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'Founding Gardeners' Sheds Light On Plant Diplomacy

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Photo courtesy of Bull Run Mountain Farm

Plants aren't known for having much of a role in modern-day diplomacy, but back in the early days of the United States' founding, they played a surprisingly important role in our leaders' relationships with counterparts overseas.

Sharing seeds and information about crop varieties was a coin of the realm among diplomats and presidents. Thomas Jefferson, George Madison and Ben Franklin all cemented friendships and saw it their official duty to expand knowledge about plants. Metro Connection's Sabri Ben-Achour talks with author Andrea Wulf about this early plant history and her new book, "Founding Gardeners."

Wulf on how our Founding Fathers relate to today's gardeners and farmers: "They called themselves foremost farmers and gardeners. They didn't see themselves just as politicians. Their most important, kind of, profession was being a farmer... you'll see that in almost every single letter that they wrote, they will mention their soil, their trees, their plants. So, it was incredibly important for them."

Wulf on Benjamin Franklin and how he made self-sufficiency of the colony a big priority: "At that time, Benjamin Franklin is in London as the agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, but he very quickly becomes a kind of spokesperson of all colonies. And he says, 'If we just produce everything ourselves, then we don't need Britain and we become self-sufficient.' So he literally frantically begins to send seeds of possibly good crops over to America from England. He suggests that in America we can brew our own tea. We don't need to have the tea from the East India Company. We can kind of make it from other things. And so the self-sufficiency becomes incredibly important, and that's all based on agriculture in America, in the colonies.

Wulf on Thomas Jefferson's contributions: "Thomas Jefferson says that the introduction of a new useful vegetable — of a new species — to America is the greatest service you can do to your country. And at the end of his life, when he judges his services to his country, he writes a list... [On his list] includes writing the Declaration of Independence, but on the same list, he also includes that he introduced upland rice to the southern colonies, which he had smuggled under the threat of the death penalty from Italy while he was in Europe."

Wulf on botany and how it related to our national identity: "I think it's a kind of wider thing. It's something like when you look at how they use the wilderness as an expression for America as a strong nation... So they had to find something that was better in America and they found it in the landscape — in the kind of untamed forests, in the kind of rugged mounds, in the wilderness. That became the expression of a nation that kind of unshackled itself from tyranny."


[Music: "Diplomacy March" by Matthew H. Phillips and His Circus Band from Circus Spectacular]

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