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English review - The Wildly Cultivated Plant and Me

Over the past years seed mixtures containing ‘wildflowers’ have found their way into our gardens. Wildflowers are promised to ‘save the bees’ by helping them and other insects find food and places for pollination. The idea is that wildflowers have evolved alongside these insects and could therefore provide them a natural habitat. But exactly how ‘wild’ are these wildflower seed mixtures? And do we really help insects by planting them? On a rainy evening in early fall, biologist Barbara Gravendeel and environmental philosopher Martin Drenthen came together in LUX in Nijmegen to talk about this wild gardening trend, as well as the importance of plants and the relationship we have with them.

Wilderness Explained

Martin Drenthen, environmental philosopher at Radboud University started the evening by asking what we consider wild. He argued that the answer to this question is not that simple, as wilderness seems to have different meanings to us. For example, Drenthen showed how the Heukels’ Guide to Dutch Flora states that a species of plant is wild when it originates from our natural environment and cultivated when it originates from human cultivation and crossbreeding. So, the Heukels’ Guide to Dutch Flora understands wildness in the sense of the origin of plants. However, Drenthen argued, this might not be the best way to describe wildness. “Take the example of a sweet chestnut,” he said, “this tree was introduced to The Netherlands by the Romans and therefore has no natural origin here. However, the sweet chestnut has adapted to our wilderness and is now doing just fine.” So, Drenthen concluded, maybe we should not define wildness according to where a plant originates from, but rather through the relationship we have with it.

A Relationship with the Wild

Martin Drenthen went on with the argument that understanding wildness through our relation with the plant helps us to consider our moral obligations to it. He pointed out that government policy in The Netherlands commonly divides our environment into three types: functional, arcadis and wild. “Each of these types of land corresponds to a different moral attitude,” he noticed. Functional environment generally means farmland, so our attitude is that we should use this environment to our best advantage. Arcadis environment, however, are types of land where people and animals live together, so our attitude is one of harmony with nature. Wilderness, on the other hand, is land that people should leave to nature, so the attitude is to restrict human intervention. Drenthen stressed that while these categories seem neatly divided, in realty our environment is a mesh of these categories. For instance, a patch of land can both be functional and arcadis, or arcadis and wild. This is also what we see in plants, such as the sweet chestnut, which was cultivated and now wild, or wildly cultivated. So our attitude to the plant, Drenthen concluded, should reflect the mesh of environmental categories by combining function with harmony, and restriction with protection.

The Exotic Versus the Native

After the talk by Martin Drenthen, Barbara Gravendeel, biologist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center and professor of Plant Evolution at Radboud University, continued the evening with her speech. She agreed with Drenthen that origin is not a good standard for determining whether a plant is wild and that wild and cultivated are not fixed concepts. Gravendeel explained this by telling a story of her research into Dutch hop plants. The flowers of the female hop plant are typically used as a stability agent in beer, but Dutch brewers often import their hop from other countries. Therefore, a group of Dutch brewers wanted to know whether there was any native, ‘wild’ hop still growing in The Netherlands that was cultivated for beer production here hundreds of years ago. By comparing new hop plants to dried hop plants that were stored in Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Gravendeel’s research team found out that some of the ‘wild’ hop plants that are now growing in The Netherlands indeed have the same origin as the plants that were cultivated here hundreds of years ago.

Gravendeel then related the argument that wild and cultivated are not fixed concepts to the recent discussion concerning ‘exotic species’. Exotic species are plants that survive in an ecosystem although they do not naturally belong to it. These species can be invasive and form a threat to other wildlife in the ecosystem. Therefore, the common opinion on exotic species is to remove them from the area. However, Gravendeel showed that over time most species in the ecosystem learn to adapt to the exotics. She argued that ecosystems are often more robust than we think. When we remind ourselves that plants have been around for so much longer than we have, she concluded, we can refrain from thinking that we should protect them and instead learn to listen to them.

Into the Wild

After their individual talks, Barbara Gravendeel and Martin Drenthen answered questions by the moderator of the evening, philosopher and programme manager at Radboud Reflects Wouter Veldman, and the audience. Veldman returned to the topic of ‘wildflowers’ and asked the question of whether we are helping insects by planting these seed mixtures in our gardens. While Gravendeel agreed that it is better to plant these mixtures than filling your garden with tiles, she pointed out that these mixtures often contain plants that are not yet adapted to our ecosystems. If you want to help the insects now, she told Veldman, you’d do better by planting flora that are adapted to the native environment. Drenthen added that we should also continue the discussion amongst the different attitudes we have to our environment in order to come to a consensus of how to treat the wild around us. He stated that we should learn how to negotiate with the wild plants. Gravendeel agreed and stated, “for me, it cannot get wild enough.”

Written by: Lisa Kampen, Research Master Philosophy student