May 2017: Exploring Human History Through Plants

Illustration of a pawpaw by Nancy S. Hart
Nancy Hart's illustration of a pawpaw was featured on the cover of the Spring, 1978 issue of The Morton Arboretum Quarterly.


“The more we know of other forms of life, the more we enjoy and respect ourselves… Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.” --Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia


The Ginkgo is a tree that has flourished for 200 million years, and an individual specimen may live to be thousands of years old. In the presence of a Ginkgo, it’s easy to feel like a visitor dropping in to spend time with a long-term resident. The Ginkgo is a clear link to our past, and to a time that precedes the human race, but it is not the only specimen through which we can learn our own history. From early humans gathering honey as many as 80,000 years ago to the “tulipomania” of the 1630s and the contemporary hunt for the pawpaw, America’s largest native fruit, the success of humanity is undeniably tied to the plants we grow, the plants we sell, and the plants we eat. Explore human history starting from the hive, the branch, or the petal with the resources featured in this month’s profile.


At the Arboretum

Trees from all around the world grow in the 1700 acres of The Morton Arboretum. You can look for your favorites on our website or focus on the trees in our Asia collections with the upcoming class, From East to West: History and Horticulture in the Asia Collections!


“[Humboldt] came up with the idea of vegetation and climate zones that snake across the globe. Most important, though, Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects, Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.” Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, page 5

“For almost all of its long tenure on our planet, ginkgo inhabited a world without people, and for much of that time, a world very different from that of today. For tens of millions of years it lived alongside plants and animals that are long since extinct. Several different kinds of ginkgolike trees watched as our ancestors transformed from reptiles to mammals. Fossil ginkgo leaves are known from every continent. The prehistory of ginkgo goes back to before the Atlantic Ocean existed and before the southern continents broke from Antarctica and went their own ways.” Peter Crane, Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot, pages 4-5.

Library Resources

The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind by Stephen Buchmann

The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad by Anna Pavord

Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore

Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot by Peter R. Crane

The Flower of Empire: An Amazonian Water Lily, the Quest to Make it Bloom, and the World it Created by Tatiana Holway*

Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilization and Changed the Way We Think About Nature by Richard Mabey*


*Access the Library’s e-book collection by entering the number on the back of your Sterling Morton Library card.