Plants Go to War

A Botanical History of World War II


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About the Book

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.

About the Author(s)

Judith Sumner is a botanist and author with particular interest in the historical uses of plants. She is a frequent lecturer for audiences of all kinds and has taught for many years at colleges and botanical gardens. She lives in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Bibliographic Details

Judith Sumner
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 366
Bibliographic Info: 102 photos, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2019
pISBN: 978-1-4766-7612-8
eISBN: 978-1-4766-3540-8
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Preface 1
1. Victory Gardens 5
Crops and Cultivation 7; Garden Strategies 11; Soils and Fertilizers 13; Pests and Diseases 15; Seed Catalogues, Seed Saving and Cultivars 17; Spreading the Word 19; Urban Victories 21; Children’s Gardens 24; The Harvest 30
2. Dig for Victory 32
Garden Plans 32; Allotment Gardening 35; Carrying On 36; Cultivars and Propagation 39; Ground Work 42; Extending the Season 44; Sheltering in the Garden 45; Women’s Institutes, Children and Wartime Gardening 47; Schrebergarten 48
3. Vitamins and Food Preservation 51
Vitamin Knowledge 51; The Vitamin War 52; Keeping and Canning Food 56; The Hedgerow Harvest 62; Dehydration and Freezing 64
4. Botanical Diet and Cookery 66
Sugar 66; Coffee 69; Margarine 70; Rationing, Meals and Botanical Foods 71; Cooking for Victory 73; Legumes Replace Meat 77; Bread Strategies 80; Making Do 80; Feeding England 84; Something from Nothing 95; The German Home Front 99; Across Europe 105; The Japanese Home Front 107
5. Feeding the Military 110
Military Meals 110; Strategic Planning 112; Daily Bread 113; Field Cookery 115; Field Rations 117; Military Chocolate 119; Operational Rations 120; Caffeine 122; Supplying the Axis 123
6. Agriculture at War 129
Mobilizing Farms 129; Military Farms 131; Hybridization and Hybrid Vigor 133; Sugar Beets, Soybeans and Oil Crops 136; Plant Nutrients and Soil Fertility 140; Pests and Pesticides 142; Biological Warfare and the Wartime Food Supply 143; Harvesting Labor 145; Farming in England 147; The Land Army, Schools and Harvests 152; German Agriculture, Hereditary Farms and Plant Breeding 156; Farming in Japan 163
7. Medicinal Botany 166
Essential Drugs 166; Home Front Medicine 168; Battlefront Medicine 169; Malaria and Quinine 173; Scrub Typhus 178; Botanical Antibiotics 180; Penicillin 182; Agar 185; County Herb Committees 186; German Herbalism 191
8. Fibers 196
Cotton 197; Bast Fibers 201; Milkweed 206; Silk 208; Manage, Make Do, Mend and Survive 209; Fungi and Fibers 211; Fiber Currency 213
9. Forestry, Timber and Wood 215
Forests and Timber 216; Wood Production 217; Military Forestry 219; Timber in England 220; Combat 223; Hedgerows 229; Construction, Boats, Airplanes and Plywood 233; Paper, Books and Balloons 240; Cork 247; Coal and Charcoal 248; Forestry, Forests and the Third Reich 251; The Homefront 253; History in Timber 255
10. Oils, Resins and Rubber 257
Botanical Oils and Resins 257; Latex, Rubber and Rationing 260; Rubber Plants 263; German Strategies 266; Military Rubber 267; Gas Masks 269; Barrage Balloons 271; Synthetic Rubber 273
11. Survival 275
Preparation 275; Deception and Camouflage 278; Survival Manuals 287; Deprivation, Starvation and Epigenetics 293; Subsistence Gardens 300; Regeneration 302
12. Botanical Gardens, Herbaria and Plant Science in Wartime 308
Practical Knowledge 308; Collections 310; Occupation 313; Field Botany 314; Germany and Native Plants 317; Homefront Horticulture 322; Rebirth 323
Chapter Notes 325
Bibliography 339
Index 351

Book Reviews & Awards

• “In this impressively researched exploration, esteemed ethnobotanist Sumner takes a scholarly yet totally accessible approach to the myriad ways plant materials were critical to both Allied and Axis war efforts. With balanced attention to domestic sacrifices and ingenuity, Sumner’s astonishing discoveries make this a fascinating read for botany buffs and those steeped in military history.”—Booklist

• “A unique blend of botanical and military history… Plants Go to War is an original and meticulous study that is as informed and informative as it is accessibly organized and reader friendly in presentation…recommended”—Midwest Book Review

• “[Sumner’s] research is exhaustive…authoritative and informative…destined to be a classic source on this topic—The Herb Society of America

• “With the publication of [Sumner’s] wonderful new book, many more people will have the opportunity to learn about the extraordinary role plants played in history’s most widespread conflict. …exceptionally well researched…Sumner has produced a classic work of ethnobotanical history. … The wealth of information is so well presented that the reader will likely visit its pages again and again.”—Herbal Gram

• “The comprehensive volume takes the story far beyond the victory gardens that perhaps immediately come to mind when discussing WWII and plants. Although this topic is addressed, the book spans across the European and Pacific theaters, touching Allies and Axis civilians and combatants.”—The Times of Israel

• “The first botanical history of World War II”—Southern Naturalist

• “In all our years of experience with books about Wold War II, never have we seen one quite like this…a big, serious study of the subject”—Stone & Stone

• “Plants Go to War is a reminder of how mankind still depends on the natural world—being only a harvest away from global starvation. …Sumner garners often obscure facts.”—BSBI News

• “Excellent…Sumner wrote the book in an easily digestible manner…a fantastic and pleasurable read…recommended…Sumner has written this book in a manner that sparks a newfound appreciation for plants”—Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine

• “Copious endnotes…extensive bibliography…meticulously indexed…a must for libraries and research institutions of all kinds”—Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas

• “Sumner’s book is the first to bring together such a wide variety of subjects related to botanical plants and their uses…richly illustrated…Sumner has written important book, which will serve as a reference work for scholars working on food and botanical history, both during WWII and beyond. Combining her immense knowledge of plant sciences with history, she meticulously explains how plants affected all aspects of the war, even those not commonly associated with botany. As such, she has succeeded in her mission ‘to write an encyclopedic synthesis of civilian and military plant uses’—and misuses—during a defining period in modern history.”—Technology and Culture