Pop Culture and Plant Biology
Art and Literature
"Sublime nature" is a strong theme in Romantic era art and literature. Plants and the wilderness they create were particularly exalted during this period.
The Romantic era, in the late 18th century to mid 19th century, glorified nature and many Romantic books, poems, and artwork paid homage to sublime nature. The Romantic Movement, after all, was a response to the rationalization and institutionalized thinking that characterized the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. To Romantic thinkers, nature and its wildness represented freedom from the strict social and political norms of the day.
One of the great Romantic painters, John Constable, painted many landscapes where trees played a large role. Though his paintings were not highly popular at the time, since they depicted an orderly natural setting as opposed to wild scenes, they show a respect and reverence for the local flora. The Cornfield, The Hay Wain, and Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows all depict large, imposing trees that are integral pieces of the scene. In the Voyage of Life series, Thomas Cole portrays Childhood and Youth as places with lush vegetation, full of bliss and innocence. In Manhood and Old Age, the trees have died or disappeared; wilderness is supposed to be dangerous and untamed. Caspar David Friedrich presented many wild scenes in his landscape paintings, which he hoped would help provoke emotional responses to the natural world. Friedrich depicted not only beauty in his natural scenes, but barren trees and stumps, symbolizing death and the spiritual self.
Impressionism in the 19th century also emphasized nature and all its lovely plants. Monet’s famous Haystacks series, have as their subjects, stacks of dried plant material. These haystacks were actually piles of harvested wheat covered by hay, which protected the wheat until it could be processed.
If you look at one of Monet’s haystacks from a biological perspective, there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. That is not just a pile of wheat and hay; that is a pile of grasses. Grasses, being monocots, have shallow root systems, parallel veination and floral parts in multiples of threes. Some of the dried grasses in that haystack probably have seeds still attached to them. While the wheat sits in the field waiting to be processed, some of the seeds might start germinating. Or some seeds might even disperse. The descendants of the grasses that ended up in Monet’s haystacks might even still be alive today.
Of course, Monet also painted lots of gardens, and poppy fields, and tulips, and roses. And we all know that those showy flowers are just wheedling their way into pollinator’s good graces so they get their pollen transferred.
Paul Cézanne, another Impressionist painter, featured lots of trees in his work. If only he had Shmoop to tell him that the trees in Jas de Bouffan lost their leaves because they went dormant for the winter.
Cézanne painted a series of still lifes focusing on colorful fruits. As we know, plants have duped us into eating the fruit and spitting out those precious seeds, dispersing plant genes all around the world.
Visual artists aren’t the only ones who appreciate plants. Many writers draw their inspiration from plant form and function.
In "Tintern Abbey," William Wordsworth notices the "orchard-tufts…with their unripe fruits" but you’ve got a one-up on Wordsworth. You know that ethylene hasn’t yet been released to ripen those fruits, and that they have triploid endosperms. Wordsworth exalts the woods and describes himself as a worshipper of nature. In the meadow and woods, plants are all around him, and he’s loving it.
In his poem, "The Lime Bower my Prison," Samuel Taylor Coleridge is forced to stay behind while his friends go out on a hike. However, Coleridge finds solace in the beautiful greenery surrounding him. He notes a walnut tree, elms and ivy, and even observes a bee pollinating a flower. Coleridge got to see nature in action without even leaving his front door. Sometimes plants can surprise us; a tree may burst into flower overnight, or it suddenly becomes autumn when red, orange and yellow leaves fill up the streets and lawns.
Look for leaves, seeds, buds, moss, and flowers in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind," even though the poem is really about the poet’s capacity to share his ideas throughout the world. Like the seeds and decaying leaves, the narrator hopes the wind will pick him up and spread his thoughts. Just as dispersing seeds of a plant may change the species composition of the ecological community the seeds reach, spreading new ideas may change the social or political atmosphere of the human community new ideas reach.
Now that we’ve convinced ourselves that the Romantic poets really did love plant biology, let’s move on. Guess what? Modern poets love nature too! What a coincidence. Ted Hughes’ poem "Big Poppy" is all about one flower, and Seamus Heaney’s " Blackberry Picking" is (spoiler alert) about blackberries. This illustrates plants’ unique hold on us humans—they lure us in, and once we’re snared, they won’t let us go. Since humans rely on plants for food, fuel, medicines, and beauty, the least we can do is write a few poems about them.