Last month a Google doodle marked the 189th birthday of Gregor Mendel by spelling out the Internet search company’s name with pea pods. Back in the day, every farmer knew that selective breeding sort of worked, but didn’t know why. Mendel founded the science of genetics when he started paying some serious attention to his peas.
Gregor Mendel: Genetics Pioneer is a short biography by Della Yannuzzi that’s on the New Arrivals shelf in the Lennoxville Library. It’s a Scholastic book filed under a green dot (making it a good read for children, but an easy primer for adults, too).
When he reached 21, he ran out of money, so the young Mendel joined the Augustinians, an order of monks with a love of science and learning. Years later, with the collected wisdom of his professors pointing him in the right direction, he collected up and separated peas into the wrinkled and the smooth. Then he planted them and pollinated them by hand. Come harvest time, he collected up the pods: “What happened to the wrinkled seeds? Had they disappeared? If the parental traits had blended, as was thought at the time, the plants should have been partly wrinkled and partly smooth, but they weren’t.” Mendel calculated the number of smooth and the number of wrinkled, and kept on planting and cross-pollinating.
His experiments ended with the discovery of dominant and recessive genes, and the beginnings of an understanding of how we pass on traits from one generation to the next. Read this with your budding 4H member!
Almost 200 years later, Mendel’s ideas continue to inform how we breed plants. The Orchid Thief, by New Yorker magazine writer Susan Orlean (1998 and filed in non-fiction) follows the orchid poacher John Laroche. The white Laroche and three Seminole Indians stole into a protected Florida swamp and started shoving dozens of endangered orchids into cotton pillowcases.
Orlean, curious about such an odd crime, becomes Laroche’s shadow to find out why this nutter must own one of every orchid species there is.
Horticulturalist Laroche wanted to save the orchids by cloning them. He also cross-pollinates plants, to create new orchid hybrids (a tip of the hat to Gregor Mendel, please, as well as to Rex Stout’s fictional detective Nero Wolfe, an avid orchid guy). Laroche sometimes popped seeds into the microwave for a minute and would hope for a mutation to speed things along.
This is an engrossing and delightful look at obsession and the science of growing (or smuggling) freakishly beautiful plants. Even Queen Victoria bred orchids, the only woman in Britain who was above the law that shielded women from exposure to the provocative shapes of these oddities.
People who love plants often love portraits of their greenery. Christina Brodie has written and illustrated a guide to Drawing And Painting Plants (2006). Brodie teaches botanical painting, and her over-sized soft-cover discusses plant classification, collection and storage. All to help create the perfect portrait.
Techniques include drawing, watercolour, gouache, ink… and there’s even a section on dissection, as that’s the way to understand how the flower is as it is. This is a how-to and a why-to of vegetation for anyone who loves plants, whether you plan on picking up a paintbrush or not.
And it’s full of luscious illustrations.
And finally, after breeding, pollinating, studying, and painting plants, it’s time to gobble them all up. Try Diana Shaw’s Almost Vegetarian: A Primer For Cooks Who Are Eating Vegetarian Most Of The Time, Chicken And Fish Some Of The Time, And Altogether Well All Of The Time (1994). (And for those who need meat, just add it in — Good Reads won’t get snarky about it.)
The basics include how to soak beans so they don’t come out from the pot as hot little rocks, and how to steam rice and make veggie staples like hummus. From there, you can move on to chapters on Soups, Salads, Starters, Pasta, Vegetable Main Dishes, Poultry, Fish and (miam!) Desserts.
Bored with those endless beets? Try a beet risotto.
Or what about that zucchini? “Grown in quantities far exceeding its usefulness or desirability,” writes Shaw, “zucchini has little nutritional value or flavour, but it comes in handy for adding bulk and colour to vegetable stews, soups and sauces. The best zucchini are deep green, firm, and no more than six inches long. Small zucchini are best because they contain relatively little water, which accumulates as they grow.” Shaw’s suggestion? Vegetable Ragu. It’s on page 153. Elsewise, Good Reads is taking Shaw’s advice and tossing a bit into everything…
– Eleanor Brown, August 8, 2011