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Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

Moths Matter

Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

H. Bradford


Last week I had the odd idea that I wanted to attract moths to my garden.  The idea is only odd because usually gardeners want to rid moths from the garden.  Even though it is actually a butterfly, the cabbage moth (cabbage white butterfly or small white (pieris rapae)) is the scourge of vegetable growers.  Cutworms generally grow into a variety of species of moths.  Tent caterpillars and gypsy moths defoliate trees. Moths get a bad wrap-taking blame for some of the damage done by their more colorful kin.  But, moths are useful in a number of ways. For one, they are important pollinators of the night shift. As a night shift worker myself, I can celebrate the work of these nocturnal comrades.  Moths create silky cocoons, unlike butterflies, which create chrysalis. Humans have benefited by turning the cocoons of silk moths into a textile. Finally, moths are also a source of food for humans, such as the mopane caterpillars which are farmed and eaten in parts of southern Africa.  Aside from human consumption, moths are food for bats, toads, small animals (Larum, 2018) as well as owls, flying squirrels, song birds, tree frogs (“The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths”, 2017).  While there are many reasons why moths are important, the main reasons why a gardener might want to attract moths to their garden is for pollination, food to other garden critters, and as a celebration of their nocturnal beauty.

((Edit Note: the heading image for this post features three moth stock images from canva.  I believe the top one may not be a moth since it is not holding its wings flat.  I did not catch this when I created the image))

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(image from Butterfly

Both moths and butterflies belong to the order of insects called Lepidoptera, though moths tend to be characterized by such things as being nocturnal, holding their wings flat, and making silky cocoons.  Recent research suggests that moths and butterflies have been around for over 200 million years, appearing before the first flowering plants. Traditionally, pollinators were believed to have evolved with flowering plants.  However, the discovery of fossilized wing scales has pushed the existence of moths and butterflies back into history from 130 million years to over 200 million. They were first found in the Triassic Period, which is also when the first dinosaurs also appeared.  Early butterflies and moths are believed to have looked more like moths with drab colors. More colorful butterflies only evolved after the extinction of dinosaurs (Osterath, 2018). So, while moths may not get the same attention as butterflies, their characteristics reach deeper back into history.  Today, they out number butterflies 10 to 1. In the United States alone, there are 11,000 species of moths. They outnumber birds and mammal species of North America combined (Konkel, 2012). Image result for moth fossil

Planting for Pollinating Moths:

As I mentioned earlier, moths are overlooked pollinators.  Most studies regarding pollinators focus on diurnal pollinators like bees and butterflies.  Pollinating moths do so when visiting a plant for nectar, which is used for energy, but some pollinate when visiting a plant to lay eggs.  Many plants are pollinated by both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators. Research conducted on 289 species of plants which are pollinated exclusively or partially by moths, representing 75 taxa of plants found that moths are specifically helpful as pollinators because they travel further, have higher quality pollination, and greater interpopulation gene flow (Konkel, 2012). A study of moths in a Portuguese meadow showed that 76% of the moths that were captured carried pollen on them.  One third of the moths had pollen from five or more plant species (Banza, Belo, and Evans 2015). Moths lack jaws, so they only drink nectar. Because moths don’t groom away or eat the pollen, they move more pollen from plants than pollinators that do (Tartaglia, 2015). Thus, moths are useful pollinators because they visit many plants, travel long distances, and don’t eat pollen.

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White lined sphinx moth from

Most moths are generalists, meaning they don’t require a specific plant to feed their larvae or to draw nectar from.  However, there are a few plants such as Western prairie fringed orchid and senita cacti which depend exclusively on moths for pollination (Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo, Schweitzer, and Sears, 2017).  Western prairie fringed orchid is a wildflower found in the Midwest, including Minnesota. The orchid is endangered in Minnesota and federally listed as threatened. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it is pollinated by “bedstraw hawk moth (Hyles gallii), the wild cherry sphinx (Sphinx drupiferarum), the Achemon sphinx (Eumorpha achemon), and the non-native spurge hawk moth (Hyles euphorbiae).” (   It would be impractical, difficult, and sometimes illegal (depending upon how the plant was obtained) to grow this particular orchid,  however a gardener could grow plants which support the pollinating moth populations. For instance, wild cherry sphinx moth larvae are hosted on wild cherry, plum, apple, lilac, and hackberry bushes.  Adults feed on the nectar of deep throated flowers such as Japanese honeysuckle (Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum, 2018). Achemon sphinx moth caterpillars enjoy grape plants and adults feed on the nectar of Japanese honeysuckle, petunias, and phlox (Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon, 2017).  Both species are said to like Japanese honeysuckle in particular, which is non-Native plant available at nurseries. Perhaps because the flowers are white, tubular, and fragrant it is a favorite for those moths. Image result for japanese honeysuckle

Japanese Honeysuckle image from Colombia University

Senita cactus and yucca plants are also pollinated exclusively by moths.  If a gardener happens to live in an area which supports yucca or cacti, growing these to attract moths might be a novel idea.  However, Minnesota is not within the range of the yucca moth. There are some yucca varieties which may be cold hardy to zone five, but since the plant is only pollinated by yucca moths it doesn’t make much sense to plant them outside the range of the moth.  Since most moths are generalists, there are plenty of other plants that can attract them to the garden. It is often suggested that gardeners plant pale colored flowers so that moths can see them at night. Though I am not sure if this is scientifically proven, and may be more useful in helping humans see both the moths and flowers in the dark.  It is also often advised that moth attracting flowers should be fragrant at night. Moth attracting flowers include dianthus, red valerian, campion, soapwort, wild honeysuckle, Sweet William, evening primrose, clematis, and flowering tobacco (Carlton, 2015) Heather, lavender, jasmine, mandevilla, madonna lily, phlox, heliotrope, gardenian, butterfly bush, and spider flower are also popular with moths (Miller, 2009)  In Minnesota, four-o-clocks, petunia, fireweed, dwarf blue gentian, dame’s rocket, madonna lily, scarlet bergamot, common bergamot, and weigelia can be grown to attract adult moths and were rated as excellent by Carol Henderson for attracting wildlife (Krischik, 2013).

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Tobacco hornworm moth from

Although it may seem unconventional, reserving some vegetables for moths or larvae, also would draw moths to the garden.  For instance, tomato hornworms grown into attractive, Five spotted hawk moths (Moth Pollination, n.d.). Hawk moths pollinate tubular plants like honeysuckle, datura, brugmansias. (Thompson, 2015).  They belong to the family Sphingidae, which also includes include sphinx moths. Larger species of these moths, such as the white lined sphinx moth, are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds, and like hummingbirds they are active in the day (or at least some are) and like large, nectar filled blooms.  As a general rule, flowers that butterflies like tend to also be liked by moths. Light colored, tubular, fragrant, night blooming flowers are also attractive to moths and make for a nice night garden.

Beautiful Moths:

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Luna moth from

In addition to attracting adult moths, gardeners can consider attracting moth caterpillars to their garden.  For instance, one of the most stunning moths of Minnesota is the pistachio green Luna moth.  However, Luna moths are among the moths that lack functioning mouths.  Thus, a gardener must consider the needs of caterpillars, which eat the leaves of American beech, willow, White oak, Black cherry, black walnut, red maple, sumac, and other nut and fruit bearing trees (Medina, 2012).  The Polyphemus moth is another stunning moth, and like the Luna moth, it is the Saturnidae family.  This family consists of some of the largest moths in the world, including the Atlas moth of Asia, with a wingspan of up to almost 12 inches across.  One of the largest North American moth is the Royal Walnut moth, which has a wingspan of 4.5 inches and is once again, a member of the Saturniidae family (Konkel, 2012).  These moths are more commonly found in the Southern United States, and as the name suggests, the caterpillars feed on walnut and hickory foliage. Since these non-feeding moths live short lives as adults and do not visit flowers, they are not major pollinators.  However, they are large, beautiful moths often with patterned markings including eye spots. Their caterpillars can also be quite large and remarkable. Planting with these moths in mind is more for beauty than function. Rather than planting vegetables or flowers, planting trees or shrubs would attract these moths.  For instance, in Minnesota, the four inch Cercropia moth caterpillar feeds on cherry, linden, maple, boxelder, elm, oak, birch, willow, hawthorn, and poplar leaves. The moth can have a wingspan of up to six inches or more and it has a bright white and red stripe and eyespot (Cercopia Moth, n.d.). The smaller but also striking three and a half inch, polyphemus moth caterpillar eats the leaves of “ash, birch, maple, oak, and willow. It has also been known to eat grape leaves”  (Hahn, 2005). For those who live in warmer regions and feel like trying an interesting hobby or agricultural endeavor, a gardener could attempt to raise silkworms, which once again, are part of the Saturnidae family.  Silkworm larvae feed exclusively on mulberry leaves.  Minnesota is at the edge of the range of red mulberries, but perhaps due to climate change the tree will expand its range.  Mulberries themselves are attractive trees with bountiful, edible berries. Recently, some red mulberry trees were found growing in Southern Minnesota, but they had otherwise not been documented in the state since 1920 (Thayer, 2017).   In short, a “moth garden” might include trees or shrubs that are attractive to the bold and beautiful Saturnidae family.

