How plants help each other and us - the Story of Life
17th november 2014
The story of life is really one of sharing and reciprocation. Ever since the earliest blue-green cyanobacteria such as spirulina ‘learnt’ 2 billion years ago to harness the sun’s energy, green plants have been generating the energy of life. We have been interacting, communicating and growing with our environment since time began with plants and animals growing up into the incredible life-forms they express today because of this incessant sharing.
For example, because plants want to further their life they have developed strategies that attract insects, animals or the wind to carry their procreative-pollen far and wide. A spectrum of colours, tempting aromas and the reward of some sweet nectar lie in fair exchange for this fertile foray. We have all seen bees buzzing from lavender flower to lavender flower collecting nectar and spreading pollen.
In more protective moods plants have developed compounds that help guard them from damage by a plethora of microbes, such as peppermint developing powerful essential oils that ward of fungal invasions. However, the little microbes have an agenda of their own and over time have evolved new challenges to threaten the plant’s defences. And so the dance continues; the plant develops new compounds to respond to the microbes’ ever-evolving reproductive intentions and visa versa.
After the longest waltz in history plants have developed a plethora of these healthful phytochemical compounds empowering them with broad-spectrum protection; for example, you may have heard of essential oils, polyphenols or carotenoids that help to protect and strengthen the plant. A low estimate is that most species have 1000 plus compounds!
Animals and humans have discovered how to use these plants for a wide range of benefits. Through this close-knit relationship with plants we have learnt the health-giving properties of 50,000 of the 250,000 flowering plants. As we learnt to tap into nature’s innate healing vitality we learnt one of the great secrets of life; that plants help our body and mind heal.
Flipping everything on its head, some evolutionary biologists think that plants have used humans to spread their seed as they piggy-backed on our own evolutionary adventure. You can trace the spread of many species across the planet by following human migration and trade. Mutually beneficial reciprocity, sharing and learning are found at the heart of most symbiotic relationships. Its the idea of being selfishly wise and wisely selfish; you look after yourself so you are well enough to look after others, and look after others so they are well enough to look after you, be you bee, butterfly, dolphin, elephant, peppermint, willow or human.
It’s quite a useful metaphor to help us live well today. If we can listen to the world around us, and connect with how we feel, then we can be more present in the world. Maybe we will be more able to take a moment and see the wood for the trees. Of course, woods always look good, so that helps. Having perspective increases our chances of responding well as our life unfolds. We can learn to feed those people we meet as they help us flourish. And we can learn how to develop defenses against invaders that harm us; switching off the news may be one solution, eating less sugar and more organic plants may be another.
Until about 100 years ago we used to regularly eat over 100 species of plants and for most people today it’s down to around 10-20. It means we are exposed to much less of nature’s phytochemical health-soup everyday. Because the variety of plants and herbs in our diet has radically diminished we are no longer bathing our cells in the spectrum of plant protection as we have done through all of our evolution.
There was a wonderful study illustrating the benefits of a broader plant-based diet carried out a couple of years ago by the perfectly named Professor Blanchflower; it showed how our happiness is directly connected with the amount of vegetables we eat, peaking at about seven a day. One way of broadening our nutritional horizons is including more of the less-well known plants in our diet; considering the physical and energetic qualities I think a cup of herbal tea has the approximate equivalent in beneficial plant-ness that half a portion of vegetables does.
The ability that plants have learnt to protect themselves from invading microbes and extreme climates is remarkable. That these same evolutionarily familiar qualities can help our life flourish is plain common sense. Just as the spicy compounds, aromatic terpenes, and colourful flavonoids that you can find in ginger, tulsi or turmeric help the plant flourish they also interact with our whole mental-emotional-immune network to optimise our response to just about everything. They can help stop a virus replicating, they can kick-start our nervous system to ameliorate pain, they can lift our mood when we feel threatened. As they interact with our genes, cells, tissues, organs and spirit, plants literally help us to influence our destiny.
And beyond just their compounds they have a character unique to themselves expressing a knowable personality. Some plants are lively (chew some ginger) and some are much more mellow (sip some chamomile). Some awaken our hearts (just look at a rose) and others make us damn happy (too many to mention, but lemon balm and tulsi sing from the treetops). Whatever they do, plants share life with us and we have developed complex systems to understand them.
Traditional health systems, such as Ayurveda, teach us to open our senses and read the language of nature; its an amazing way to tell the story of plants and how we can benefit from them. How one plant, like ginseng, surviving through the harshest winters can bring us warming strength or another, like aloe vera, thriving in the hot desert, can soothe our burns. Or we can appreciate for a moment that just as cinnamon thrives in the humid jungle its drying heat can help protect us from drizzle and damp or how sweet elderberry fruits just in time to help soothe us through the winter. Understanding more about how plants cope with extreme conditions can tell you a lot about what they can do for us.
As we think about the power of nature, after we get over the awe of her magnificence, we end up in a place of mystery and wonder. How we live together as we engage and share with all the plants, people and planet is the story of life….one of sharing and reciprocation.