Plants Go To War: A Botanical History of World War II by Judith Sumner. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc.; 2019. ISBN: 978-1476676128. Softcover, 366 pages. $49.95. www.mcfarlandbooks.com/.
A few years ago, while researching the ethnobotany of warfare for an HerbalGram article,1 I called the National WWII Museum in my hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana, and asked if they might be interested in having me give a lecture on the topic. The initial response was concise: “No.”
I replied that plants played an important role in World War II: rubber from Hevea brasiliensis (Euphorbiaceae) for Sherman tanks, quinine from cinchona (Cinchona spp., Rubiaceae) bark for treating malaria, and many others.
“Nope, not interested,” they said.
I persevered, mentioning that plants as both foodstuffs and medicines played a role in many military conflicts. The final reply, in so many words: “Dude, we’re the guns and ammo crowd. Why don’t you call the botanical garden instead?”
Thousands of books have been written and hundreds of movies made about WWII. One might wonder what remains to be said. With the publication of Judith Sumner’s, PhD, wonderful new book, many more people will have the opportunity to learn about the extraordinary role plants played in history’s most widespread conflict.
Unambiguously, plants have long played an important role in warfare, possibly predating the rise of the human species: Chimpanzees are known to wield sticks as clubs in battle. The armies of imperial Rome used wood for spears, shields, and catapults while traveling in wooden ships and carts, cooking over wood fires, and employing plants as medicines. In the first century CE, Dioscorides, author of De Materia Medica, served as a physician in Nero’s armies where he was tasked with learning which plants were employed by local tribes for therapeutic purposes.
Plants have always been found on the battlefield, whether it is wine from grapes (Vitis vinifera, Vitaceae) as an antibiotic, opium from the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum, Papaveraceae) as a painkiller during the Trojan Wars, kapok (Ceiba pentandra, Malvaceae) seed hairs for life vest stuffing during WWII, or cotton (Gossypium hirsutum, Malvaceae) for wound dressing during 21st-century conflicts.
In her preface, Sumner quotes the late Harvard ethnobotanist and my mentor Richard Evans Schultes, PhD: “Botanical knowledge is fundamental to understanding civilization and interpreting conflict.” In the classroom, Schultes expressed a more sardonic view as to why the role of plants is so often underestimated: “The problem is that history is written by historians who know little or nothing about plants and their fundamental roles in the rise of civilization,” he said.
Sumner’s book is encyclopedic in scope, covering not only the home front in both the United States and England, but also Germany and Japan and even tropical Asia, where many key battles were fought. So broad is her reach that Plants Go to War could nearly be used as a textbook for economic botany courses. The book includes chapters on agriculture, fibers, forestry, medical botany, oils, resins, and rubber. Sumner also includes detailed sections on chocolate (Theobroma cacao, Malvaceae), coffee (Coffea spp., Rubiaceae), soybeans (Glycine max, Fabaceae), sugar beets (Beta vulgaris, Chenopodiaceae), quinine, latex, and penicillin.
Penicillin is an antibiotic derived from the fungus Penicillium chrysogenum (Trichocomaceae) and was produced in adequate quantities only after the plants on which it best thrived were identified. She covers a panoply of aspects of plant use in the war, from the woods used in airplanes and boats, to the creation of children’s gardens, to methods developed to combat vitamin deficiencies, to the use of plants in deception and camouflage.
One intriguing part of the book is how much globalization already had occurred by the late 1930s. The breakdown of international trade and travel threatened and sometimes curtailed the temperate world’s access to tropical staples like coffee, sugar (Saccharum officinarum, Poaceae), and tea (Camellia sinensis, Theaceae). The book’s most arresting image shows the before-and-after of the camouflaging of the crucial Lockheed factories in Burbank, California: Airfields and parking lots were painted to look like fields, and ersatz trees and house frames draped with burlap (manufactured, presumably, from jute [Corchorus capsularis, Malvaceae] or sisal [Agave sisalana, Asparagaceae]) were rendered to resemble a bucolic rural landscape.”
Sumner is particularly strong in discussing the ethnobotany of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan), such as the domestic efforts to feed the populations in both Germany and Japan. This became a crucial issue in the later stages of the war: As the Allies gained the upper hand, their Axis opponents faced hunger and even starvation. The book contains especially notable and well-researched sections on German herbalism and agriculture and the supplying of the front lines.
Plants Go to War — a great title, by the way — is exceptionally well researched, with more than 500 references and more than 700 chapter notes. In my eyes, Sumner has produced a classic work of ethnobotanical history. My only quibble: I found the print a bit too small for such an extended read. The wealth of information is so well presented, though, that the reader will likely visit its pages again and again.
Mark Plotkin, PhD, is an ethnobotanist with the Amazon Conservation Team (www.amazonteam.org).
- Plotkin M. Notes on the ethnobotany of warfare. HerbalGram. 2014;101:48-57. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/101/table-of-contents/hg101-feat-ethnobotwarfare/. Accessed February 9, 2020.