in that part of the world, with its intense light and scorching heat.

In addition to their utilitarian value, many trees are architecturally pleasing, and have symbolic and social significance. Like other agricultural peoples, the Mesopotamians cleared land for crops and cut trees for wood. Near towns and cities, groves left uncut may have gradually disappeared because cattle, sheep, and goats grazed and trampled seedlings, allowing no new trees to grow. When forests are reduced to memories, surviving remnants may take on new meanings. Groves can become emblematic of the past, and sacred. They can also become indicators of wealth and worldly power.

The same meanings do not necessarily accrue to smaller flowering plants. Agriculture and herding eliminate many kinds of small plants, but . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Environment, History, Science

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