Hanson T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. p. 161-175.
Sitting peacefully on the comfort of my couch with a bowl of almonds in hand, I began to read “The Triumph of Seeds”. However, as I moved from page to page, I started to feel less and less secure inside the protective walls of my home. Who knew so seemingly innocent plant parts could be so deadly?
All of a sudden I wasn’t so sure about the afternoon snack starring up at me from my bowl..
The eleventh chapter in Thor Hanson’s book is called “Death by Umbrella”. I was immediately intrigued by the title and I decided to write my blog post about this compelling and criminal chapter. Thor Hanson acts as somewhat of an investigator in this section of writing, searching through the past and uncovering the mystery behind Georgi Markov’s assassination. Who is the suspect you may be asking yourself?
A castor bean plant seed.
Thor Hanson does an amazing job of capturing his readers using his writing and compelling them to read on. Personally, after the title it only took two sentences before I was hooked. “Had it been foggy, Markov might have left his windbreaker in the closet and donned an overcoat, or at least a pair of heavier trousers. Either one could have saved his life” (page 161). Not initially recognizing the reference to Georgi Markov’s assassination, I was intrigue by a possible life-saving pair of pants and urged on to the mystery that played ahead of me.
This chapter is a great example of the concept Thor Hanson is trying to get across; the murderous potential of plants. He does this using the assassination of Georgi Markov by means of the castor bean plant seed. The castor bean plant seed contains a particular protein called ricin. Although in plants this protein helps break down molecules for metabolism, in animals it destroys ribosomes and causes an immediate cascade of cell death. Thor Hanson also emphasizes the tiny amount necessary to kill a full grown man. “To put that into perspective, press a ballpoint pen lightly onto a piece of paper. The tiny ink-speck it leaves behind is the size of the pellet…” (page 164). After reading this, I decided to place my bowl of almonds on the table a little further away from me. Another certainly unsettling factor Hanson brought up made me feel even more uneasy about these murderous plants. Not only was the ricin in castor bean plant seeds capable of killing full grown people with only a prick, everyday people can buy these plants online! “With a few clicks and a credit card, I had a batch delivered to my door – beautiful, glossy things the size of a thumbnail, their smooth coats mottled with burgundy swirls” (page 167).
However, he doesn’t stop there. Thor Hanson manages to describe the delicate balance between the murderous potential of plants and the possible ability of transforming the deadly toxins into something useful to humans. “In doses short of deadly, many of those same toxins can be used medicinally-vital treatments for some of the world’s most serious diseases” (page 168). In fact, Thor Hanson eludes to the cancer fighting potential of the ricin. “By attaching these “RIP” proteins to the antibodies fighting a tumor, researchers have successfully attacked cancer in laboratory tests, clinical trials, and, in the case of mistletoe extracts, tens of thousands of patients” (page 168). This part of the chapter changed my mind about the almonds that once frightened me. Perhaps these toxic plants really were ‘meaning’ to do well but our hungry and eager appetites over-consumed the potentially helpful plant components causing them to do us harm.
On another not, having previously read parts of this book, I was excited when Thor Hanson compared the murderous plants to his own almendro seeds. It was like reading about an old friend when he brought his past research into the story, which provided me with a sense of reunion and joy. The almendro seeds used to be part of many consumer food products, however, after an unfortunately discovery they were banned by regulators. “Things went along cheerfully for tonka bean farmers until the 1940s, when researchers discovered that coumarin was toxic to liver cells” (page 170). Thor Hanson also brings in a character at this point which made me almost feel sympathetic toward the deadly seed. Steve Brunsfeld, a coworker of Hanson’s, was a liver cancer survivor who decided to sample the almendro seeds with Thor. “At the time, neither of us knew that Steve’s cancer had reawakened and spread to other parts of his body, and that within a few months his doctors would probably start prescribing a variation of the very compound we’d been joking about” (page 171). Although I was initially terrified by the thought of these murderous plants, upon hearing of Steve’s condition, I was saddened and hopeful for the curative possibilities within the seeds.
Overall, Hanson does an amazing job of conveying not only the deadly potential of plants but also the importance of plants in past, present, and future medications. “He told me that until the mid-twentieth century, a huge proportion of medications came from plants, many of them from compounds found in seeds. Even today, in an era of synthetics, antibiotics, and gene therapy, nearly 5 percent of all new drugs approved for use in the United States come directly from botanical extractions” (page 169). His portrayal of this concept is exquisite due to the use of comparisons, real-life examples, characters and more. He manages to make us, the readers, travel through the same journey he does while learning about the potential effects of plants. Initially feeling frightened by the danger of a small amount of toxin produced in seeds, I was surprised how easily I changed my point of view when Hanson described the medical benefits. Hearing about the connection of toxins to my previously befriended seed changed my opinion entirely. I finished the chapter feeling more trusting of the almonds in front of me and decided to eat the tasty snack.