BBC Radio 4 – Squirrels & Knotweed

Last week I was delighted to share some of my knowledge of exotic and invasive species on national radio, thanks to an invitation by Kat (@harpistkat) and Helen Arney (@helenarney) to appear on their series “Did the Victorians Ruin the World?”

In the episode I talk about the introduction of the grey squirrel to Victorian Britain and how negative attitudes towards native red squirrels rapidly changed thanks to the new arrivals. I also discuss the introduction of Japanese knotweed, which was once advertised as an ornamental and desirable addition to every garden.

You can listen to the episode at:



Plants and Animals as Commodities at the Institute of Making, UCL

On January 26th, an unusual mix of researchers gathered at the Institute of Making (UCL) for a workshop entitled “Hidden Histories of the Thing.” In this instance, “the Thing” was not a horror film, but referenced the workshop’s place as part of the “Commodity Histories” project A series of intriguing narratives emerged from viewing histories of materials, chemicals and biota as marketable products. Economic gain, national pride, scientific input and philosophical reasoning were applied to items or resources in creative ways! Just a few examples are covered below.

To Use or Not to Use? DDT and Benthamite Calculations

Jazzy advertisement for DDT from Penn Salt Chemicals, 1947:

An example of a formerly popular commodity was given by Tom Widger in his talk “Pesticides and Modernity.” Synthetic pesticides became a particularly controversial product following the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s bestselling Silent Spring. DDT, a popular insecticide, was revealed to have devastating environmental consequences and, as a carcinogen, posed a public health risk. Yet the compound had numerous advantages in both pest and disease control. It had been used on Pacific islands during the Second World War to keep mosquito populations (vectors of diseases such as malaria) in check. With this in mind, the positive and negative aspects of DDT remain a source of contention. Drawing upon English philosopher and founder of utilitarianism (greatest happiness for the greatest number) Jeremy Bentham, Widger noted the complexities of calculating human health risks alongside issues of food security.

The Apple in Victorian England

On the organic front, Joanna Crosby led the charge with a cultural and material history of apples. During the 1850s, botanists and horticulturalist Robert Hogg led the way in promoting and classifying varieties of English apples. Hogg founded pomological societies and crafted his own lists of apples, from the “Flower of Kent” to the “Flushing Spitzenburgh.” The “Bachelor’s Glory” hailed from the neighborhood of Lancaster and was dismissed as a second-rate fruit. Hogg described apples as indigenous to the British Isles, based on his analysis of Celtic sources. In a very Victorian manner, Hogg also applied anthropomorphic terms to describe apples, which could be handsome, beautiful or hardy.


List from Robert Hogg’s British Pomology (1851).

In art, apples appeared in symbolic form, representing original sin and the fall of Eve. The fruit was also more used to signify what were considered “undesirable” female traits, according to moral norms of some artists. On a more positive note, apples appeared as an ornamental object in gardens and home decoration. Of course, consumption also occurred – hence the Victorian recipe below:

Fruit Cake, from Godey’s Lady’s Book (1864):

Two and a half cups dried apples, stewed until soft; add one cup of sugar, stew a while longer, and chop the mixture, to which add one half cup of cold coffee, one of sugar, two eggs, a half cup of butter, one nutmeg, one teaspoonful of soda, and cinnamon and spices to taste. Sift in 2 cups flour to hold it together.