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Polyphemus moth from


Lighting the Way:

Some online resources for attracting moths to a garden or yard suggest turning on a yard light.  Anyone who has left a porch light on, knows that this draws moths in. However, I am not sure if this is the best way to attract moths to a garden.  Light pollution may actually contribute to the decline of moths. Moths are attracted to shorter wavelength light, with variation across species and between sexes.  For example, male moths are more attracted to light traps than females. Lights that produce heat can kill or harm moths. Artificial lights impact how females lay eggs, sometimes suppressing egg layings, altering where eggs are laid, or resulting in hyper egg laying.  Lights can also confuse moth’s navigation, their eyesight, and delay nocturnal activity. Artificial lights can give advantages to some moth predators and can hinder a moth’s ability to evade bats (Macgregor, Pocock, Fox, and Evans, 2014). For instance, the tiger moth uses clicking noises to evade the sonar of bats (Konkel, 2012).  One theory is that moths are confused by the light, so they behave as if it is day and bats are not around. Light also disrupts the reproduction of moths, as light disrupts female production of pheromones and male moths become distracted from following pheromone trails. When moths reproduce, artificial light impacts the size of caterpillars, causing them to be smaller (Macgregor, 2017). Image result for moths and light

image from

Because moths evolved to be active in the dark, they do not require much light to find their way.  Moths actually have evolved a keen sense of smell and can follow the scent of a flower several kilometers (Tartaglia, 2015).  A male giant silkworm moths can smell a female from up to seven miles away (Konkel, 2012). Moths do not smell with nostrils, but with their antennae (Tartaglia, 2015).  While scientists often use light to attract moths for studies and perhaps turning the lights on from time to time to get a better peek at moths is probably alright, using lights, or at least short wavelength lights is probably not very helpful to moths.   If a gardener wants to create a night garden for human enjoyment rather than moths, perhaps dim solar lights or glow in the dark garden art would be less disruptive. An even safer idea is to observe moths using red filtered light or to attract moths using smells rather than light.  If a person does choose to have yard lights, avoiding blue light (which is more attractive to moths) and turning out lights or putting them on a timer can reduce the negative impact of light pollution. Finally, some moths can be attracted to the yard with smells rather than light and there are several recipes of how to create moth solutions (Macgregor, 2017).  One recipe calls for 454 grams of black treacle, 1 kg of brown sugar, 500 ml of brown ale, and a paintbrush. After simmering the ale for five minutes, add the brown sugar and treacle, stirring and dissolving, then letting simmer for two more minutes. Once the mixture has cooled, it can be painted onto trees or fence posts, avoiding moss and lichen. Another recipe calls for mixing a bottle of wine with 1 kg of sugar, dissolving the sugar into the wine over heat.  This mixture can be applied to cloth or ropes, which can be hung from trees or posts to attract moths (Butterfly Conservation, 2015). Recipes for moth sugaring or wine ropes can be flexible, using whatever is on hand, including old fruit such as bananas, various sorts of alcohol, sugar, molasses, maple syrup, etc. The mixture should be thick and paste like and can be applied to trees or rope (Moskowitz, 2011).

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image from UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


Moth Conservation:

All pollinating insects have been in decline over recent decades, and with them, the plants that they pollinate.  In Britain, ⅔ of the species of larger moths have declined over the last 40 years. Like diurnal pollinators, nocturnal pollinators like moths are challenged by climate change, use of agro chemicals, and habitat fragmentation (Konkel, 2012).  In the United States, the decline of some moths can also be attributed to the introduction of the parasitoid fly between 1906–1986 to control gypsy moths. Compsilura concinnata did little to control gypsy moth populations and attacks 200 other species of moths and butterflies.  Hawk moths are on of them. IIn a study by Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo , Schweitzer , Sears (2017)  one third of the species of hawk moth’s studied had declined between 1900-2012, while four species increased.  Control of two of the moths as pests may have contributed to some decline in addition to the introduction of the parasitic fly.

Gardeners can support moth populations by planting trees, vegetables, and flowers that host their larvae or provide nectar to adults.  Being mindful of light pollution is another way to help moths. Gardeners can also avoid pesticides. Even natural pesticides can be harmful to moths.  Bacillus thuringiensis is toxic to larvae of both butterflies and moths (Miller, 2009). Gardeners can also get involved with National Moth Week, which is held the last week of July.  During the week, participants can join citizen science projects to identify and count local moth populations. Participants can also host events and submit their findings to the National Moth Week website (National Moth Week, n.d.).  Of course, these are mostly small scale, individual, feel good activities. To really protect moths, and all of the life on the planet, individuals must move away from backyard solutions to building social movements against climate change, the profit driven waste and destruction of industrial agriculture within capitalism, and the exploitative relationship to nature that the profit system both encourages and cannot escape.  Environmental movements that mobilize all segments of society towards the overhaul of our economic system and which are given weight by the power of workers and the connections to other mass movements are the only way to challenge the large scale destruction of capitalism.  Thus, while planting white flowers and learning more about moths can be a wonderful hobby, it is no substitute for the structural changes necessary for protecting habitats, changing agricultural practices while ensuring an end to poverty and hunger, and thwarting climate change.  Historically, the example of the Peppered moth illustrated the impact of industrialization on the environment.  I think then that aside from being a night pollinator, moths are a symbol of capitalism.

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Peppered moth image from



Moths are really fascinating.  I have already begun planting with moths in mind and will be on the lookout for these overlooked garden visitors.  Perhaps I’ll even try to participate in National Moth Week this July. Moths are important pollinators, far more plentiful than butterflies, some of the largest insects, misunderstood and under studied, and both economically destructive and important.  At the same time, there are imperiled by habitat loss, light pollution, pesticides, and climate change. I am convinced that moths matter and are worth learning more about it. One of the tragedies of life is that most of the life around us remains anonymous, unknown and unseen.  I lack the time and discipline to uncover the nature of the hidden world around me. In the night, there is a world of moths (among many other creatures). Some lack mouths and live a short time. My senses are muted by capitalism and my own life is too short to learn and do all that I wish to.   Life is truncated by labor and confined by the resources of class. I like moths though. They are night workers like me.


Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon (Drury, 1773). (2017, July 30). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Banza, P., Belo, A. D., & Evans, D. M. (2015). The structure and robustness of nocturnal Lepidopteran pollen‐transfer networks in a Biodiversity Hotspot. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 8(6), 538-546.


Butterfly Conservation. (2015, September 15). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from–wine-roping.html


Carlton, M. (2015, September). Flowers for Moths [PDF].


Cecropia moth. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Hahn, J. (2000, August 15). It’s a hummingbird, it’s a moth, it’s a what? Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Hahn, J. (2005, August 15). Giant silk moth caterpillars. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Konkel, L. (2012, July 27). 7 Things You Don’t Know About Moths, But Should. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Krischik, V. (2013). Butterfly and moth garden plants. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from

Larum, D. (2018, April 04). Moth Gardening Information ? What Plants Attract Moths To The Garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from

Macgregor, C. J., Pocock, M. J., Fox, R., & Evans, D. M. (2014). Pollination by nocturnal Lepidoptera, and the effects of light pollution: A review. Ecological Entomology, 40(3), 187-198. doi:10.1111/een.12174


Macgregor, C. J., Evans, D. M., Fox, R., & Pocock, M. J. (2017). The dark side of street lighting: impacts on moths and evidence for the disruption of nocturnal pollen transport. Global change biology, 23(2), 697-707.


Macgregor, C. (2017, July 17). Like moths to a flame: National Moth Week, and how you can help our nighttime wildlife. Retrieved from


Medina, M. (2012, May 20). The Gardener’s Eden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Miller, S. (2009, June 21). Pollinators on second shift: Moths. Retrieved from


Moth Pollination. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Moths of Minnesota. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Moskowitz, D. (2011, December 28). Sugar Baits for Moths: Winter Fun. Retrieved from


National Moth Week. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Osterath, B. (2018, January 11). Rethinking evolution: Butterflies came first, flowers came second | DW | 11.01.2018. Retrieved from


The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths. (2017, July 21). Retrieved from


Tartaglia, E. (2015, June 25). The Year of the Sphingidae – Pollination. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Thayer, S. (2017, May/June). The Rarest Tree | Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Thompson, K. (2015, July 21). Forget butterflies – it’s moths you need to entice to the garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum J.E. Smith, 1797. (2018). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from


Young B, Auer S, Ormes M, Rapacciuolo G, Schweitzer D, Sears N (2017) Are pollinating hawk moths declining in the Northeastern United States? An analysis of collection records. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185683.


Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants


Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

H. Bradford


Warm weather is finally here, so I have spent the last two weeks readying my garden for the season.  Since I’ve been planting more, I have plants on the brain. Lately, I have been thinking about plants and issues of racism (and in one case, anti-semitism).  Some plants have some very questionable names. Other plants have racially sensitive histories that social justice minded gardeners should consider. Plants like Wandering Jew, Kaffir lime, Nyjer seed, Indian Paintbrush, and even Collard Greens may be taken for granted by most growers, but contain issues of race and ethnicity.  Thus, the following blog post offers an overview of some of these offenders, so that we can grow gardens as well as a more just world for everyone! (The list of problematic plants is not comprehensive. I also did not cite sources within the text, but a list of links that I drew from can be found at the end).

Wandering Jew:

If you visit a greenhouse, you may find a plant called a Wandering Jew.  There are several plants that bear this name, including three species of spiderwort plants, four species of dayflower, and two other plants.  The spiderwort species are the sort that seem most commonly used as indoor plants. A few years ago, a local greenhouse recommended a Purple Wandering Jew plant for our home, since they can grow in lower light conditions.  The employee assured my housemate and I that there was nothing antisemitic about the bushy, viney plant. Nearly Natural 27 in. Wandering Jew Hanging Basket The term Wandering Jew comes from 13th Century Christian folklore.  The character is a Jewish man who was said to have taunted Jesus before he was crucified.  As punishment for his taunt, he was cursed to walk the Earth until the return of Christ. In some stories, his clothes and shoes never wear out and after 100 years, he returns to being a younger man.  He was a perpetual traveler, unable to rest, but able to converse in all of the languages of the world. This is not based on any actual Biblical story, though it may have been inspired by the story of Caine and European paganism.  Much like Big Foot or ghosts today, Europeans of the time believed that they had actually seen this character. For hundreds of year, even into the present day, this character has appeared in literature and art. Image result for wandering jew art

Gaston Malingue’s painting “The Wandering Jew”

While the character is very fictional, the antisemitic context the character was born from is not.  In 1290, Edward the I expelled all Jewish people from England. During the middle ages, Jews were banned from owning land.  They were also barred from trade guilds. Medieval cities also relegated Jewish populations to certain areas. In the 14th century, Jews were expelled from France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.  Expulsions and exclusion from various economic activities provided a material reality for the idea that Jewish people were outsiders or wanderers. Thus, “The Wandering Jew” represents not only a person, but a stereotype regarding the nature of all Jewish people.  This stereotype has been used in modern times to incite hate, such as the Nazi film entitled “Der Erwige Jude,” which revived and modernized the medieval myth and envisioning modern Jewish people as criminal, lazy, and perverse cosmopolitans who controlled the world through banking, commerce, politics, and the media.  The idea of the Wandering Jew has

With this history in mind, calling a rambling, hard to destroy plant a “Wandering Jew” does not seem like the most culturally sensitive nomenclature, to say the least.   Interestingly, the Swedish Cultural Plant Database (SKUD) has changed the name of the “Wandering Jew” plant as well as another plant with an anti-semitic name (Jew Cherry which we know as Chinese Lantern Plants).  I am uncertain what SKUD renamed the plant to, but perhaps Purple Spiderwort, Variegated Spiderwort, or Wandering Spiderwort might be some good ideas. There are other plants with “Jew” in their title and these should be changed as well.   While not a plant, no one should call a wood ear mushroom a Jew’s Ear. I could find no similar examples of plant names that are unflattering/prejudiced towards Christians or other religious groups, but if there were and even if the group did not share the same history of oppression and genocide, there seems no reasonable argument to use derogatory common names.  If I saw such plants at a local store or greenhouse, I would suggest a name change to the manager.

