Surprising, except that Malitz’ university webpage says "classification theory" is an area of expertise. And Plants for the Future is all about increasingly sophisticated techniques such as cell fusion, in vitro fertilization, embryo rescue, and gene transfer that allow plant breeders to leap across the taxonomic divides and produce new plants from parents that would never dally in nature. For example, a tomato-potato cross–or a tomato with a mouse gene–though who would want such a thing?
But the majority of the book is devoted to wish lists of plants we really would want, plants that Malitz believes could be engineered–and should be–just for the delight of gardeners.
For example, Malitz sees no reason why calla lilies couldn’t soon be crossed with with hardier arums in order to create winter-tolerant callas. Well, a pond ringed with callas is one of my deepest desires, and it would be nice if I didn’t have to move south or west to get one.
Or how about dahlias–another of my favorite things–crossed with mums, to create a plant that would retain those stunning dahlia flowers, but could be left in the ground over the winter?
Or how about purple loosestrife–that noxious though beautiful weed–crossed with its fellow family member the crape myrtle to make it behave?
While I’m sure the academic literature is full of such blithe stuff and so are trade pubs for plant breeders, the bookstore garden shelves are not. It’s unusual these days to run across a reasonably well-written and interesting gardening book that is so unabashedly pro-science, so calmly accepting of our meddling with the natural order, so guiltlessly pro-pleasure, so very…well…my parents’ generation. And the author photo suggests that Malitz may indeed be of a pre-boomer vintage. (For a far more ironic and suspicious take on plant engineering, check out Amy Stewart’s Flower Confidential.)
Of course, the results of all the tinkering Malitz recommends could be Frankenperennials that will do serious damage when they are unleashed on the natural world. Or, worse, a whole lot of very unsubtle gardens filled with gigantoid, fluorescent-colored, hyper-dramatic plants.
Or the tinkering may just rescue us from ourselves. Maybe when global warming sends all the sugar maples to Quebec, we’ll be able to repair the damage by engineering sugar maples that can take balmy winters and the insects that go with it.
Engineering. It will either ruin us or save us. I’m not always sure which.