Plants that changed history

Dr Ross Ferguson ONZM FRSNZ. 7:30pm Tuesday 27 August 2013

Branch members and guests gathered to hear Dr Ferguson’s lecture at the Hawke’s Bay Holt Planetarium. We are grateful to Dr Ferguson for coming to speak with us, and the the Planetarium for hosting the evening.

Dr Ferguson says that rather than study only the actions of individual men and women, of governments or of economic forces, we should also look at plants because it is plants that ultimately determine the quality and course of human life. Most of the foods that form part of our normal diet, we would not think of as exotic.  And this shows just how blasé we have become.

What we have is really a remarkable range of food – truly exotic food in the sense that it is alien: introduced from abroad: brought in from outside. The movement of plants and foodstuffs from one country to another has had many consequences.

Dr Ferguson’s thought provoking talk considered the implications of the pursuit of some addictive plants and was illustrated by many paintings and engravings. The socially accepted addictions discussed include tea, coffee, sugar and chocolate. Staple foods such as potatoes and grains have had remarkably less influence on history than the more lucrative extras.

The domestication of a vast array of foods has determined the way we can dine today. It has also encouraged world exploration- spices; created a commodity second only to oil – coffee; started wars – tea and opium; led to population boom and bust – potato; and believed to have created happiness, sobriety and higher thought – coffee and sugar.

Dr Ross Ferguson, FRSNZ has worked  with DSIR and then Plant & Food Research mainly on the biology of kiwifruit and related species.  He made a detailed study of kiwifruit, their origin in China and the process of domestication leading to them becoming New Zealand’s most important horticultural export.

Reviewed by Phillipa Page

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