Collard Greens:

A few years ago, I planted collard greens.  I was curious about this vegetable and wanted to grow it because I enjoy trying new things.  However, my housemate suggested that the name was racist since it sounds like “Coloured Greens.”  The leaf green is associated with African American cuisine, so it seemed plausible that the name may have had a more racist origin.  Thankfully, it doesn’t! The word Collard comes from “colewort” in Middle English perhaps influenced by Old Norse “kal” for cabbage, and earlier still, kaulos, which is Greek for stalk.  The “Col” and collard is found in other words like cauliflower, kale, coleslaw, German kohl for cabbage, etc.

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While the leafy green is more prominent in the cuisine of the Southern United States, it is also used in Brazilian, Indian, and Portuguese cooking.   It was cultivated in Greek and Roman gardens 2000 years ago as is closely related to kale. Prior to this, it is theorized that wild cabbages were in cultivation in Europe 3000 years ago and up to 6000 years ago in China.  Leafy cabbages were also grown in Mesopotamia. While collard greens in particular (in contrast to other leafy cabbages) have long been consumed by Europeans, the history is not devoid of racism or contention. A controversy arose a few years ago when Whole Foods Co-op suggested that customers buy collard greens and prepare them with ingredients such as cranberries, garlic, and peanuts.  Some African Americans felt that this was cultural appropriation of a vegetable used in their cuisine and food gentrification of a vegetable by white people who have recently discovered it and have now re-imagined it as something trendy. This critique is not unfounded. Afterall, Neiman Marcus sold out of their $66 frozen trays of collard greens in 2016. Historically, collard greens, like many members of the cabbage family were poor people food.  (Though Romans actually esteemed cabbages as medicinal and a luxury.) Members of the cabbage family are cool season crops with mild frost resistance, making them part of winter staples or lean time food. Image result for neiman marcus collard green African Americans came to the United States as slaves and were only allowed to grow a small selection of vegetables for themselves.  Collards were one of them. While the vegetable is not African in origin, the methods of preparation were. West Africans use hundreds of species of leafy greens and prepare them in ways that maintain their high nutrient content.  Enslaved Africans found fewer wild greens here and came to rely on collards, which were brought here by the British. (Depending upon where the slaves were taken from, they may have been familiar with leafy cabbages as in the Middle Ages, cabbages of various sorts were traded into Africa through Morocco and Mali).  They are unique among cabbages in that they can continue to produce leaves over their growing season. They can be harvested for months when other vegetables quit in the cold weather. Collards helped slaves to survive due to their productivity. For this reason, poor white people also grew collards. It is a cheap, productive, healthy plant.  Although white Southerners grew the plant, it was a marginal crop to European settlers and African Americans deserve credit for popularizing the use of greens and their preparation. Image result for collard greens

image from

I love plants.  I love gardening.  I have no problems eating vegetables.  But, collard greens do raise the question of how white people (at least those who aren’t poor and from the south) should approach collard greens.  On one hand, when food is gentrified, the cost goes up for those who have traditionally eaten it. For instance, after kale was deemed a superfood, its cost rose 25%.  If food prices rise, it can drive poor people to unhealthier, cheaper foods. Collard greens are also a problem when they are commercialized and fetishized. Judging by the tone and content of internet articles on this topic, I don’t know that most African Americans would take issue with a white individual growing a small amount of collard greens for personal, private use for love of gardening and attempting to try new vegetables.  In the case of Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus, it represented capitalizing on and changing the culinary traditions of Black people. The foods were presented in inauthentic ways, devoid of history, and for profit by cashing in on a contextless notion of the exotic. Since the vegetable is tied to the traumatic history of survival and slavery and has cultural importance (such as a feature of New Year’s meals) it isn’t something to take lightly.   Collard greens have double the iron and protein than kale and 18% more calcium, so there may be legitimate reasons that many people should grow them. Personally, I am curious about many vegetables. Does my curiosity “Colombusize” the culture, culinary traditions, or agriculture of others? In small ways, yes. My hope is that I can be mindful of my decisions and the history/power embedded in even the simplest things.

Nyjer Seed:

Anyone who wants to attract finches to their yard may be familiar with nyjger seed, which is also called thistle seed.  The seed does not come from the thistle plant and the name “nyjer seed” seems suspiciously like another n word. When I was a kid, the seed was spelled “niger” which also makes the seed a little suspicious.  We pronounced it in a way that is similar to Nigeria or Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, some people did not pronounce it this way and instead thought it was pronounced like a racial slur. The bird seed industry actually changed the name of the seed because it had confused people or had been mispronounced.  Nyjer is the 1998 trademarked name of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Image result for niger seed While the name might suggest that the seed came from Nigeria or Niger, nyjer seed actually comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia.  I found a reference to the seed being called Nigerian thistle, which to me indicates that whomever named the seed must have had some confusion about the geography of Africa or, perhaps generically called it “niger” seed as a stand in for Africa itself.  Nigeria, Niger, and the Niger River are all located in West Africa whereas Ethiopia is in East Africa. The genus Guizotia contains six species, of which five are native to Ethiopia. A distribution map of the species shows that it grows naturally in some areas of Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  It also grows in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The plants found in and around India are believed to have been brought there long ago by Ethiopian migrants, who also brought millet to the region. Therefore, Nyger seed really has nothing to do with the countries of its (former) namesake and represents a sort of “imagined Africa” rather than any geographical or botanical reality. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

  Field of Nyjer Seed plants in Ethiopia

While in the United States, most people feed the oily black seeds to birds, it is used in the cuisines of India and Ethiopia.  It has been been grown in Ethiopia as an oil crop since antiquity and today, makes up 50% of Ethiopia’s oil seed production. Overall, the main producer of commercial nyjer seed is India, followed by Myanmar and Ethiopia.  About 50,000 metric tons of the seed are imported each year into the United States. It is the only commercial bird seed which is largely imported. This seems to be a tremendous amount of seed- which ultimately goes to bellies of wild birds!  The use of nyjer seed seemingly follows the rise of the U.S. as a post-war global power. Bird feeding became more common through the 1950s, which resulted in demand for commercial bird food. As people increasingly fed birds, it became apparent that certain seeds were likely to attract different (more socially desirable) species of birds.  Nyjer seed was adopted as a bird food in the United States in the 1960s. The first tube feeders used for the seed became commercially available in 1972. In the late 1960s, the seed had to be treated with heat, because it was often accompanied by the seeds of invasive weeds. All nyger seed imports must be subjected to 250 degree heat sterilization treatment. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

image from Northwest Nature Shop

Despite small scale experiments, Nyjer is not currently grown in North America, and in an experiment between N.A grown seen and Ethiopian seed, the birds preferred the Ethiopian grown seed.  Reading between the lines, it is important to think about what the import of this seed actually means. Various countries have tried to grow this seed, including the Soviet Union under the guidance of Ivan Vavilov.  However, the plants do not yield enough seeds to make it economically viable. The region of India which produces the most seed is Madhya Pradesh, which is the sixth poorest part of India (per capita GDP). The regions which grow the seed are also home to ethnic minorities, such as Nagar Haveli which is the home of the Warli tribe.  While I could find no articles which specifically addressed the plight of nyjer seed farmers, it stands to reasoning that because the center of production for these seeds are underdeveloped countries (and even greater underdeveloped regions within those countries) that the work conditions of those farmers is probably characterized by low pay, long hours, and hard work.  Since some of these countries actually used these seeds as an oil and a human food, the movement towards exporting the seeds to the West as bird food has likely reduced its use as a subsistence crop. Finally, the fact that it has not been viable in the agriculture of more developed countries means that it is probably a labor intensive crop (and our labor is too expensive due to labor laws, organization) hence, the fact that it is imported rather than domestically grown.

Personally, I love birds.  I want to attract finches to the yard and provide them with a fatty, seed that they love.  At the same time, it certainly represents a lot of privilege that I can buy imported seeds (sometimes eaten by humans) to give to the birds.  The origin of the seed itself is obscured by its name. There seems to be a lot wrong with nyger seeds. I think that my task as a socialist is to learn more about the specific labor conditions related to the seeds (since there is not a lot of information out there).  If there was more awareness regarding the seeds, perhaps there would be more interest in fair trade or better working conditions for those producers. It is also possible that I could try growing my own seeds for the birds rather than relying on expensive imported seed.  Nyger seed as been experimentally grown on a small scale in Minnesota. I think it is a fascinating seed with a wealth of history. At the same time, more should be done to illuminate the history and economic conditions of the seed.

