Curiosity queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Two hundred thirty-one years ago today Thomas Jefferson celebrated his 44th birthday riding a mule over the Alps on his way to Italy. Jefferson’s first official federal position after writing the Declaration of Independence was serving as Minister to France under President George Washington. Jefferson’s job was to grow America’s economy, which he did by forming trade agreements to sell whale oil and tobacco overseas. He also looked for new crops that could be grown in the U.S. and sold in Europe.
One thing he noticed was that the French ate a lot of rice, but they didn’t buy rice grown in America. The French preferred dry or upland rice. American farmers grew “swamp” rice and suffered with mosquitoes and malaria. Jefferson thought that if American farmers switched to upland rice they would not only be able to sell it abroad, they would also be healthier.
Jefferson asked for samples of upland rice from friends, farmers, ship captains who traveled to far off lands, and even the seven-year-old prince of Cochin China. The most prized rice, however, was grown in Italy and banned from export.
Determined to help America, Jefferson rode over the Alps and found the unhusked grain. “I could only bring off as much as my coat and surtout [overcoat] pockets would hold,” he wrote a friend. Under penalty of death, he smuggled it across the border.
Back in France, Jefferson sent rice to farmers in South Carolina and to his farm manager at Monticello, his home in Virginia. He even grew samples of rice in pots on his windowsill when he returned to New York to be Secretary of State.
Unfortunately, the upland rice didn’t grow well in the South and didn’t become a big export for the U.S., but Jefferson was not discouraged. He had already set his sights on another amazing plant that he hoped would be “the source of the greatest wealth and happiness.” Olive trees.
Many years later when Jefferson listed his achievements, along with writing the Declaration of Independence he included his attempts to bring rice and olives to the United States. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” he said, “is to add an useful plant to its culture.”
Celebrate his birthday with a salad made from some of the useful plants he brought to our culture— kale, tomatoes, peppers and chickpeas with a splash of olive oil.
Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!
Peggy Thomas is the author of Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation
Among her other books are:
* For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson
* Snow Dance
* Farmer George Plants A Nation
* Joshua the Giant Frog
* Forensic Anthropology: the Science of Talking Bones
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson - Smuggler!" Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 13 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Curiosity Queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Regular visiting hours are over at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens, but the line to see Morty reaches out the door. It’s an event that comes once in a decade, so I’m happy to wait for my chance to see, and smell, what’s inside.
A year ago the Botanical Gardens acquired corms or bulbs of a tropical plant called the corpse flower. These aren’t little tulip bulbs you hold in your hand. The corpse flower corm weighs 120 pounds and looks like a giant potato. A corm that big needs a lot of energy to grow, so, it spends several months dormant underground. When the first hint of green peeks through the soil, it’s a guessing game as to what it will look like. Most of the time, the corpse flower will send up a slender shoot and one complex leaf that looks like a tree canopy. Through photosynthesis, this leaf will provide energy that will be stored in the corm. When there is enough energy stored up, Morty will flower. And that’s what I’m excited to witness.
Weaving my way through displays of cactus, palms, and banana trees, I wonder if someone forgot to take the trash out. The odor of rotting meat wrinkles my nose, and I realize why Morty is called a corpse flower. As we move closer, the air grows thicker. This plant has been dumpster diving.
The stink Morty sends forth is the plant’s way to attract pollinators in its native jungle of Sumatra. The flower only lasts a day or two, so the scent has to be pungent enough to quickly draw in dung beetles and carrion flies that will collect the pollen and distribute it to other plants before it wilts. It’s curiosity that lures me in.
I round the corner and catch my first glimpse of the stinker. Since it poked out of the ground it has grown five to six inches every day, and now Morty’s seven-foot spire, called a spadix, towers over me. I have to step back to catch the entire plant in my camera lens. Like a wicked witch’s collar, Morty wears a single pleated, blood red flower petal wrapped around the spadix. By midnight the flower will be fully opened and have reached maximum reek.
I click more pictures and take a deep breath. It will be a long time before Morty blooms again, and I want to remember every smelly detail.
Peggy Thomas certainly is a Curiosity Queen. You'll recall that her last Nonfiction Minute showed her taking an elephant's temperature -- not an easy task. Her book Anatomy of Nonfiction shows other authors how to write about real events.
To read about some of Peggy's other adventures and to find out about her books, visit her website.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Morty Makes a Stink." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Morty-Makes-a-Stink.
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