The Wild and the Cultivated: Is there really a difference?

By Luke Manget

Turks Cap Lily taken by Daniel Manget

Turk’s Cap Lily, Lillium superbum, taken by Daniel Manget

The Turk’s Cap Lily is one of the southern Appalachian Mountains’ true wildflower jewels, but does our perception of its beauty depend upon its state of wildness?  In other words, if this photo was taken in a garden, would that matter to you?


To me, there is some profound significance located in the act of domesticating wild plants, the taking of plants out of their wild context and placing them under human care. It is intensely transformative, not solely in the physical habitat sense, but also in the aesthetic sense. There is something about a mountain wildflower growing in a garden that makes it different than its cousin in the forest. But it’s hard to explain what that difference is.
Many environmental historians might say that there is little difference between the two. The dichotomy between the wild and the cultivated, they say, is a cultural construct because even those plants growing wild have been touched in some way by human presence. For centuries, if not millennia, Native Americans used fire to shape the forest ecosystems, and Euro-Americans intensified environmental change by harvesting timber, medicinal herbs, and treating the forest as an open range for livestock. The industrial era saw both massive destruction of Appalachian ecosystems and the creation of protected preserves that enabled many species to rebound. Thus, those spring wildflowers exist where they are in no small part due to human manipulation of the environment.
Environmental historians want us to break down the barrier between nature and human culture, between wilderness and civilization, so that we may all have a better understanding about how humans are a part of nature and how all aspects of nature have been shaped to some extent by human presence. It is a noble and practical goal.
However, I still cannot accept that wild plants growing according to their own evolutionary adaptations are the same as cultivated ones growing in an artificial environment. But why? The idea is an old one. In the eighteenth century, a religious schism helped changed Americans’ attitudes toward wild nature. Whereas traditional protestant theology held that wildness was a state of sin, and wilderness the site of temptation and evil, the growing popularity of deism turned this message on its head. It was wildness, deists believed, that revealed the hand of God. God, they believed, was like a clockmaker. He created the universe according to divine natural laws and then, after winding up that clock, so to speak, he allowed those laws to shape the destiny of Earth. By studying nature, you could learn truths about the universe and its maker. Transcendentalists picked up this theme, insisting that the study of wild nature could reveal traces of the divine, but unlike the deists, transcendentalists believed that such study was important, not because it revealed the presence of universal laws but because it could reorient an individual’s soul.

Foxglove, digitalis, taken by Daniel Manget

Foxglove, digitalis, taken by Daniel Manget

There was also a political dimension to this shift. During the age of revolutions in America, France, Haiti, and Mexico, popular rhetoric shifted as more people, feeling suppressed by monarchies and imperial governments, came to identify with wild organisms as embodying the freedom to which many were striving. As the imminent French naturalist Buffon explained in 1774, using the language of republicanism, “The more the human species multiplies and improves, the more the creatures feel the weight of tyrannical despotism, which, scarcely leaving their individual existence, deprives them of every means of liberty, effaces every idea of society, and destroys the very germ of their intelligence.”
Perhaps the residue of these cultural changes can help explain why people like me still see a difference between the wild and the cultivated. Perhaps it is part of an ecological identity. Seeing wild plants flourish is comforting, knowing that humans have not totally changed everything. Invasive species, habitat destruction and overharvesting have not yet transformed our ecosystems into one homogenous mass of zudzu, corn, and other useful or unchecked species. I like knowing that plants can still make it on their own.
Do you see a difference between the wild and the cultivated? How would you describe it?