New Fangled Nature


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. 



  1. Sonja – easy for you to say!
    Michele, I’m also confused and conflicted about engineering, which is why I’d like to see some guest articles on that very subject right here. But this much I know: I, too, LOVE Ugly Betty. It’s literally the only network show I watch.

  2. Sonja, vielen Dank, aber zur Zeit gibt es kein SpaB mit meinem Garten. Heute haben wir Schnee! Der Winter ist noch nicht fertig.

    And sorry if that’s riddled with errors. No one’s asked me to write any German since 1979.

  3. Genetic engineering of plants is the future. What can be done will be done.
    My problem is with the money makers not the science.
    So far we have added pesticide (bt)and herbicide (round-up ready?) directly into the genes of plants and released those said plants into natures pool.
    A world without insects is a dead world. Pollinators and insect predators keep the balance that we are destroying. Global warming is the least of our problems if this keeps up.
    Humans want pretty flowers and decorations for their vanity. Or ever higher yields from cash crops.
    We don’t want to be bothered by mosquitoes and bees flitting around our outdoor parties. We don’t want to weed.
    That is were the problem lies.
    ‘Purple Majesty’ millet came about from a scientist at university trying to feed more people. The best seller is a plant that barely produces seed (which is the food part).
    May 27th is the 100th anniversery of Rachel Carson’s birth.Rachel who you say? She was a scientist.

  4. Back before genetically modified crops were a commercial variety, I remember a famous organic farmer being asked at a conference what he thought tinkering with plants like that.

    After a pause, he said he wouldn’t be vehemently against it if the engineers would only design a cover crop that would grow vigorously in spring, flower and die before corn planting, reseed itself and form a dense cover in fall to choke out weeds and prevent soil erosion, survive his harsh winters and grow again in the spring before the next crop.

    Only trouble is, he admitted, there’s not much money in that.

  5. In regards to specialty crop engineering I’d like to see a real life money tree come to fruition, one with a big fat crop of Ben Franklins so I can harvest to my hearts content .

    It would be completely organic, honest.

  6. This just in. A friend of mine, a frequent lurker here, wrote to say she wanted to rise in defense of her post-WW II-era parents. She went on: “And defend your parents, too. Your dad wrote that fabulous book that helped hundreds and hundreds of people. He wasn’t ignorant. Neither was your mom, who inspired you to love gardens. Don’t know if either was arrogant.” I found that very endearing, to be reminded of some of my parents’ best qualities by an old friend. (My dad – born 1915 -self-published a book called “The Manual of Pediatric Psychology,” which she describes as having helped hundreds of people and even that may be too generous a number, although she and her husband were two of his most enthusiastic endorsers.)

    That said, I’d be just as angry as Michele if I grew up in the natural-beauty-deprived suburb she’s described to us as her hometown.

  7. That mum-dahlia cross sounds fab, Michele! Much more truly sensible and useful than all the freakish hybrids we;re getting now that can’t even stand on their own two feet in the garden (my upcoming post).

  8. Beware of what you wish for… there are some really ugly “engineered” perennials on the market today already! (And no, I’m not going to name them–I’m guessing that a good number of Garden Rant readers actually plant some of these things and I don’t want to stir up any trouble amongst people I like.)

  9. Oh, Susan, that generation doesn’t need defending from the likes of little me! After all, Tom Brokaw practically annointed them all saints.

    Kim, fess up! Nobody reads us who doesn’t enjoy a bit of trouble now and then.

  10. I think I have read condemnations of just about every type of plant in existence on this and quite a few other gardening blogs.

    Many quite sweeping: “all houseplants,” “all bedding annuals,” “all daisies.”

    It’s just our fun.

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