Plants & People: why co-operation with Nature is to everyone’s benefit
There is an undeniable relationship between people and plants, one which features uncanny similarities while illustrating the need to cooperate. This symbiosis is mirrored everywhere in Nature, forcing us out of our anthropocentric world view and into a perspective of co-operation and co-creation. This perspective should be even more heartily embraced when considering that we absolutely need plants but they don’t necessarily need us. Without us here the plants would still happily get by from atmospheric CO2 but we could not survive without the plants.
Plants led organisms onto the land from the sea some 400-450 million years ago, developing from a single algal lineage. Now plants are 99% of all living organisms on the planet. The co-evolutionary development of plants and animals meant that as plants moved to land their animal counterparts would follow. First the amphibian plants, like horsetail and ferns, then reptilian plants such as conifers, and lastly the mammalian plants which include all flowering plants. Human beings therefore did not appear on land until the appropriate plants were there to feed them. Humans cannot create tissue directly from sunlight, water and air, like plants can, making humans completely reliant on plants for their survival.
It is said that the Amazon rainforest acts like the lungs of the Earth. Oxygen, which we need to survive, is a by-product of plant photosynthesis. Our by-product of respiration is carbon dioxide, which plants require for survival. Have you ever considered how similar our lungs are to an upside down tree? This massive expanse of the Amazon rainforest, which is being flattened at a rate of knots, is our future breath.
Another major connection between plants and people can be seen through the microscope, when we compare our red blood cells with the chlorophyll of a plant. Chlorophyll is the stuff that makes them green, and has been dubbed the “blood of the plant” for good reason.
Blood and chlorophyll are identical apart from one molecule that sits in the centre. The haemoglobin molecule has an iron atom at its core, giving blood its characteristic red colour and ability to carry oxygen. Whereas the chlorophyll has a magnesium atom; this one small change creates the green colour and allows photosynthesis to occur. In other words, plants are the only source of oxygen on this planet and, because oxygen requires chlorophyll for its production, it follows that chlorophyll enables haemoglobin to carry on its function.
One plant used as medicine, and high in chlorophyll, is nettle (urtica diocia). Contrary to the belief that nettle grows just anywhere and everywhere, it actually tends to grow where humans have inhabited, and is therefore much loved by archaeologists.
With nettle there is an interesting cycle of interaction with humans. Nettles use the nitrogen waste products of humans to grow and, when used as a medicine, they get rid of uric acid (a nitrogen based compound) through the kidneys and bladder. They also help to relieve inflammations like arthritis, muscle and joint pain, gout, fatigue, hay fever, and cystitis. It is a plant that functions primarily by clearing toxins from the physical tissues of the body. It is a plant to get you back in touch with your body after pain and lethargy has become all too consuming.
You should notice nettles are all around us now. They are a spring clean tonic designed by Nature to declutter you of the winter’s stodgy and excessive diet. Use them to make nettle soup instead of spinach, or nettle pesto instead of basil, or even for bread and beer! They really just want to help you, and so the cycle continues.
Plants and humans have lots in common.
The synergy between plants and people is endless. We have more in common than you can imagine. In fact, I would go as far as to say that plants even share the same natural functions: they breathe, reproduce, feed, communicate, evolve, even demonstrate emotions – just like us, but in their own way. Perhaps our mistake is to project a human perspective onto them.
Both the human genome and plant genomes contain around 25,000 genes, and both humans and plants have highly developed immune systems. Humans have an advantage over plants in that they can run away from threats whereas plants have to stand and fight. Interestingly, plants that need to produce certain anti-bacterial chemicals will pass on those qualities to us when taken as medicine, and in turn allow our immune systems to be strengthened.
Plants even have awareness of family. It appears that when some share a pot with another species or non-family member of the same species, they compete for nutrients from the soil for bigger root growth; but by living next to family they do not increase their root growth. Conversely some plants prosper better from having their friends around them; a strategy employed by gardeners called companion planting.
Plants are like people, they are sentient beings with individual personalities, and they need our protection now. In doing so we also ensure our continued existence. We are not just connected to plants and Nature… we ARE Nature!