I was reminded a couple weeks ago that there are people out there who have problems with hybrid plants (orchids in particular) just because they're hybrids. (See both the original post by The Phytophactor, and the comment by A. L. Gibson.)
In both cases, the objection seems to be that the plants aren't "real," by which they mean occurring in nature. (Whatever our other differences, I think we can all agree that hybrid orchids are not imaginary.) The Phytophactor calls them "unnatural contrivances," and points out that there's nothing particularly difficult about making a hybrid orchid: what keeps them from interbreeding freely in the wild is their requirement for very specific pollinators, so if people can bypass that requirement and create thousands of peculiar new crosses, it's hardly a surprise, and if I'm reading him correctly, he also considers the whole business unnecessary. We already have lots of pre-made orchids, just lying around on trees and growing in fields and what have you, that look all kinds of different ways and do all kinds of different things: what do we need with more of them?
Gibson is even less charitable, and says he's only interested in "the real, natural and purpose-driven species in our native soil," and thinks "our native species blow anything in your local garden/flower shop out of the water in both beauty and importance."
So okay. I'm going to just roll my eyes at the idea that the beauty of native wild orchids is relevant to the discussion. Beauty is famously subjective, for one thing, and it's really beside the point whether Phytophactor or Gibson see it in hybrid orchids, because thousands (millions?) of other people do. I mean, I don't really see beauty in Megan Fox's body, hear beauty in Rush's music, or find myself moved by the poetry of baseball games,1 but I'm pretty sure I'm outnumbered on all counts, so I conclude that there's something pretty and interesting there that I am just not able to see.
I think "purpose-driven" and "importance" are a bit off-target as well. Hybrid orchids have a purpose. It happens to be more economic than ecological: they have reshuffled their genes to appeal to human beings, to make us say ooooh, I want to buy that. But it's a reason to exist all the same, and by at least some objective measures, I'd say they're resoundingly successful.2 If your primary interest in plants is ecological, I can see how hybrid orchids wouldn't strike you as important, but I submit that that says more about you than it does about them.
The reason for writing this, though, is because I saw The Phytophactor's post while working on the dyed-orchid post that went up on 29 January. And it occurred to me that objecting to the unnaturalness of dyed orchids is not that far from objecting to the unnaturalness of hybrid orchids. Both are creations of commerce, rather than creations of nature, both appeal to some people even if I may not see it myself, and all that. Which is fairly obvious in retrospect, but it's not a connection I'd made before. And I further realized that if I saw a hybrid phal that looked like "Blue Mystique," odds are I'd be pretty excited about it, even with the bizarre electric/toilet-bowl-water blue color. Even a hybrid phal that only bloomed once and then died, like most bromeliads do naturally,3 wouldn't bother me nearly as much as a dyed phal that blooms once in blue and thereafter in white. So clearly I've got some natural/unnatural hangups of my own.
This then led to the realization that I've seen people get upset about the "unnaturalness" of lots of different aspects of gardening. There are those poor delusional/demented souls who dislike indoor plants because plants are supposed to be planted in the ground, not in containers, not in a house. I've discovered in the course of writing PATSP that some people hate invasive plants so much they'll even yell at you for saying nice things about growing them indoors, where there's no chance of invading anything. Other people get upset with the (outdoor) planting of non-native species, invasive or not. Some want to talk your ear off about the ridiculous artificiality of perfectly-manicured green lawns.4 There's really no end to it. And my big epiphany was that of course everybody's got some kind of natural/unnatural snobbery that gets under their skin, because: plant cultivation is inherently an unnatural thing to do. Even though we have all agreed to treat it as being a part of nature, and talk about bringing a bit of nature indoors or maintaining a little bit of wildlife habitat in the backyard, there's nothing natural about a scenario where a person decides which plants will be planted, where they go, how and whether they reproduce, etc.
Now there's a whole big discussion to be had about whether the word "unnatural" can actually refer to anything, ever, which I will skip because that's headed toward stoned-college-sophomore territory.5 And I don't mean to suggest that because all plant cultivation is inherently unnatural, it necessarily follows that all the ways of cultivating plants are equally desirable. I'm just saying that calling something "unnatural" is not a good enough reason to disapprove of a practice, and maybe we should worry less about natural/unnatural and more about harmful/benign.
