CSI Ottawa: how plant taxonomy foiled a Japanese plot to fire-bomb Saskatoon in WWII

2 minute read

I’ve been reading Wendy Dathan’s monumental biography of Erling Porsild, The Reindeer Botanist (read Jeff Saarela’s review). Erling had an incredibly varied career, which included playing cowboy to Canada’s first herd of domestic reindeer, and serving as Canadian consul to Greenland during the second world war. He was first and foremost a botanist, though, and it was in his capacity as chief botanist at the Canadian Museum of Nature that he had the opportunity to avert an impending Japanese attack on the nation.

Alfred Erling Porsild, Chief Botanist of the Canadian Museum of Nature

One of his roles at the museum was to identify plant material for other government departments. So when a bag of white sand turned up in Ottawa in January 1945, it was Porsild’s job to figure out where it came from. A careful examination revealed that it contained fragments of red pine needles, and bits of rice that Porsild suspected were from Japan. This must have been an urgent request, because he flew to Boston the next day to compare his sample with material in the Gray Herbarium at Harvard. By the end of the day he had determined that the sand came from the Japanese island of Honshu, or possibly south Korea. Porsild’s conclusions were confirmed by museum geologists.

It was only after the war ended that he was free to discuss the case. As it happened, the sand was recovered from incendiary balloons that had been landing, and starting fires, in western Canada. Some made it as far as Saskatchewan! The first wave of balloons came across in the winter, and didn’t cause much damage. However, if they continued to land during the dry summer months, there was a real risk of serious damage to Canadian forests. With Porsild’s detective work, the military was able to locate the launch site near Tokyo and destroy it before that happened.

This is a great example of the importance of taxonomy. Not because we need taxonomists to win wars, though. When Porsild started working at the National Herbarium in 1936, no one could have predicted that his skills would be needed to defend the country against explosive balloons floating across the Pacific ten years later. No, taxonomy is important because it gives us another lens with which to view the world. For Porsild, it turned a bag of sand into a roadmap leading to an island on the other side of the planet. Next time, who knows where the map might lead? Wherever it is, taxonomy gives us the tools we need to read it.