Hanson Thor. 2015. The Triumph of the Seeds: How grains, nuts, kernels, pulses, & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York (NY): Basic Books.
In this industrial age it seems to be quite easy to forget that plants provide more than just nourishment. Plants build our homes, they clothe our bodies, and even offer us the means to eliminate our enemies. Plants share a dichotomy of life and death. They are capable of saving lives just as well as taking them. Chapter 11 of Thor Hanson’s Triumph of the Seed brings attention to these two contrasting aspects of plants but mainly focuses on the toxins that seeds produce and the ways they are used.
Hanson begins his chapter on the grim tale of plants with a humorous start. If “Death by Umbrella” did not grab your attention then I do not know what would. The chapter title did grasp my attention but it was the first paragraph that really drew me in. When I first read The Triumph of the Seed I was not very interested. Yes, it was humorous to read his struggles of trying to open up a seed with his office desk but the following pages I read were not quite as easy to follow. I am not sure it was because Hanson progressed in his abilities to tell a story or if it was due to the fact I found plant toxins a more interesting topic to read about, but I devoured this chapter faster than my dog with a Dentastix (which, by the way, is really fast).
As morbid as it sounds, I really enjoyed the introduction of the James Bond-esque death of Georgi Markov that Hanson presented at the beginning of the chapter. Not only did it present a simple way to ease the reader into the subject material, it provided a bizarre and interesting real life example of how deadly a plant can be. I asked my mother what comes to her mind when I said deadly plants and her immediate response was “Venus flytrap”. To many people, a deadly plant should be large and intimidating. A deadly plant should have a great cavernous maw with rows of sharp jagged teeth-like spines and be capable of devouring animals in one gulp. These deadly plants should only be found in far off and exotic places where only the most intrepid explorer can find them. A deadly plant should not be available off the Internet with a few clicks of the mouse and a handy credit card.
I could not believe that something so dangerous could be so readily available to people, but Hanson demonstrated this was exactly the case. Castor beans, the source of the deadly toxin responsible for Markov’s death, can be purchased off the internet. They are also the main component in Castrol oil. In addition, castor bean can be used in jewelry or as an ornamental plant. I had to google what a castor beans looked like and why anyone would want to grow them. They are actually quite striking looking plants with red fuzzy looking fruit. I also discovered my neighbour down the street grows one in their backyard. Small world, huh.
Hanson involves other people in his story about seeds. In earlier chapters, we became acquainted with Carol and Jerry Baskin, two experts in seeds. We met with Bill DiMichelle later on in the bottom of a desert canyon as well. In this chapter, Hanson introduced us to his friend and colleague Steve Brunsfeld. I thought it was amusing to read about the two of them consuming almendro seeds despite the risks they pose to liver cells and the fact that Steve was a liver cancer survivor. I was very upset to read he passed away later on due to remission of his cancer. Hanson already described the death of Georgi Markov but for some reason reading about the passing of Steve Brunsfeld felt more personal.
Looking back on the chapter, I began to realize how naïve and ignorant I am about the world of seeds. It really should not shock me that deadly plants are easily available to the general public. When I think about it, many of the plants we consume on a daily basis contain toxins. Just take apples as an example; the seeds contain cyanide. There reason for this toxicity is because the plant needs to protect its offspring. Hanson explains this quite well. “On the surface, the notion of lethal seed poisons seem to make perfect sense. It’s a natural extension of the same adaptations that led to spices, caffeine, and other natural defensive compounds. After all, what better way to protect your seeds than to kill anything that tries to eat them?” (pg. 172)
Hanson has further enlightened me about the world of seeds. As I said before, the toxicity of plants should not shock me. Plants need to be able to protect their offspring to ensure the continuation of their species. I guess I just never thought about toxins from a plants point of view. As a human, poison mean death, but to a plant, it means life.