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Virtual Event: Plants Go to War: A Botanical History of WWII
with Judith Sumner
As the first botanical history of World War II, Plants Go to War examines military history from the perspective of plant science. From victory gardens to drugs, timber, rubber, and fibers, plants supplied materials with key roles in victory. Vegetables provided the wartime diet both in North America and Europe, where vitamin-rich carrots, cabbages, and potatoes nourished millions. Chicle and cacao provided the chewing gum and chocolate bars in military rations. In England and Germany, herbs replaced pharmaceutical drugs; feverbark was in demand to treat malaria, and penicillin culture used a growth medium made from corn. Rubber was needed for gas masks and barrage balloons, while cotton and hemp provided clothing, canvas, and rope. Timber was used to manufacture Mosquito bombers, and wood gasification and coal replaced petroleum in European vehicles. Lebensraum, the Nazi desire for agricultural land, drove Germans eastward; troops weaponized conifers with shell bursts that caused splintering. Ironically, the Nazis condemned non-native plants, but adopted useful Asian soybeans and Mediterranean herbs. Jungle warfare and camouflage required botanical knowledge, and survival manuals detailed edible plants on Pacific islands. Botanical gardens relocated valuable specimens to safe areas, and while remote locations provided opportunities for field botany, Trees surviving in Hiroshima and Nagasaki live as a symbol of rebirth after vast destruction.
Judith Sumner is a botanist who specializes in ethnobotany, flowering plants, plant adaptations, and garden history. She has taught extensively both at the college level and at botanical gardens, including the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and Garden in the Woods. Judith graduated from Vassar College and completed graduate studies in botany at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and at the British Museum (Natural History) and did extensive field work in the Pacific region on the genus Pittosporum. She has published monographic studies in the American Journal of Botany, Pollen et Spores, and Allertonia, as well as monographing two families for Flora Vitiensis Nova. Her other projects and areas of interest have included field studies in the Great Smoky Mountains, work with AID/Santo Domingo on developing petroleum-rich plants, and a commitment to science education. Judith served as a visiting scientist for several summers in the LEAP (Learning About Plants) program at Harvard for Boston school teachers and has volunteered as a National Public Radio Science Mentor. She has spent summers working with teachers the Museum Institutes for Teaching Science (MITS) program and conducting workshops on science writing. Judith has been the lecturer-in-residence at the Star Island Natural History Conference, and she has been a guest on the Martha Stewart Living television show, the PBS program "Cultivating Life" with Sean Conway, and various other PBS and educational programs. She recently presented a First Friday lecture at the Boston Museum of Science and was a featured lecturer at the Herb Society (USA) annual meeting. Her column “The Gardener’s Kitchen” (under the pseudonym Laura Craig) appeared in Horticulture magazine for several years. In 2007 Judith was awarded the Gertrude B. Foster Award for Excellence in Herbal Literature by the Herb Society of America.Her book American Household Botany won the American Horticultural Society Book Award in 2005