The Botany of War
By LMG Calla Victoria
Recently I attended one of the Lagniappe Lecture series at the National World War II Museum in the U. S. Freedom Pavilion: Boeing Center. The speaker was world plant explorer, shaman apprentice, ethnobotanist,Time magazine’s “Hero of the Planet,” and expert on rainforest ecosystems, Dr. Mark Plotkin. The lecture was entitled "Quinine, Rubber, Sherman Tanks, and Japanese Submarines: How Rainforest Plants Served as Key Strategic Materials in World War II." Of course I was intrigued by the title, as one does not generally think of vegetation when the discussion of war is on the table.
Dr. Plotkin explained that plant material is an integral part of every war. When battleships were built they wanted the largest trees for the mast of the ships because the tallest masts would accommodate more sails thus allowing them to move faster. White pine Pinus strobus which grows 300 feet high was very much in demand. The Higgins boat, which was a landing craft used extensively in amphibious landings in World War II, was designed by Andrew Higgins and made of mahogany wood. More than 20,000 were built by Higgins Industries and licensees.
The Sherman tank, officially M4 General Sherman, the main battle tank designed and built by the United States for the conduct of World War II contained ½ ton of rubber which came from the rubber tree Ficus elastica. Rubber too was in demand for gas masks which contain 1.11 pounds of rubber, tires for all military vehicles, and rafts that were made of 100 pounds of rubber.
Dr. Plotkin went on to explain that the army which could get its soldiers healed and back on the battlefield the quickest usually won the war. Therefore medicinal plants were the winners of many battles. The cotton plant which belongs to the genus Gossypium malvaceae is one such plant. The root of some cotton species was used in fever, and seeds are used in treating gonorrhea, gleet, chronic cystitis, catarrah and dysentery. The seed oil was used to clear freckles and spots from the skin. The juice of the leaves of cotton is used against scorpion stings and snakebites while the gauze made from cotton binds wounds. Quinine Cinchona succirubra has been used for the treatment of malaria and associated febrile states, leg cramps caused by vascular spasm, internal hemorrhoids, and varicose veins. Myrrh Commiphora myrrha kills staph infections, while frankincense Boswellia serrata has been used for hundreds of years for treating arthritis, healing wounds, strengthening the female hormone system and purifying the air. Opium poppy Cinchona succirubra was used for pain and is the source of many narcotics, including morphine (and its derivative herion), codeine, papaverine, and noscapine. Dr. Plotkin’s lecture certainly looks at war from a botanical perspective and his final words at the close of the lecture were, “Mother Nature is the world’s best chemist.”
I cannot end this article without commenting on The National World War II Museum in New Orleans. This world-class facility is simply amazing. The customer service there is superb, the complimentary spirits and the food at the lecture was delectable, and the wait staff is first-class. The National WWII Museum was the perfect setting for the lecture as there was an actual Sherman tank literally about 3 feet from where I was setting, while a B-52 Bomber and other large combat planes hovered about 10 feet over my head. Prior to the lecture I had no interest in visiting the National WWII Museum, even though many of my sister Master Gardeners are caretakers of the Victory Garden there. I will definitely go back for a complete tour of that fascinating place. I did inquire if there was some sort of exhibit of the Tuskegee Airmen at the facility. I was told that there is an oral history and a temporary exhibit that was occasionally on display. It is my hope that the Tuskegee Airmen’s exhibit will become a permanent fixture at the awesome National WWII Museum.
This article is published in the September 20, 2014 edition of Data News Weekly.
Remember, never get too busy to stop and enjoy the beautiful flowers!