Which, honestly, hybrid orchids aren't harmful. And neither are dyed orchids. (Probably.6)
It may be that none of the above is particularly revelatory for you, or that you disagree with it, or that you just can't bring yourself to give a shit one way or the other. Which is fine. But the above train of thought has given me a slightly different perspective about what I find distasteful and why.
I'll miss the stone-throwing, but hey, this is a pretty sweet glass house.
Lyonara and Phalaenopsis: mr_subjunctive, taken at the Illowa Orchid Show, last March at Wallace's Garden Center in Bettendorf, IA.
Fredclarkeara: Taylor Holzer, at the Phipps Conservatory. Used by permission.
1 Or, for the most part, by the poetry of poetry, as far as that goes, though there are occasional exceptions. I think this is mostly due to Sturgeon's Law, and not because there's anything wrong with poetry as an art form.
2 Possible objective measurements of orchid "success:" amount of money generated from their production and sales, total biomass, total number of described species vs. named hybrids. I don't know that hybrids would beat species on all three (I'm not even sure where one would begin trying to estimate numbers for each), but I'm pretty sure they'd win the first.
3 (and like the majority of dyed Phalaenopsis do unnaturally)
4 (Which in fact are pretty ridiculous.)
5 But if you are a stoned college sophomore:
My position is that nothing human beings do is ever really "unnatural:" we're as much a product of nature as anything else. (This is one of the few things you can say that's true whether you're an evolutionist or creationist: either we evolved like everything else, or we were created like everything else. I understand that there used to be a middle ground of sorts, where people believed that everything evolved except humans, who were zapped into existence, but the fossil record shows plenty of progressively more human-like apes, and the Bible, taken literally, is pretty unambiguous about the zapping, so I don't know how anyone ever justified the middle position.a)
Granted, even if the words "natural" and "unnatural" don't actually refer to anything when you look at them from a certain perspective, they're still useful in everyday conversation, and we generally all know what we're talking about when we use them, so I'm not saying the whole concept needs to be thrown out, just that I'm not sure it's a reason to object to anything, unless you're also prepared to dislike whiskers on kittens (animal domestication), bright copper kettles (copper mining, metalworking, fire), warm woolen mittens (animal domestication, knitting, possibly dyeing of yarn), brown paper packages tied up with strings (logging, paper mills, plant domestication), crisp apple streudels (domestication of plants and animals both, plus fire, plus international trade), doorbells (metalworking, mining), sleigh bells (ditto), schnitzel with noodles (plant and animal domestication), or girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes (plant or animal domestication, dyeing, weaving).
a Also, while we're talking about Genesis, I'd just like to point out that according to the Bible, not only is the world's oldest profession not prostitution, as is commonly said, but a good argument could be made for it being taxonomy.
Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (-Gen. 2:19)The sad part is that taxonomists still haven't managed to sort all this out yet even though they've had thousands of years to work on it. Tsk tsk.
(I kid the taxonomists! Ha!)
6 Except possibly to the extent that the extra production of dye (or the waste products thereof) might be an environmental hazard. Silver Vase's website says only "This technique has been perfected after many years of research and testing, using naturally derived elements and remaining environmentally conscious." Given that "using naturally derived elements" could be a modified version of anything that occurs on the planet, i.e., any chemical at all, and given that being conscious of the environment, as phrased, just means being aware that an environment exists, I'm not particularly reassured by this statement.
Not that I think Silver Vase is ruining the environment, necessarily: I just don't think we should necessarily take their word for it that they're not. Of course they're going to say they're not.
I have a theory about the exact identity of the blue dye Silver Vase is using for "Blue Mystique," based on the particular shade of blue and the length of time it persists before the plant breaks it down, but am hesitant to say so on the blog without more evidence. Suffice it to say that I suspect I could confirm its identity with materials I already have on-hand (except for the orchid: I'd need a "Blue Mystique"), and that the similarity of "Blue Mystique's" hue to toilet water may not be coincidental. Let me know if this is an experiment you feel like sponsoring; I'm sure I'll see another one for sale relatively soon.