Plants Go to War: A Botanical History of World War II
Victory Gardens: How a Nation of Vegetable Gardeners
Helped to Win the War
Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University
Plants Go to War: A Botanical History of World War II examines military history from a botanical perspective, and the images say it all: From victory gardens and agriculture to rubber, coal, paper, timber, drugs, and fibers, plant products supplied the wartime materials that played key roles in victory. The notion of Lebensraum, the acquisition of agricultural territory outside of Germany, began in the pre-war 1930s. Once the war began in Europe and the Pacific, military needs were vast and complex. Jungle warfare, forest survival, and camouflage techniques all required essential plant knowledge. Food to supply the troops was a particular concern, requiring that Americans and Europeans on the home front grow and consume many more plant foods. Victory gardens were planted in America and England, and many Germans turned to their kleine Garten for food and shelter after cities were bombed.
Plants provided the bulk of the wartime diet both in the U.S. and Europe, where vitamin-rich vegetables such as carrots, cabbages, and potatoes nourished millions. Tropical chicle and cacoa provided the chewing gum and chocolate bars that were part of ration packets. Rubber was essential for products ranging from gas masks and tires to barrage balloons and prophylactics. Cotton and hemp provided fibers for clothing, canvas, and rope, and American farmers were encouraged with films such as "Hemp for Victory." Wood products were used in building airplane hangars and early aircraft such as the Mosquito, and European cars were commonly converted to wood gasification instead of petroleum. As a result of the arboreal bombing that resulted in splintering, conifers in the Hurtgen forest became deadly weapons. Coal, the fossilized remains of ancient forests, was an essential energy source; coal-powered vehicles were also common in wartime Europe. The County Herb Committees in England foraged for medicinal plants native to local hedgerows, once pharmaceutical drugs could no longer be obtained from Europe. On a symbolic level, Germans planted so-called Hitler-oaks and Hitler-lindens in rural villages; they also plants conifers such as larch trees in swastika patterns that were visible only from the sky. Germans persisted in eliminating non-native plants from German habitats, and the Third Reich was a time of botanical conservation. A few trees survived the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and survive today as a symbol of rebirth after vast destruction.The botanical connections to World War II are numerous; this project will document and describe the connections among World War II and the plant kingdom.