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Image from The Zen Birdfeeder


Kaffir Lime:

About a year ago, I picked up some gardening books from the library.  One of the books was about growing citrus indoors. It introduced me to the Kaffir Lime.  I really didn’t think anything of this name at the time. It sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, but I didn’t associate it with any particular meaning.  Little did I know that kaffir is actually a racist term. The k-word is a racial slur in South Africa. The k-word was used in Arabic to describe non-believers, but was used by European colonists in South Africa to describe the African population.  The word is so offensive, that there have been legal actions taken against those who have used the slur in South Africa. The name of the lime itself may come from Sri Lanka, where the lime is grown and where there is an ethnic group which self identifies as kaffirs.  It is also possible that the fruit literally referred to non-believers, as it may have been named by Muslims who saw it cultivated by non-Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, because the word is racially offensive in most other contexts and considered hate speech in South Africa, a different name is an order.  In Southeast Asia, the fruit is called Makrut, which has been suggested as a viable name change. Image result for kaffir lime

Indian Paintbrush:

While this example is not as offensive as the k-lime, there are many plants that are named “Indian x” such as Indian Paintbrush, Indian posy (butterfly weed), Indian Blanket (Firewheel), Indian pipe, Indian grass, etc.  There are many North American plants which have common names which invoke something related to Native Americans. However, the way that these common names are used are not accurate, flattering, or supportive of Native Americans.  For instance, Indian Paintbrush sounds quaint. As a child, I imagined that perhaps the flowers were really used as paint brushes by Native Americans. Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie Fire, was used as a leafy green, medicine, and shampoo by some Native Americans.  But, it was not used as a paintbrush. While the flower may resemble a brush covered in bright red paint, it could easily be called Paintbrush plant. Using the word “Indian” invokes something wild, mythical, or even something silly (such as literally using the plant as a paintbrush).  It reduces Native Americans into an idea about something primitive, whimsical, or even non-existent rather than actual, living people, with actual uses for plants. This is true of the other plants as well. Many of the “Indian” plants are wild plants that are not commonly domesticated (though some are used in ornamental or “Native” gardens.  There is also a colonizing tone to these names, as these are not the names that Native Americans themselves gave the plants but imagined names from colonizers and their descendents. There are often alternate common names for these plants, so there is no excuse to call them names which invoke a mythical idea of Native Americans. Better yet, maybe some of the plants could be given names from actual Native American languages.  This would demonstrate that Native Americans knew, used, and named these plants long before the arrival of settlers. For instance, Ojibwe called the Indian Paintbrush plant Grandmother’s Hair (though I don’t know what this translates to in Ojibwe). Since plants were used by many tribal groups for different purposes, it would be difficult to determine which language should take precedence over another. At the very least, I think it is important to be mindful of language and consider existing alternative names (which I haven’t always been, since I was raised calling certain plants Indian Pipe or Indian Paintbrush).

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image from Wikipedia


There will always be some people who feel that these issues are no big deal.  Some of these people feel that there is nothing offensive about using traditional plant names or that they know a Jewish person who doesn’t mind “Wandering Jew” or a Native American friend who likes to call plants Indian Paintbrush or Indian Grass.  The world is diverse and certainly there are diverse opinions on these matters. To those folks, this probably seems like much ado about nothing. On the other hand, others may feel that issues of racism or oppression in general are much bigger than the kind of bird seed we use or what we call a lime.  It is better to focus on the big picture than get caught up in the nuances of language. As for myself, I feel that this is a fascinating topic to think about and that to me, it uncovers subtle and not so subtle ways that various kinds of oppression are built into something as simple as what we call a plant or what we grow in the garden.  For me, thinking about these topics is intellectually satisfying (I am interested in learning more about the history of plants) as well as a way for me to be a better, more mindful activist. At the end of the day, helping to grow social movements is far more important than the plants that we grow and know. Growing as an activist means working with others in organizations towards social change, but also the internal change that comes with challenging assumptions and rethinking what is taken for granted.  With that said, hopefully this post helps others to grow in how they think about plants, but also their place in society.

Sources on Wandering Jew:
Sources on Collard Greens:

A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia$66-collard-greens/1589488/


Nyger Seed Sources:


K-Lime Sources:

Plants Remember

 Plants Remember

H. Bradford



Plants forget birthdays,

where the car is parked,

and the hierarchies of life

that put them below animals,

but above fungi and bacteria.


Plants forget Lysenko’s science

and spirituality.

They forget the stress of the dark and dry.

All the things we can do without.


Plants Remember…

winter so they can bloom,

their neighbors,

and an unkind touch.

They keep memories stored in their

roots and leaves,

like sugar,


and pain.


Related image

image from

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

Socialism, Feminism, and the Plight of Pollinators

H. Bradford


The Feminist Justice League meets once a month for a feminist frolic.  These events involve an educational presentation and an outdoor activity.  This month, the Feminist Justice League will meet to do some seed bombing and learn about pollinators.  The goal of the event is to learn more about the challenges faced by pollinators and do something small to benefit them.  In preparation for the event, I researched the history and troubles facing pollinators.  However, since it is a feminist group, I wanted to add a theoretical component.  It is not enough to learn about pollinators.  To grow as feminists, it is important to analyze them from a lense that is critical of patriarchy and capitalism.  I am not a scientist nor am I an expert on this topic. Nevertheless, I hope it offers some insight to the history of pollinators and how this history is deeply connected to economic and social trends in human history.  Understanding this history can help us understand the present plight of pollinators as well as solutions of how to move forward in protecting nature.

A Feminist History of Pollinators:

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Both flowers and humans depend upon bees and other pollinators for survival.  One third of our diet consists of food that requires pollination by bees, though it should be noted that beetles, ants, birds, bats, flies, and butterflies can also act as pollinators.  Bees themselves are believed to have evolved 140-110 million years ago during the Cretaceous Era, which is around the same time that flowering plants appeared (Cappellari,Schaefer, Davis 2013) .  It is astonishing to think that flowers and bees are relatively new in evolutionary history.  Turtles, sharks, frogs, and fish have hundreds of millions of years of evolution before the appearance of flowers and bees.  Even mammals and birds predate bees and flowers by tens of millions of years.  Butterflies also evolved about 130 million years ago, also appearing after the advent of flowering plants.  Since plants cannot move around in search of a mate, they evolved to attract pollinators to spread their pollen, or the male gametophyte of plants.  Pollen could roughly be described as something akin to the plant equivalent of sperm.  Plants produced pollen before the evolution of flowering plants or angiosperms, but prior to this, all plants were pollinated by the wind.  Angiosperms or flowering plants evolved nectar, attractive colors, or fragrances to attract pollinators.  Millions of years of natural selection has produced very specialized relationships between some flowers and particular pollinators.  For instance, some flowers are red and tubular to appeal to the beaks of hummingbirds.  Some flowers are so specialized that only certain species of hummingbirds can pollinate them, such as the sword-billed hummingbird of South America which has a ten centimeter bill (and a 4 cm body) that can reach the nectar deep within the tubular petals of the Passiflora mixta.  Hummingbirds are relative newcomers, which evolved from swifts and tree swifts over 22 million years ago, flourishing in South America (Sanders, 2014).

All pollinators are important, but bees have been particularly important in human history.  Humans have a long history with bees.  Even our closest relative, chimpanzees, are known to use sticks to obtain honey from hives (Kritsky, 2017).  Interestingly, both male and female chimps collect honey, with female chimps able to collect honey with babies on their back.  However, humans are less proficient at climbing, so it might be assumed that collecting honey was historically men’s work.  For about five million years of hominid evolution, humans and their ancestors hunted and gathered their food.  Modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but it is only in the last 10,000 years that some human societies moved away from hunter-gathering.  From a Marxist feminist perspective, hunter-gatherer societies were likely more egalitarian and placed more value on women than societies that existed after the advent of private property.  These societies were small and there there little social stratification, since there was less ability for individuals to accumulate significant wealth.  Although there is little stratification in hunter-gather societies, there are gender based divisions of labor.  As such, women likely had a different relationship to pollinators, and bees in particular, than men.  In a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food to these societies.  Typically, the food gathered by men is further away and harder to obtain.  Thus, men may have been involved in collecting honey as this would involve travelling larger distances and climbing trees.  This seems to be true in some modern examples of hunter-gatherer societies.  In Democratic Republic of Congo, Ngandu women and children would look out for hives, which men then collected honey from.  Some honey hunting societies ban women from gathering honey, such as the Ngindo tribe in Tanzania and the Bassari in Senegal.  Hunter-gatherer men have been observed eating honey when it is found, but bringing some back to home to be divided and then stored by women (Crane,2000).  Rock paintings in Spain depict humans stealing honey from bees 7000-8000 years ago (Kritsky, 2017).  The paintings do not clearly depict a man or woman, so it is hard to know the exact gender roles of men and women concerning bees.

Some societies moved away from hunter-gathering and adopted settled agriculture.  The development of agriculture allowed for private property to arise as well as larger populations and cities based upon stored and surplus food.  The first agrarian societies emerged 10,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Thus it is no wonder that the first evidence of beekeeping arose in civilizations of the Middle East.  In contrast to previous hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies developed classes and specialized occupations.  The oldest evidence of actual beekeeping is from Ancient Egypt, where pyramid artwork depicts beekeeping in 2450 BCE.   In Egyptian society, it appears that beekeeping was an established profession.  Likewise, in 1500 BCE, various Hittite laws were passed regarding stealing hives and swarms of bees.  The oldest bee hives themselves have been found in Israel.  Early hives were made from straw and then later pottery (Kritsky, 2017).   The oldest record of beekeeping in China dates from around 158 CE.  A relief at Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicts beekeeping and dates from 1000 CE.  Mayans also raised bees, which arose independently from Western Culture.  They depicted bees in art, hieroglyphs, and developed cylindrical, ceramic hives.  It is interesting to note that honey bees had gone extinct in North America, but the Mayans encountered stingless tropical bees (Kritsky, 2017).  Stingless bees do not produce as much honey as honey bees, but modern Mayans continue to cultivate them.  Deforestation has caused these bees to become endangered.

Image result for mayan bee

From a Marxist feminist perspective, the status of women fell with the invention of agriculture.  Thus, in all of these examples, the status of women would have been less than the the status that women enjoyed during the long history of hunting-gathering.  The development of private property marks the origin of patriarchy, as the exchange of property from one generation to the next required monogamy and close control of female sexuality.  These societies were often based upon slaves, which were used to build monuments, but also required warfare to obtain.  Because agriculture created surplus, it resulted in more specialization and stratification.  There emerged groups such as scholars, priests, kings, etc. who could live off of the labor of others.  Laws and written language were also developed for the purpose of managing property.  However, many of these civilizations continued to worship female goddesses, some of which were connected to bees.  For instance, the Minoans worshiped a nature, birth, and death, which was symbolized by a bee.  In Greek mythology, a nymph named Melissa discovered honey and shared it with humans.  She also is credited with feeding baby Zeus honey and was later turned into a bee by Zeus after his father tried to kill her. The Greek myths probably were drawn from the stories of nearby societies and societies that predated the Greeks.  Lithuanian, Hindu, Mayan, Greek, and Minoan societies had bee goddesses, though there are also examples of bee gods in other cultures.

Moving along in history, bees were kept during medieval times, and it was even ordered by Charlemagne that all manors raise bees and give two thirds of the honey produced to the state.  In the middle ages, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and the Baltic states were engaged in less formal beekeeping in the form of forest beekeeping.  This involved hollowing out trees to encourage bees to form colonies in them, then seal up the tree once the colony was established as a sign of ownership and to protect it from bears.  Early hives could not be dismantled.  Therefore, obtaining honey meant destroying the hive and the bees (Kritsky, 2017).  In Poland in 1337, a statute said that women and men had equal rights to in buying and selling honey.  Husbands and wives were both able to own land related to forest beekeeping and both a son or daughter could inherit this land.  Some evidence suggests that tree beekeeping was done by women.   Nuns and monks were known to raise bees.  In one story, Saint Gobnait, a nun from county cork in Ireland, is said to have sent away cattle thieves by unleashing bees upon them.  Hildegard of Bingen, also wrote about bees.  Examples of artwork from the 1400s and 1500s depict both men and women involved in beekeeping.  In the 1600s in England, there are literary references to housewives as beekeepers and that beekeeping was commonly done by country women.  The first use of the word “skep” in the English language appeared in 1494 and referred to female beekeepers (Crane, 2000).  Perhaps during European feudalism, women were more involved in beekeeping than in other periods of history.  It is hard to know why this might be, as the status of women in feudalism was no better than earlier agrarian societies.  Women were controlled by the church, had limited opportunities, were controlled by their husband or father, and were burned as witches.  Perhaps women’s involvement in beekeeping could be attributed to various wars or plagues that would have decimated or occupied the male population or the role of women in general food production.  Interestingly, when European thinkers saw a single ruler bee, they assumed it was male.  Aristotle called this ruler bee the king bee, and through the middle ages, bees were seen as entirely male.  Through the 1500s and early 1600s, queen bees were referred to as King Bees or Master Bees (Crane,2000).  So, even though women may have had an expanded role in beekeeping during European feudalism, the imagined social organization of bees themselves reflected a very masculine and feudal worldview.



Capitalism arose in the 16th century in England with the privatization of public lands.  The enclosure movement turned former peasants into workers, driving them off the land into cities for paid work.  Landlords maintained the best lands, which were rented, again, requiring paid labor.  New laws were passed against vagrancy, again encouraging paid work.  The invention of the working class and increased agricultural production of paid farm workers, laid the groundwork for capitalism.  Of course, capitalism really took off with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s.  It was not until the 1800s that hives with removable frames were developed.  Until the invention of modern hives in the 1800s, both the bees and the hives were destroyed to obtain honey.  Large scale production of honey also coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the invention of a centrifugal honey extractor in 1865.  The 1860s also saw the commercial sale of honey.  Prior to this, it was produced and sold locally.  Honey was shipped in wooden drums at the end of the 1800s, but switched to 60 lb metal cans.  Specialized honey packing plants emerged in the 1920s (Oertel, n.d.)   In the U.S., women mostly worked to assist their husbands in beekeeping, but in 1880 Mrs. L Harrison of Illinois was a commercial beekeeper in her own right who later published a book about beekeeping.  In the early 1900s, work related to beekeeping was gendered, with women participating in extracting, selling, handling, and bottling honey and men tending to the hive and bees.  Today, 42% of the membership of local beekeeping clubs is comprised of women.  Women make up 30% of state beekeeping organizations and around 30% of national beekeeping associations as well.  However, women are not often in leadership roles and often serve as secretaries or supporters in the clubs.  Some clubs do not allow women as leaders or women as leaders do not last long.  A few clubs even have auxiliaries just for women.  As such, women make up less than ⅓ of the leadership of beekeeping organizations.  As a whole, in the United States, about 31% of farmers are women (Calopy, 2015).


Capitalism and Pollinators:


Capitalism will be given special attention from hereon.  Despite the beauty and importance of pollinators, as well as their long history with humans, they are in peril.  According to a UN report, 2 out of 5 invertebrate pollinators are on the path to extinction.  1 out of 6 vertebrate pollinators like birds and bats are also facing extinction (Borenstein, 2016).  There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world and 17% of them face extinction.  Pollination is important as without it, plants cannot reproduce.  75% of the world’s food crops require pollination.  Without pollinators, there will be no food.  87% of the money made globally comes from food crops that require pollination (Okeyo, 2017).  More than half of the 1400 species of bees in North America are facing extinction (Worland, 2017).  Monarch butterflies have also garnered attention as over the past several decades their population has declined by 96.5%.  There are several reasons for this, including deforestation of their habitat in Mexico, climate change, loss of milkweed plants, and pesticides.  Habitat has been turned into farmland.  Nevertheless, there have been efforts to restore monarch butterfly populations such as planting $2 million of milkweed at 200,000 acres of land administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service.  In Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a project to expand their winter habitat (The Monarch Butterfly is in Danger of Extinction).  There are many factors related to the decline in pollinators, such as loss of habitat and biodiversity, pesticides, farming practices, diseases, and climate change.  97% of Europe’s grasslands have disappeared since WWII, often turned to farmland.  Pesticides containing neonicotinoids have been found in some studies to reduce the chances of bee survival and reproduction (Borenstein, 2016).  Aside from pesticides, bees are vulnerable to climate change.  Whereas butterflies can migrate to new areas with climate change, bees have difficulty establishing themselves in new areas.  In the north end of their range, they have failed to move towards the north pole.  At the south end, they have died off.  Together, bees have lost a range of about 200 miles on their north and south ends (Worland, 2015).  Disease and parasites can also be blamed for the decline of bees.  The Varroa Mite first appeared in the United States in 1987 and within ten years spread across bee colonies across the US.  Bees infected with the mite may be deformed, have shorter longevity, less ability to reproduce, and lower weight.   Pesticides used in mosquito control have also been linked to colony collapses.  Additionally, some scientists believe that pollen from transgenic crops can be harmful to bees as the pollen itself may have insecticidal proteins (Status of Pollinators in North America, 2007).

Image result for monarch butterfly

The rusty patched bumblebee was the first wild bee listed as endangered in the continental United States, when it was added to the endangered species list in January 2017.  The bee was once common in 28 states and now can only be found in small populations in 13 states. In September 2016, several species of yellow faced bees were listed as endangered in Hawaii.  Once again, neonicotinoids are blamed since they are commonly used in agriculture, forestry, and lawn care, and are absorbed into a plant’s leaves, nectar, and pollen (Gorman, 2017).  The problem with neonictoninoids first noticed in 1994 in France, when the country first began using neonicotinoids.  The pesticide was produced by Bayer and first used on sunflower crops.  Bees that collected pollen from treated sunflowers showed symptoms of shaking and would abandon their hives.  One quarter of a trillion bees perished before French farmers protested the use of the pesticide, which resulted in its ban.  In the United States, the symptoms were first observed in 2006 and coined Colony Collapse Disorder.  There was confusion over the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, but a prominent theory suggests that beekeeping has shifted from being centered on producing honey to using bees to pollinate cash crops.  2.5 million hives are trucked around the country each year.  The bees are transported to farms and fed corn syrup rather than wildflowers.  The corn syrup may be laden with neonicotinoids, which results in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Almonds, apples, blueberries, avocados, cucumbers, onions, oranges, and pumpkins are just a sample of some of the crops that could not be grown without pollinators (10 crops that would disappear without bees, 2012).  Of course, there are some crops, such as soybeans, corn, cotton, alfalfa, beans, tomatoes, pecans, and peanuts which do not require honeybee pollination.   Nevertheless, our diets would be much different without pollinators.  Entire ecosystems would be quite different.

The plight of pollinators can largely be connected to industrial agricultural practices.  The key challenges to pollinators: loss of habitat, loss of wildflowers, use of pesticide, and agricultural monoculture are all broadly connected to agriculture in the context of capitalism.   Pollinators have been around for millions of years, so it is startling that it is only the past few decades that have pushed them towards extinction.  This begs the question of why agriculture happens as it does and what can be done?  Karl Marx was a critic of agriculture in capitalism.  Marx observed in Capital, that capitalism divides the city from the countryside.  Capitalism itself emerged as the result of the privatization of common land.  When people were pushed off their land, they were separated from their ability to feed themselves.  That is, they had to work for another person to earn the money needed to buy the things that are needed for survival rather than grow or make them themselves.  Capitalism depends on workers, who Marx called wage slaves because of their dependency upon wages to survive.  The birth of capitalism meant the death of a certain relationship to the land.  This connection is part of the Marxist concept of metabolic rift.  Just as workers are alienated from production and one another, they are alienated from nature and human nature.  Humans are deeply connected to the environment, but according to Marx’s belief, it is capitalism which severs this connection (Williams, n.d)  Marx  also observed that capitalism reduces the rural population while expanding the urban population (Westerland, 2015).  Human societies always depend upon the natural world to exist.  In this sense, humans metabolize nature.  For most of history, nature has been experienced in terms of its use-value, or the ways in which it is useful to our existence.  However, capitalism have commodified nature and separated humans from it.  Our economy is dominated by exchange value rather than use value.  This has resulted in metabolic rift, or a separation from our place in ecosystems (Foster, 2015).

Aside from the original sin of moving people off of public land and the privatization of land, Marx was a critic of how land was used in capitalism.  He noted that capitalism resulted in the exhaustion of the soil in the interest of profits.  Marx believed that it was possible to increase the productivity of soil through good management or use of manure, but that it was not profitable to do so in capitalism.   He observed that when land became exhausted it was often abandoned in search of new lands to exploit (Saito, 2014)  Capitalist agriculture not only robs the laborers but the soil (Westerland, 2015).  Oddly enough, despite the surplus of human and horse manure in cities, countries like Great Britain and the United States scoured the globe in the 1800s for fertilizers for their over exploited agricultural land.  Wars were even fought to obtain guano as fertilizer.  Capitalism is so wasteful and illogical, that it made more sense to colonize empty islands for their bat manure than sustainably manage agricultural land or obtain manure locally.  But, capitalism is not driven by what is sustainable, rational, or healthy.  It is driven by profits.  It is the pursuit of profits that results in the vast environmental destruction the world experiences today and the agricultural practices that imperil our food supply by destroying pollinators.  As such, around 75 billion tons of soil wash away or is blown away each year after ploughing.  320 million acres of agricultural land is salinated due to agricultural practices.  40% of the world’s agricultural land is in someway degraded.  Over half to three fourths of all industrial inputs return to the environment as waste within one year.  At the same time, pollinators are worth over 14 billion dollars to the US economy.  Despite their use value, the profit motive trumps sustainable agricultural practices which might protect pollinators.  As a result, farmers in China have actually had to pollinate their own apples with brushes and pots of pollen due to the decline of bees (Goulson, 2012).

