Thursday, June 2, 2011

The roots of Rome: lessons from the gardens of ancient Pompeii

Is your basil bolting?  Well, you'd better go catch it!

When herbs flower - thus decreasing their flavor - it is called "bolting".  I find this funny.  It reminds me of that old joke about the refrigerator...

Many of you know that like my protagonist, I love gardening.  This skill will come in handy for Katrina as she chases down an ancient plant containing a rare chemical element that can treat cancer.

It is widely known that the ruins of Pompeii contain plaster casts of humans that perished in the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  These unfortunate souls were buried alive as ash from the eruption piled upon them.  Centuries later, their bodies had decayed, leaving perfectly molded cavities in the hardened ash.  The cavities were filled in with plaster, and their exact deaths were thus immaculately reconstructed.

It is much less well known that the same was done with the root systems of ancient Roman plants and trees.  Mount Vesuvius erupted in August.  Many species of plant life abundant in Pompeii's gardens were in full bloom.  The reconstruction of their root systems, in combination with other data, has led us today to a strong understanding of these gardens.  Within them were plants for food, for beauty, for scent, for wine, for medicine.

The basil might have bolted, but the history remained for us to uncover.

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