By Maryann Readal
To quote author Judith Sumner in the preface to her new book, Plants Go to War: A Botanical History of World War II, “The war could not have been won without rubber, but the same might be said about wheat, cotton, lumber, quinine, and penicillin, all with botanical origins.” In her book, Sumner documents many of the plants that were critical to World War II efforts on all sides of the battlefield. Indeed, her research is exhaustive in that she covers not only the military uses of plants but also civilian uses as well by the major countries involved in the war.
As the war disrupted supplies of plants needed for medicine, food, and manufacturing, governments had to look for alternatives. Some were successful in growing tropical plants and food crops on their own soil; some began to look for chemical alternatives. A chemical synthesis of quinine to fight malaria was one of those discovered alternatives.
Sumner reveals that adequate nutrition was a monumental consideration for governments. Not only troop nutrition, but also civilian nutrition, as it was important that good physical and mental health of all people was critical to support the war effort. Victory gardens were born then, with many people growing their own fruits and vegetables so that soldiers would have enough to eat. In Great Britain, people were encouraged to grow vegetables even in bombed-out craters. Schoolchildren would go on farming vacations in order to grow and harvest crops due to the shortage of men to do the farming. In Germany, the Lebensraum idea was the impetus behind Hitler’s attempt to secure more land for German farmers to grow German native plants for food and other purposes.
In reading Judith’s book, I got a glimpse into the incredible foresight and organization governments need to conduct a war on the battlefield, while simultaneously sustaining the home front. Reading the book also enabled me to better understand some of my parents’ attitudes about food and thrift that carried over into everyday life, even when the war was over.
To those of us who are involved with the collection and spreading of plant, and particularly herb, knowledge, this book demonstrates how important that work is. For as Ms. Sumner says in her book, “practical information about how plants could be used for survival came from botanical gardens, herbaria, and notes archived in botanical libraries.”
Sumner says that her “goal was to write an encyclopedic synthesis of civilian and military plant uses and botanical connections as they relate to World War II.” I believe she has accomplished this goal with her authoritative and informative book. I am sure that it is destined to be a classic source on this topic. Her book is a reminder of how important plants and plant knowledge, collected during peace time, can be in a world crisis.
JUDITH SUMNER is a botanist and author with particular interest in the historical uses of plants. She is a frequent lecturer for audiences of all kinds and has taught for many years at colleges and botanical gardens. She lives in Worcester, MA. Judith received The Herb Society of America’s Gertrude Foster writing award in 2007.
Plants Go To War: A Botanical History of World War II by Judith Sumner. Publisher: McFarland. McFarlandBooks.com
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.