Industrial agriculture in capitalism could be described as not very diverse, pesticide intensive, and wasteful.  Agriculture is not very diverse since crops are grown to make a profit.  Therefore, a few reliable varieties of crops are planted because they will grow predictably, ship easily, have uniform qualities, or other desirable traits.  This means a loss of biodiversity, as heirloom varieties of crops go extinct because they are not grown widely.  At the same time, since its beginning, capitalism has needed to divide people from their ability to sustain themselves.  This forces individuals into the economy as workers.  Farmers around the world are drawn into the economy when their seeds or agricultural inputs are privatized and sold on the market.  Farmers who may have once saved seeds have found that the seeds are not patented and they must buy them.  Again, this leads to a loss of biodiversity as old farming practices are replaced by paid farm labor and commercialized seeds.  In pursuit of profits, capitalism over uses fertilizers, as the land is overexploited.  Pesticides are also used because it is cheaper to dump chemicals on plants than practice sustainable, organic agriculture with natural pest control.  Fertilizers and pesticides themselves are often the product of chemicals developed for war.  After World War II, factories which produced nitrogen for bombs were converted to fertilizer factories.  DDT, which was used as a pesticide with devastating effects on bird populations, was actually used in WWII to protect soldiers from fleas and mosquitoes.  Capitalism requires war to open up new markets, destroy competitors, and access new raw materials and cheap labor.  But, it also develops new technology and weapons.  Agriculture’s chemical age in the 1950s was the peacetime application of war technology.  Finally, capitalism is wasteful.  It is wasteful because the drive for profit requires more production.  Production occurs to create more value, from which profit is derived.  Pollinators are in trouble because of the destructive, wasteful, and polluting nature of industrial agriculture within the context of capitalism.

Image result for chemical fertilizers

There are many things that can be done to help pollinators.  However, most solutions are individual solutions.  This is a flaw with the environmental movement, as it often focuses on consumer choices or individual behaviors rather than the larger issue of dismantling capitalism.  These small scale activities are not useless, but must be coupled with movements that challenge industrial agriculture within capitalism.  Individuals can plant gardens that attract pollinators.  Community groups can plant milkweed plants or seed bomb for pollinators.  Individuals and communities can partake in beekeeping.  Partaking in community gardens, visiting farmer’s markets, buying locally, saving seeds, etc. are all small scale actions that can be done.  However, these activities will not tip the scale towards saving the planet as they do not challenge capitalist production.  Capitalism must be overthrown so that giant agribusinesses can be dismantled, food production can be more locally centered and worker controlled, and rational choices can be made of how, what, and where to grow food.  The environmental and labor movement must work together towards empowering workers to take control of the economy in the interest of a sustainable future.  Agribusinesses and the fossil fuel industry donate millions of dollars to both of the major capitalist parties.  Neither can save pollinators or the planet as they pursue free trade and market solutions to environmental problems.  The anarchy of capitalist production could result in the destruction of pollinators we depend upon for survival and which have inhabited the planet for millions of years.  But, each society contains the seeds of its own destruction.  For capitalism, it is its instability and the immiseration of workers.  It is my hope that social movements that can seriously challenge capitalism will emerge and that the labor movement can be reinvigorated and mobilized towards ecosocialism.  Anything less will condemn the planet to a hotter, less biodiverse, more socially strained future.

Image result for rusty patched bees





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Status of pollinators in North America. (2007). Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.


Vangarden Notes: For the Birds

Vangarden Notes: For the Birds

H. Bradford


I feel that I have not had time to pursue hobbies lately.   It seems that activism and work take up the lion’s share of my life.   To some degree, I’ve wanted to make time for more hobbies this month.  To this end, I decided that I was finally going to paint some bird houses.  With the spring migration underway, it seemed like the perfect time to spruce up some of the bird houses that Adam’s brother donated to us.  The bird houses are designed with bluebirds in mind, but according to the National Blue Bird Society the boxes may be used by chickadees, some species of wrens, nuthatches,  tree swallows, and house sparrows.  Last year, one of our boxes was used by a chickadee, which seems like the most likely candidate for nesting in our small, urban yard, which we call “The Vangarden.”

I spent a few evenings painting the boxes.  I am not great at using paint, but it was a fun little hobby project.  What’s more, it looks great to have our yard and house decorated with a half dozen bird houses.   Even if the birds don’t utilize them, I think it adds to the yard décor and communicates our hopes for a wildlife and community friendly yard.  We put the bird houses up in mid March, which I read is the recommended time of year for hanging bird houses in northern states.

Here are a few of the designs:


This is one of my favorite of the houses that I painted.  I had fun painting some cheerful sunflowers in a vaguely impressionistic style.  Although it looks pretty, I read that birds prefer more naturally colored bird houses.   Interestingly, birds see both the color spectrum that we see and the UV spectrum (well, birds of prey and nocturnal birds less so).  Birds that do not appear to have gender differences in plumage actually appear differently to birds, which can see plumage markings and colors that are invisible to us!  Thus, blue jays, crows, chickadees, and other similar looking birds actually look different (invisible sexual dimorphism) to the birds themselves.


Another bird house that I painted featured a moon stars, and the Northern Lights.  I actually tried to add some constellations to the box, but it is hard to tell since I added a lot of random dots as well.  I read that bird houses should not be painted dark colors because they can overheat.  But, our yard is very shady….especially the side of the house where this bird house was placed.  I am not too concerned that it will get too hot.


The above bird house was painted to look like a barn.  The white paint was a little bit drippy so it is not as tidy as I would have liked.


This birdhouse was made to look like a green colored house with birch trees and a conifer tree on the opposite side.


Finally, this bird house was made to look like a dark blue house.

Hopefully some birds use these houses this year!   The boxes have been hung on a few sides of the house.  Realistically, they are not spaced far enough apart or covered enough to be ideal nesting sites.  For instance, Black capped chickadees prefer to nest at least 650 feet away from each other.  Nuthatches prefer one box per 6 acres!  Two of the boxes where placed on the front side of the house, where there is a spruce tree and shaggy boxwood bush…but also a busy street.  Our yard is pretty small, so there are not ample choices of where to hang the boxes.  However, perhaps if we obtain others we can consider this an experiment.  Which boxes will get used?  What area of our yard is favored by birds?  Will we attract any other species of nesting birds (other than the chickadee last year)?  Whatever the outcome of our project, it is fun to paint the houses as a hobby and a nice way to decorate our yard.

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

by H. Bradford


As you may or may not know, one of my hobbies for the past few years has been urban gardening.  I can’t say that I have a green thumb, but I do have a “red thumb” as I try to connect this hobby to my larger interest in socialism.  This is why the garden is called “the vangarden” as it is a play of words on “vanguard.”  I try to do different theme gardens and one of the themes is an Eastern European or Russian inspired garden.  This involves growing vegetables that hail from Eastern Europe.  In particular, I have been trying out some varieties of tomatoes that have ties to the former Soviet Union.  Now, as a Trotskyist I am not someone with a blind adoration of all things Soviet, but it did represent possibility and a distortion of potential.  It is also interesting to learn about the history of plants and try out varieties of vegetables that are not available in grocery stores.  There are dozens of tomatoes that can be connected to the Soviet Union.  These are just a few!  (note that the images are not from my garden)

Cosmonaut Volkov:

I found this tomato plant at the farmer’s market in Duluth this year.  It is an heirloom variety of tomato which was developed in the Ukraine.  The tomato seemed to grow without problems from disease, cracking, or pests and produced medium to large sized red tomatoes, with a slightly tapered bottom.  I purchased only one plant, but it produced well and actually climbed up the clothes line and a barrier that I had created for a raspberry plant.  It was the best growing full sized tomato that I grew last year.


Cosmonaut Volkov is one of hundreds of tomato varieties grown by Igor Malsov (a retired engineer).  Maslov named the tomato after his friend Vladislav Volkov.  Volkov was one of several cosmonauts killed on the Soyuz 11 accident.  The accident occurred on the 30th of June 1971, when the re-entry capsule containing three cosmonauts depressurized as it prepared to reenter Earth’s atmosphere.  The cosmonauts on board were the only humans who have died in space.


I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an astronaut.  However, a newly discovered bush tomato is Australia was named after the fictional astronaut from the movie/book “The Martian.”  Solanum watneyi or Watney was the name assigned to the bush-tomato.  Bush-tomatoes are wild plants that can be toxic to humans, though aborigines ate some varieties by burning, drying, and roasting them.

Paul Robeson:

I have not yet grown Paul Robeson tomatoes, as I only learned about their existence this past fall!  It is a smooth, dark colored tomato introduced to the U.S. in the 1990s by a seed saver named from Moscow named Marina Danilenko.  Paul Robeson was an African American singer, scholar, lawyer, athlete, actor, Civil Rights activist, anti-imperialist, socialist.  He was popular in the Soviet Union, hence the naming of a tomato after him.  I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an African American


Memory to Vavilov:

I have not tried out this variety of tomato, but I thought it would be a good addition to the list.  Memory to Vavilov produces small red fruits.  Like Paul Robeson, it was made available in the United States by Marina Danilenko during the 1990s.  Unfortunately, I can not find out any additional information regarding who Marina Danilenko is.  Vavilov was a famous geneticist/botanist from the Soviet Union who contributed to plant science by hypothesizing that there were biodiversity hotspots where many domesticated plants originated and by creating an extensive seed bank in St. Petersburg.  He recognized the need to save seeds to preserve biodiversity, which he viewed as essential to food security.  This mission was taken so seriously that the scientists at the seed bank did not eat their seeds, even when faced with starvation during the 28 month siege of Leningrad.  Vavilov was awarded the Lenin Award, but was later thrown into prison once Stalin consolidated his power, where he continued to give lectures but later died.  He was thrown into prison for his opposition to Lysenkoism, or Stalin’s state sponsored scientific position against genetic inheritance, natural selection, and the existence of genes.  Vavilov was a hero to science, so I am glad that there is a tomato named after him.


Black Krim:

Black Krim is a widely available tomato that I began growing a few years ago.  I was fascinated by the fact that it was a burgundy colored tomato.  The tomato itself originates in the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula.  It is a large, beefsteak tomato.  I have not been able to located an “isle of krim” even though almost every source on the history of Black Krim lists this as its place of origin.  The Russian translation of “Crimea” itself is “Krim.”  I wonder if these sources are confused or if there is really an “isle of Krim” that also happens to be a part of Crimea.  In any event, it is a tomato that is associated with Crimea.

