'New' Plants are Grown From Seeds Found in Old Trading Ships

© Max McClure

These lush green plants contain more history than one would imagine. They came from soil carried as ballast in early shipping boats. The empty trading ships needed weighing down, for balance, and what could be easier, and cheaper than to use soil. Once they arrived in port, they dumped the ballast (earth, sand, rocks, etc) unto the river banks and picked up their cargo.

The boats roamed the seas between 1680 and the early 1900's. In this way the seeds were carried from ports and regions all over Europe. Now, hundreds of years later, the seeds in that soil have been planted in an old barge (how appropriate) and floated down a river in Bristol, UK.

© Max McClure

The project by Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alvesis, (who just happens to be co-founder of Brazil's Green Party) is called Seeds of Change. She discovered that these ballast seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years, but that by excavating the river bed it is possible to germinate and grow them into plants. Since 2005, she has been visiting Bristol to research its maritime history through these non-native plants.

Working with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, and using an old grain barge, the Ballast Seed Garden is planted with a host of non-native plants that are a living history of trade routes and ships docking in Bristol's harbour.

© Max McClure

Non-native plants have a bad reputation, with all the emphasis on native plants now. But a professor associated with the project has a different and compelling view.

He says

The Ballast Seed Garden shows that the majority of non-native flora do not become naturalized, and that even fewer actually become invasive. So a project like Maria Thereza’s can act as a powerful advertisement for ‘multihorticulturalism’ – an antidote to the widely held view that all non-native plants, unless firmly under control in a garden, are a menace to our natural national heritage.

© Max McClure

The list of seeds that have been planted, and their origin, is fascinating. It illuminates a time when the main form of transport for goods was along sea-faring water routes from continent to continent. The plants include Squirting Cucumber from Mediterranean Region of Southern Europe to North Africa and warm temperate areas of South West Asia, Amaranthus caudatus from the American tropics, oats from the Middle East, Common Fig from Cyprus, Turkey, Caucasus, to Turkmenistan Republic and Afghanistan and flax from Eurasia, cultivated by man since 8000BC.

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