Have  you ever heard of Extreme Makeover? In a nutshell, it is about aesthetically-challenging people who have had a gutfull of being ‘social outcasts’ because of their unfortunate, or at best plain, countenances.

The fairy godmother of plastic surgery visits her scalpel of sparkly benevolence upon these poor poky-folks and hey presto! Flappyjowells bignose is miraculously transformed into a perfectly-primped  identikit pageant princess (or male equivalent).

Plants undergo similar feats of transmogrification, but unlike Extreme Makeover the finished product usually ends as a more useful manifestation. Although I love him, I’m not sure this applies to infamous plastic surgery survivor Pete Burns (pictured below)

lovely pete burns
Jolly old Pete Burns. Definitely not a pageant princess

Crazy Pete has reminded me that rubber (Hevea brasiliensis) , for example, constitutes a rich and interesting seam of black plant magic.

Rubber is native to Native to the Amazon region; Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia and is cultivated in large plantations. The sap is tapped from strips on the bark of the tree (clearly visible as diagonal stripes on the tree trunks).

Tapping begins when trees are 5–8 years old . . .  and increases every year until a maximum at about 20 years, then yield sustained for 40–50 years or more. Tapping consists of removal by excision of a thin cut of bark about 1 mm deep at regular intervals, thus opening the latex vessels in the bark. . .  arranged in concentric cylinders and run in counter-clockwise spirals up the trunk. Usually the cuts run half-way around the trunk, but may encircle the tree’ (Purdue University)

Oops there goes another rubber tree plant

Oops there goes another rubber tree plant. Photo by Andreas Krappweis

hevea brasiliensis seeds

Rubber seeds are incredibly decorative, and highly toxic.

‘. . .latex coagulates with the aid of acetic acid, formic acid, and alum. . Seeds are source of Para Rubber seed oil, recommended for manufacture of soap. Although poisonous, seeds can be eaten as a famine food after processing. Boiling removes the poison and releases the oil which can be utilized for illumination.’ (Purdue University)

Rubber is of course infinitely malleable, and so the product range is indeterminately gargantuan.

Modern pneumatic tyres are generally a mixture of materials, including synthetic rubber, natural rubber, fabric and wire, as well as carbon black and other chemical compounds. Carbon black  is almost pure elemental carbon in ‘colloidal particle form’, made by charring organic material.

massive tyre

massive tyre

Of course there are the obvious everyday rubber items we take for granted – rubber wellington boots, buttons on electronic devices, and rubber bands – to name but a few. Then there are the distinctly non-traditional uses. Look away now if you’re squeamish, (you can’t unsee this once you’ve looked).


What I really love about this picture is the ‘Calamari’ sign – calamari infamous for being. . . well, rubbery. These enterprising chaps have mixed leather and latex with applomb. Congratulations, boys.

Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is another amazing plant, used in the modern textile industry as the core material for natural fibre clothing all over the world. It is a beautiful plant belonging to the illustrious genus Malvacae, which includes floral stunners Hibiscus and Abutilon.

Abutilon megapotamicum

Abutilon megapotamicum

Unfortunately the cotton industry is and has been notoriously bloody, as well as being demanding to grow and subsequently environmentally unsustainable as a crop: ‘More chemicals are sprayed on cotton than on any other crop. Today cotton takes up less than 3% of the world’s farmed land but uses a quarter of the world’s pesticides!’

‘The cotton trade was a driving force in the Industrial Revolution and helped to finance the British Empire. It was the mainstay of the slave trade and contributed to the American civil war’ (Eden Project)

Here comes the Hebden Bridge joke. Hebdeners: we even have the cotton industry to blame for the addition of Todmorden as a stop on the Leeds-Manchester railway line. One of the Fielden Bros, a Todmorden based worsted and textile company – John Fielden – was on the railway’s board of directors and used his influence to ensure that Todmorden had a station.

John was an interesting chap, too, and was ‘a radical reformer, a supporter of universal manhood suffrage, promoter of the 10 Hours Act of 1847, and opponent of the 1834 New Poor Law Act’ (The National Archives). Human rights and conservaton issues are not something you see modern companies campaigning for enough, with the exception of a handful of forward thinkers like Katherine Hamnett, Vivienne Westwood and creative director of Eco Age Livia Firth.

Gossypium hirsutum (cotton)

Gossypium hirsutum (cotton)

Another bloody trade,  diamonds.  Diamonds consist of highly compressed carbon molecules, and only form at extremely high temperatures in the Earth’s mantle at least 100 miles below the surface. Some organic carbon is made from ancient microorganisms (plants and animals), which reappears hundreds of millions of years later as eclogitic diamonds. Other types of carbon come from stardust and meteorites. Poetic.

Album of the Week

An album instead of the usual track: Rubber Soul, by The Beatles

Art Spot

Many of Eva Hesse ‘s works were made using latex. Here you can watch one of SFMOMA’s curators talking about her use of the material, and read about her extremely interesting but short life in this Telegraph article from 2009.

Book of the Week

An account of the psychological fallout of the slave trade, ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison


Kew, Purdue University (Rubber)
The Eden Project , The National Archives (Cotton),, (Diamonds)
Images Wikimedia Commons
Eva Hesse (SFMOMA)


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