According to various sources (listed at the end) it is possible that the tomato was popularized by soldiers returning from the Crimean War who gathered the seeds and shared them.  Although many sources list this history, it is more likely that soldiers popularized black tomatoes in general rather than Black Krim specifically.  I believe this because another source lists that Black Krim was discovered by lars Rosenstrom of Sweden in 1990.  Black tomatoes are native to Southern Ukraine and were popular across the Soviet Union.

Black tomatoes perform better in warmer climates and do not become as dark in the north.  Black tomatoes also have the strongest taste.  There were over 50 varieties of black tomatoes grown in the Soviet union, with some black tomatoes that have since been developed in the United States and Germany.

Black Krim tomatoes are dark colored because they have a gene in which the chlorophyll does not break down at it ripens.  Thus, the tomato is both red and green, making a purplish brown color.  Other black tomatoes, have been either selectively bred or genetically modified to have more anthocyanins, or the pigment which causes eggplant, blueberries, grapes, and plums to be dark colored.  The purpose of this is to make it have more anti-oxidants, a longer shelf life, and deeper, darker coloration.  Indigo rose was selectively bred over the course of decades (using wild tomatoes) to obtain a darker purple color.  There is also a GMO tomato that uses snapdragon genes to create a darker color, though I am not sure if it is commercially available.  The media has called the GMO tomato “cancer curing” which is a pretty big feat for a tomato.  I think Vavilov would probably approve of simply breeding new varieties and saving the varieties that are already in existence.


Black Prince or Choyrnii Prins:

This is another dark colored tomato.  I found a seedling at the farmer’s market in Duluth. The appeal was that it has been grown in Siberia, which I thought would make it particularly cold hardy.  It is medium sized with a round shape.  I tried it out, but it did not seem to grow as well as Black Krim or other varieties.  Since I am already growing Black Krim, I probably would not grow this one again.  I am not sure how cold hardy it actually is, as we had a pretty late hard frost this year (Nov. 15th!).  But, since tomatoes were first cultivated in Central and South America, I can’t imagine that any tomato is really cold hardy…even one from Siberia!


The above was just a small sample of tomatoes with Soviet connections.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a wealth of information on the internet about the history of tomatoes, so it is a patchwork of what I can find.  Perhaps next year I can grow the Paul Robeson tomato and “Amur Tiger” an orange cherry tomato.   There is also a pink tomato called Kremlin Chiming Clock, named after the 15th century clock which chimes twice a day in Red Square.  The variety of tomatoes attests to the popularity of tomatoes in the former Soviet Union.  I can imagine them grown in dachas, eaten fresh, added to borsch or solyanka, or chopped up with cucumbers into a salad.   While beets, cucumbers, and cabbage rank higher among the vegetables many people associated with Russia and its neighbors, tomatoes must have a special place to have yielded such variety.






The Sociology of Pumpkins


The Sociology of Pumpkins

H. Bradford, 9/25/2016

For the first time in eight years, I am not in school.  You might think that after all that time I would be a professor, doctor, or lawyer, or at the very least well on my way to becoming one of those things.  Nope.  I’m just a pretty ordinary person.  Not particularly accomplished.  Two master’s degrees, two bachelor’s degrees, student debt, and the growing paranoia that if I am not in school that my brain will start to decay into mush.   I can see it now.  It looks a lot like a Jack-o-Lantern left on a front porch until the following March.  Just a mushy, discolored, vaguely orange, puddle of goop on the steps.  That is my brain.  No, I must rage against this.  I must learn new things.  I must not forget the old things.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.  Write about things.  Write about sociological things.  Write about pumpkins.  Most of the history in this piece is derived from a book that I just read called Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, by Cindy Ott.  While the book provided a pretty good history of the pumpkin, it did not have much theoretical analysis of pumpkins.  I suppose most people don’t consider the theoretical implications of pumpkins.  So, here is it, a sociological analysis of pumpkins.  My late night rage against my dying life.  You know, since someone has to write about pumpkins…sociologically.   


Cognitive Schema:  

I learned about this in my undergraduate course on Social Psychology.  Basically, according to Eviatar Zerubavel (a name that sounds more like a Final Fantasy villain than a sociologist) we are a part of thought communities which think a certain way about the reality around us.  Our thoughts are shaped by cognitive schemas, or frameworks that pattern how we think about things.   For instance, usually we view butterflies and moths as two separate things.  We lump colorful, pretty, slender, diurnal insects into the category of butterfly.  As the same time, we lump plump, hairy, dull colored, nocturnal insects into the category of moth.  Each of these categories have a shared social meaning.  Women get butterfly tattoos, but probably wouldn’t get a tattoo of a moth.  Gardeners attract butterflies to their gardens, but don’t particularly want to attract moths to their lights.  There are social organizations to protect Monarch butterflies, but one would be hard pressed to even name a single species or family of moths.  Moths and butterflies, as social concepts, are examples of cognitive schemas.  They are social objects with some shared meanings.  Thus, if a fat, dull colored insect flutters by at night, it may get lumped in the moth category.  A brightly colored Luna moth might perplex some people, but generally this lumping and splitting happens without incident.  Things are more complicated with gender or race, wherein cognitive schemas have a greater political and social consequence.  When we think of female we might think: pretty, weak, emotional, passionate, illogical, breasts, long hair, pink, or thousands of other thoughts that create a framework of how we think of women.  Of course, this pigeon holes people, creates difference, divides people, justifies oppression, and ignores all of the gray in-between areas.     

Compared to gender or race, pumpkins are pretty benign in terms of power, but not devoid of it.  The first European colonists to the United States came here with pre-existing ideas about fruits and vegetables.  As such, they classified pumpkins variably as cucumbers, melons, or squash.  Botanically, it is true that a pumpkin is in the same family as cucumbers, melons, and gourds (Cucubitaceae), but socially we make distinctions.  Further, even in the scientific sense, these things are divided by families.  In a pre-scientific taxonomy world, the lines between melons, squash, gourds, and cucumbers were blurry.  Today, pumpkins are viewed as something special and separate from squash, and certainly not a type of cucumber or melon.  Botanically, a pumpkin is, in fact, a squash.  Socially, a pumpkin is above a squash.  No one promotes squash spice lattes or squash pie Blizzards.  Even as a child, I was dubious that my mom’s squash pie was as good as a pumpkin pie.  There was something psychologically different about eating a squash pie compared to its pumpkin counterpart, though this is likely because the squash came from the garden instead of a can.  

With that said, the pumpkin became more than a squash sometime in the mid 1800s.  This is around the time that Halloween and Thanksgiving became popularized as holidays.  It is also a time when the U.S. was moving away from its agrarian roots to a more industrialized society.  The pumpkin emerged as its own entity because of its symbolic value as an icon of plenty, harvest, and rural America.  It also possessed symbolic value as an icon of the North (especially New England) during the Civil War.  The South traditionally used sweet potatoes in pies and desserts, rather than pumpkins.  Abraham Lincoln even made pumpkin pie the national dessert.  Thus, pumpkins were viewed as a food of anti-slavery and a food that represented American history (even though pumpkins were not idealized by colonialists).  It is a similar symbolic value that makes it popular today.  It is an icon of fall, rural living, simplicity, and nostalgia.  It is also a Thanksgiving symbol and symbol of America.  As such, in our American thought community, the pumpkin exists as something more than an winter squash.  Of course, there are other factors that allowed the pumpkin to become a social object that is apart from and above squash, cucumbers, and melons.  


Use Value:

Use Value is a Marxist term which basically means that an object is valuable based upon its usefulness.  For instance, a pencil is valuable because it can be used to write.  A tree has use-value if it provides fruit or shade.  For most of the pumpkin’s history, it was valued for its use-value.  To colonists, it was useful as a food during lean times.  Since pumpkins store well, it could be eaten through the winter.  It was also used to feed animals.  Even as pumpkins became more popular in the 1800s, they were still used for pies and desserts.  Pumpkin farming was not a profitable venture, as even at the end of the 1880s it was still one of the least profitable vegetables-worth about 1/10 of a cent per pound.  In Marxist terms, pumpkins had use value as a food, but very little exchange value as a commodity.   Yet, in the early 1900s, something changed.  Perhaps owing to decline of rural living, there were pumpkin shows and pumpkin growing contests as rural life became a spectacle.  Pumpkins also had value as Halloween decorations.  In the earlier half of the 1900s, pumpkins started to become more profitable as demand increased and canned pumpkin made its use in foods more convenient.  Today, 87% of pumpkins are grown for decorations.  Ornamental pumpkin farmers net about $691 per acre, a modest amount, but still useful in providing income to small scale farmers.  Pumpkin festivals inject money into local economies through tourism and farms themselves are autumn tourist attractions.  Thus, in the last century, pumpkins have largely shifted from having high use value and little exchange value, to higher exchange value and little use value.            


McDonaldization of Society:  

The commodification of the pumpkin can be connected to a trend towards the McDonaldization of society.  George Ritzer coined the word McDonaldization to describe the rationalization and homogenization of society.  This process is the result of four trends: calculability, predictability, control, and efficiency.  A McDonald’s restaurant generally has a standard menu with uniform, predictable service and regimented workforce.  Part of the process of a pumpkin becoming a pumpkin (in the social sense) rather than a winter squash was increased control over the production of pumpkins.  Because most pumpkins today are used for decorations, they must possess qualities which make them predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient.  For instance, if a farmer grew off colored, lop-sided pumpkins, they might not appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  The classic or standard pumpkin is the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, which is an heirloom pumpkin from the 1700s when pumpkins were still considered melons and cucumbers.  There are several varieties of pumpkins that have been developed from the Connecticut Field Pumpkin, made specifically to appeal to consumer visions of what a pumpkin should be.  Autumn Pride, Casper, Paint-a-pumpkin, Spooktacular, Ghost rider, and Spirit are examples of pumpkin varieties that have been developed because their size, color, and shape conform to consumer expectations.  Varieties like these have been bred to remain orange longer and have sturdy stems for carrying.  That is, they can be relied upon perform in a predictable, controlled, calculable, and efficient manner.    

