Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nature or Nurture?

I am a member of the Mens Garden Club of Wethersfield for whose newsletter I originally wrote the following essay.

Nature or Nurture?

The "Green Thumb" is one of the greatest of gardening cliches. And, at the same time it begs the major question as to what contributes more to a person's skills and abilities. Is it nature or is it nurture? Are we born with it, or do we learn it?
I have done all the research - looking through two entire screens worth of "" answers to the query "born with a green thumb" - and I was unable to find even one instance of an individual actually being brought into the world with a virescent thick first digit, or any other finger for that matter.

Phillip Iannucci, a former club member, had some thoughts on the subject. He told me once that the phrase "green thumb" came from the inability of dedicated gardeners to keep their hands off of even the tiniest branch that needed trimming, even when they did not have either their pruning shears or their gardening gloves with them.

Using their bare hands, they would break off the offending branch, frequently releasing the plant's green sap onto the tips of their fingers and tinting their skin with a greenish hue.

Phillip was prone to colorful descriptions - but never to my knowledge to out-and-out hyperbole. His explanations of "how to" relied more on metaphors than on step-by-step detail directions. For example he advised that trees and bushes should be cut back so "the birds can fly through them."

That seems pretty consistent with all of the more technically phrased tree trimming guidelines I have heard - lateral branches should be evenly spaced on the main stem, remove any branches that rub or cross another branch, etc. Phillip's instructions just make me feel a lot better about myself while I am executing them, and are definitely much easier to remember.

Since he was right about pruning I assumed he was also correct as to how we acquire our most visible emblem of gardening knowledge. And he seems to be pretty close on that also.

What I found on (an English website about the origins of words and phrases) is consistent with all of the other sources that I looked at.

"In Britain, they speak of a gifted gardener having 'green fingers,' although 'green thumb' is also commonly heard. 'Green fingers' first appeared in the 1930s, followed about ten years later by 'green thumb.' As to how one's thumb or fingers get green, there seem to be several theories, the most predictably implausible of which involves, as usual, British royalty. In this tale, King Edward I developed a love of green peas and kept a dozen servants shelling them.

The most proficient sheller, judged by the green stains on his fingers, was richly rewarded. You'll notice that this story is not only silly but doesn't really have anything to do with gardening. More plausible is the observation that the green algae that grows on pots often rubs off on the gardener's fingers.

But the saying, whether 'thumb' or 'fingers,' does seem to have a bit more of a story behind it. In the period immediately preceding and during World War II, one of the most popular programs on BBC radio in Britain was called 'In Your Garden,' the host of which was a Mr. C.H. Middleton.

The eminent etymologist Eric Partridge suggested that this program might have popularized both phrases, and that 'green thumb' was actually a reference to the very old English proverb 'An honest miller has a golden thumb.' Millers, merchants who grind corn for farmers, used to judge the quality of their product, corn flour, by rubbing a bit between the palm and thumb. But millers were often suspected of cheating their customers, and 'golden thumb' was often used sarcastically, including by Chaucer, to mean a talent for duplicity.

In any case, the proverb was sufficiently well known in Britain in the mid-20th century to make the 'golden thumb' and 'green thumb' connection plausible, and would explain why the thumb in particular is found in the most common form of the phrase.

But the more that I think about it, I suspect that Phillip was giving me more than just the simple etymology of the phrase "green thumb". I believe he was also telling me that a real gardener, by his nature, must snap off that imperfect stem - and then proudly leave the evidence of his labors out there for the entire world to see. He just cannot stop himself from doing it

Having a green thumb begets getting a green thumb.

So, is it nature or is it nurture? Are we born with it, or do we learn it?

Or is it nurtured until it is second nature to us?

That may be why some people who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth often end up hiring their own personal gardener.

No comments: