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Plant cultivation

Wild & cultivated

Though the distinction between ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’ plants dates back to at least the time of Theophrastus it is nevertheless a distinction that remains unclear. Does an old abandoned garden contain cultivated plants? Would you call plants that have escaped from gardens into the wild ‘cultivated plants’ – if not ‘wild’, then what would you call them? If a site is completely cleared and then turned into parkland with new plantings raised from seed collected from the natural vegetation around the site – are these then ‘wild’ or ‘cultivated’ plants?

The confusion arises because we distinguish plants in two major ways – by where they are growing and by how they originated. So, for example, we might be thinking of origins when we think of wheat as ‘cultivated’ because it has been grown and selected by humans for millennia so that it is genetically different from its ancient ‘wild’ ancestors, even though it might be growing untended and unintended on the side of a road. This genetic distinction between ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’ is also sometimes referred to using the word ‘domesticated’. On the other hand, we think of plants that are being managed in some way – in fields, orchards, vineyards, gardens etc. – as being cultivated while plants grown outside these boundaries – in woodland, roadsides, along rivers etc. – as ‘wild’.

The difficulty is illustrated in gardens because here we have a) plants that have been genetically altered by humans, like Apple ‘Jonathan’, also b) plants that are genetically unaltered, but which have been brought in directly from nature (‘wild’) as plants or seed. Case b) draws our attention to the fact that genetically identical plants can be both ‘wild’ and ‘cultivated’ depending on where they are growing. On this understanding ‘cultivated plants’ are straightforwardly plants in cultivation.

Origins of cultivation

The scientific process of observation and experiment (empiricism) applied to plants must go back to the dawn of our species and the long process of determining the effect of different plants on our bodies – which plants were safe to eat, which had medicinal properties, and which affected our minds in some way. And somebody needed to know where these plants grew. This plant knowledge was precious, it could be a matter of life and death, and it would have been a part of traditional tribal knowledge handed from one generation to the next, perhaps by experienced tribal elders or maybe a shaman-like medicine man. And all this would have happened long before plants were first cultivated.

However, we know that there must have been a time, many millennia ago, when tending plants became more than the simple husbandry of plants growing naturally in the wild – although we can only speculate about the humble character and reasons for the first Palaeolithic spaces dedicated to plants and their cultivation. Certainly there was the need for food, but beyond that lay more indefinite cultural factors.

A simple distinction can be made between plants that served physical needs and those that related in some special way to mental life. Some plants nourished the body: others nourished the soul.

But first there was the need for food. In all likelihood discarded pips and other plant remnants left over from feasting around camp fires sprouted into food plants that could be harvested when sites were revisited. Plants could be grown easily enough in special areas dedicated to their cultivation, as either transplants or cuttings. Grown from seed the process of continuous selection from plants with desirable characteristics would eventually give rise to new kinds of plants with combinations of characters not found in their wild ancestors.

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