On the non-decorative end of the spectrum, the predictability of pumpkins is more pronounced.  In order for something to become a commodity, the item in question must have a predictable supply, be transportable or exchangeable, and be profitable to sell.  The industrialization of food made food products more transportable, predictable, uniform, efficient, inexpensive, widespread, and plentiful.  Consider pumpkin pies before industrial agriculture and food.  A person would have to either grow their own ingredients or purchase them locally.  Then, these ingredients would be assembled over the course of hours.  Pumpkins require cutting, gutting, steaming, and peeling.  With the advent of canned pumpkin, a pie could be made easily and cheaply, with more predictable results.  Efficiency, control, predictability, and calculability made products more uniform, which generally appeals to consumers.  For instance, Libby’s (which accounts for 85% of the canned pumpkin market) uses their own variety of Dickinson Pumpkin for the canned pumpkin pie.  Dickinson is a variety of squash that they developed themselves.  These pumpkins actually look more like butternut squashes, but since they are only seen in their canned form this hardly matters.  The company uses fields near their factory to make transportation easier and utilizes smaller contracted farms near their Illinois factory to supply them.  Libby’s provides the seeds to the contracted farmers, but hires other farmers to harvest the pumpkins with machinery that they supply them.  Then, pumpkin loaders are used which can loan a ton of pumpkins onto trucks within 20 minutes.  These are dumped directly onto conveyer belts that move the pumpkins into their factory.  This is all a very predictable, rational, and efficient process.  At the same time, as a labor practice, rationalization increases profits by extracting more surplus value from workers.  If workers are trained minimally, complete tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible, with few mistakes and high output, their labor creates more value for the producer.       



Cultural Capital:


According to Pierre Bourdieu, a person’s status in society depends upon their capital.  But, unlike Marx who viewed capital in a strictly economic sense, Bourdieu believed that capital could exist in a social sense as well.  Of of these forms of social capital is cultural capital, or knowledge, attitudes, education, and skills a person possesses.  The original colonists viewed pumpkins as a low class food or the food of primitive people.  They denigrated the pumpkin as rustic and uncivilized.  By disassociating themselves with the pumpkin, really, they were asserting their difference and superiority over Native Americans.  Later, Europeans looked down upon colonists for eating pumpkins, again as a sign of their backwardness.  The foods that one eats is an example of cultural capital.  That is, anyone who is affluent or powerful should not be eating pumpkins.  The conventions of what one eats and does not eat is a form of cultural capital.  Eating the wrong foods could be a sign of one’s race or social class.  To be with the “in club” of those with power, one must adopt their tastes and habits.  Of course, access to economic capital often determines what one eats.  A poor rural person may have no choice but to eat pumpkins.  A Native American might have genuinely liked to eat pumpkins as there was no negative social sanction for eating them.

Today, things have changed and pumpkins are no longer looked down upon.  However, we are in a society wherein obesity and unhealthy eating habits are a sign of poverty.  Thus, eating healthy foods is a sign of greater cultural capital.  Eating a pumpkin soup or pumpkin and quinoa salad is more respectable than eating a hotdog and fries.  Thus, on one hand, pumpkin could be seen as a sign of cultural capital.  On the other hand, because pumpkin spice has proliferated across various fast food and coffee shop chains, it has come to be seen as common.  It is viewed as both feminine and white….and ordinary.  Things that are feminine have traditionally been looked down upon, though whiteness has usually been viewed positively in our racist society.  Perhaps, the lovers of pumpkin spice are not doing whiteness right.  In our globalized pluralistic society, a truly educated and elite white person should seek out exciting, exotic, ethnic and interesting foods.  A taste for the unknown and an adventurous palate are signs of cultural capital.  While the pumpkin spices: nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon are certainly exotic, as they come from far off places, they have become too ubiquitous to be seen as ethnic.  A person who likes pumpkin spice is therefore seen as provincial or commonplace, much like how pumpkin eaters of the past were looked down upon.  It is also looked down upon for being feminine.   Rape, unequal pay, unpaid labor, sex work, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are all easier to justify if women aren’t viewed as worthwhile to begin with.  


Hypermodernity and Consumption:


Simon Gottschalk argued that we are living in a hypermodern society.  Hypermodernity is characterized by such things as extreme individualism and hyper consumerism.  He also observed that there is a certain narcissism and megalomania embedded in hyper consumerism.  This megalomania is evident in the use of superlatives such as better, bigger, best, most, fastest, etc in advertisement.  Hyper-consumerism itself is characterized by extreme individualism that stomps out social considerations.  I think that the best illustration of this is the phenomenon of the giant pumpkin.  The giant pumpkin originated in the late 1800s as a spectacle at the world’s fairs.  In 1903, the record sized pumpkin was 403 pounds.  In 2010, the record holding pumpkin was 1,810 pounds.  To obtain pumpkins that size, they must be overwatered, overfed, pruned, and shaded.  The pursuit of the giant pumpkin is an inherently individualistic pursuit as it is done to test the boundaries of size, win prize money, and obtain attention.  The ecological and social costs of the inputs, such as fertilizers and water use, for a pumpkin that will never be eaten and can hardly be moved, is not even considered.  

Perhaps applying hypermodernity to giant pumpkins is a bit of a stretch.  However, I do remember watching this TV show back when I was a child.  The show was called Amazing Stories, and in one episode, a woman purchased some special pumpkin seeds from a traveling botanist (which sounds like an awesome job!).  She became obsessed with growing a giant pumpkin, but is cruel to everyone around her.  She is miserable about having lost the contest so many years in a row and convinced that she will finally win.  Indeed, she grows an enormous pumpkin.  However, she has no means to tow it.  She drags it behind a vehicle, destroying it along the way to town.  Even though the pumpkin is disintegrated, she is convinced that it is still the largest pumpkin.  In the end, she sees that everyone bought the special seeds and that everyone else successfully brought their perfect pumpkins to the contest.  She is a loser once again, left with nothing but the tattered remains of her dreams…and the pumpkin.  The episode really spoke to me as a child.  I remember it after all of these years.  In any event, her jealousy and megalomania drives her destroy her pumpkin and herself.  Blinded by her hyper-individualism, she can’t fathom that perhaps the seeds were a trick or notice that others may also be growing pumpkins.  In a way, we live similarly, trying to assert our individual existence through Pinterest projects, the things we buy, or our facebook photos.  Our giant pumpkin is the identity we cultivate.  The water and fertilizer are the things we buy.  In this way, the pumpkin is a symbol of hypermodernity.  Okay, maybe it is still a stretch…


I am sure that I could think of other sociological theories or ideas to connect to pumpkins.  It is actually a fun little exercise and a bit of a challenge to think back at some of my coursework.  Perhaps I could connect pumpkins to Foucault’s power-knowledge, as who has the power to decide what a pumpkin is?  Scientists have a monopoly on defining a pumpkin.  To some degree, the food industry has power to determine what pumpkins are.  Pumpkin contests define the rules to what a pumpkin is or is not.  For instance, a pumpkin must be 80% orange to count as a pumpkin in some contests.  Maybe pumpkins could be examined from a feminist perspective.  Peter Pumpkin eater had a wife that he put in a pumpkin shell to control her!  How about the fact that women must haul their kids to pumpkin patches for photo opportunities.  Or the fact that women are looked down upon for our taste pumpkin spice candles, lattes, ice cream, etc.  I say, there should be no shame. Take back the Spice!  Really, the sociological possibilities are as endless and complex as a long tangle of pumpkin vines.  

Vangarden Fail: Dehydrating Tomatoes



I really want to be awesome at urban gardening.  I want to be the Trotsky of Tomatoes.  The Lenin of Lemon Balm.  The Rosa Luxemburg of Rosemary.  You get the idea.  This is why the garden is called “The Vangarden.”  It is my revolutionary garden.  My vanguard party of gardens.  Unfortunately, I fail…a lot.  This is a story of one of my failures.

Recently I decided that I was going to dehydrate some tomatoes.  Last year, I purchased an inexpensive food dehydrator to help me accomplish this task.  It sat in its box in the basement all year.  Well, this was going to end.  I was determined that it was no longer going to idle on the shelf.  Thus, I picked some tomatoes and read the instruction booklet that came with the dehydrator, as well as a guidebook I had purchased.  Tomatoes seemed easy enough.  I had some yellow, orange, and red cherry tomatoes.  Cherry tomatoes seemed fairly easy to dry as they could be placed directly on the tray without any further preparation.  Otherwise, the larger tomatoes required a short bath in boiling water to help peel off their skins.  After removing their skins and slicing them up, I figured I was set.  I plopped all my tomatoes on the trays and was ready to go.

Now, I noticed right away that the dehydrator was not top quality.  The Ronco device lacked a fan and had no temperature setting.  The top tray hardly received any heat at all.  Nevertheless, I figured that if I changed the trays and moved the produce around, eventually everything would dry.  In all, there was only three trays of tomatoes, so surely they would dry out.  This was wishful thinking.

After three days of drying, some of the tomatoes were dry, but about half of them were still moist and covered with white mold.  It was disgusting.  I took a few hopeful pictures at the beginning of my dehydration, but did not take any pictures of the failure.  The failed tomatoes looked a little like this:


Because the tomatoes were so awful looking…and I feared that the dried tomatoes might also be covered in mold spores, I tossed everything out.   It was an epic failure that took three long days of waiting.  Like Lenin, this leaves me wondering, “What is to be done?”

I will wash off the device and try less moist plants in the future.  For instance, I have some herbs that I could dry.  Perhaps because these are thinner and drier than tomatoes, they will not turn into a moldering pile of disgustingness.  Thus, one of the lessons that I learned is that the Ronco dehydrator may not be up to the task of tomatoes.  If the herbs work out, perhaps I could try my luck with some leafy greens.

Another lesson that I learned is that I should not have bought a dehydrator to begin with.  I know that the broiler in the oven could have also been used.  I just figured that the smaller device might use less energy and work more efficiently.  Perhaps this is true of higher quality of dehydrators.  However, the Ronco model seemed like the “Easy Bake Oven” version of a dehydrator.  Maybe it is a device that kids can use to pretend that they are dehydrating.  Another option is dehydrating things in the sun.  However, our yard is very shady so I wasn’t sure if I could reliably use the sun to dry.  In any event, I should have explored this free options before buying a device that sat in my basement for a year…and then molded my tomatoes.

I will try again.  Maybe I will have success with herbs.  If not…I think there will be one more Ronco Dehydrator at the Goodwill.

If first you don’t succeed, dry and dry again.


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