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Pathogens on Parade


Those of you who are regular readers of this column are no doubt already aware that actual horticultural content is not my strong suit. Nevertheless, gardeners are hungry for answers. Most of the time, they don’t even care about the questions. For example, you can ask, “What is the capital of Albania?” and as long as the answer is “spray with a fungicide every 10 days,” you have lifted 97.3 percent of all gardeners (and this number has been proven in scientific studies) into a Nirvana-like state.

Hoping in some way to cash in on this unnerving phenomenon, I began searching for an area in the horticultural realm that has remained relatively unexplored for which I could provide answers, regardless of whether a single question has ever been posed. Eureka! I found it:

The Origins of Various Diseases, Part I

Powdery Mildew—This ubiquitous disease was one of the very first diseases invented by humankind. We have the ancient Greeks to thank for this one. Though many of the particulars have been lost in the Olympic sweat of time, it is thought that powdery mildew was the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong, a theme that you will find repeats itself often throughout the course of disease origins. It seems that the Greeks were trying to invent granulated mildew, which would have had a much longer shelf life, but inexplicably, a key ingredient was left out of the mix. Some have speculated that ouzo somehow played a part in the miscalculation. Regardless, Pandora’s box was now opened (to coin a phrase), and powdery mildew became the scourge of monarda, phlox and shower curtains everywhere.

Galls—As everybody knows (and if you don’t, you’re obviously not a fan of the Gall Channel on cable TV), a gall isn’t really a disease, but a part of a plant that has become distorted by the presence of another organism. However, I list it under “diseases” because, well, this is my column and when you have a column you can call it whatever you darn well please. But back to pure scientific facts. Galls were created when a French science experiment went not just horribly wrong, but horribly, horribly wrong. A fellow named Jacques, whose last name has been lost in the creme brulee of time, was trying to create a new kind of nut. Go figure. As the scientific legend goes, Jacques was attempting to squish an acorn into a goober pea, using a wine press. There is an unsubstantiated rumor that a bottle of merlot somehow played a part in what ensued, resulting in one of Jacques’ fingers getting caught in the device. The results were too gruesome to describe in a family gardening magazine. However, the enterprising Jacques became rich, and called the strange growth a “Jacques.” The name didn’t stick, however, as future generations referred to it as a “Gaul,” from the country of origin, later corrupted to “gall.” Blame the French, I say.

Aster Yellows—It’s hard to believe that the famous fur trader John Jacob Astor (or Aster) could be responsible for such a pernicious disease but, hey, I don’t make these stories up, I just follow the tearful trail of facts. In 1809 Astor was on a trading expedition to Montreal (why are the French always in the middle of these things?). To unwind—when not in the middle of negotiating pelt deals—he conducted botanical experiments. This one—you guessed it—went painfully awry. In an attempt to make an aster leaf greener, Astor accidentally added far too much Yellow Dye # 3. This aster disaster was made infinitely worse when the leaf accidentally ended up in a pile of beaver skins and was shipped to New Orleans. It escaped containment in—surprise!—the French Quarter and the rest is history.

Tobacco Mosaic Virus—I have space for only one more today, and needless to say, this particular disease is the result of an experiment gone absolutely, catastrophically wrong. Let’s see if you can figure it out, based on the stories you’ve read so far. Here are the elements: a small greenhouse filled with germinating seeds, an artsy counter-top created from shards of pottery, a cigarette, and a clumsy botanist with a very bad cold. Ready? Go.

Parts II, III, IV, ad infinitum, to follow. See how easy it is to create an entirely new field of scientific study? I’m going to pitch my publisher with this book idea—as soon as he answers my phone calls.

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