The Superiority of Plants
We often call ourselves plant caretakers. We bring young shoots into our homes or prepare garden beds outside, supplying them with fresh water, nutritious soil and shelter from harsh elements and nibbly creatures.
We pot plants, give them as gifts and lovingly refer to them as our green friends or plant pets, as if they depended on us the same way that furry animal companions do. But the truth is that plants get along fine without us and have done so for millions of years. It isn’t plants who need us; it’s us who need them.
Plants Are the Caretakers of the Earth
Nearly every aspect of human existence (and all living organisms, really) depends upon the services that plants provide to us, free of charge.
They sustain the earth’s ecosystems and turn harmful elements like solar radiation and carbon dioxide into a protective ozone layer and breathable air. Plants take solar energy and water and produce chemical energy (glucose) and oxygen with which they feed themselves. In doing so, they provide the world’s underlying source of food and energy, the foundation of our food chain and the basis of modern civilization. Look around and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an object that doesn’t stem from a plant.
Protectors, Friends and Food
Long before animals evolved, plants existed—first, as underwater dwellers and then as land inhabitants. Moss, ferns and gymnosperms introduced oxygen and ozone into our atmosphere before evolving into the flowering angiosperms we now see dotting our natural landscape.
More than 350,000 different plant species exist. They undergo the same biological processes as microbes and animals, and come in an array of colors, shapes and sizes.
There are 5,000 plant pigments such as green chlorophyll, yellow/orange/red carotenoids and purple/blue anthocyanin, and these chemicals absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light that we can see with our naked eyes in the form of flowers, fruits, and leaves. Some pigments attract pollinators while others, known as antioxidants, protect plants (and us when we eat them) against harmful radiation.
Respiration is an essential element of plant life as it is for animal life. Plant cells use oxygen and sugar to produce carbon dioxide and water (it's sort of the opposite process of photosynthesis). We inhale and exhale, whereas the gases involved in plant respiration move in and out of their porous leaves and stems.
Unlike animals, however, plants survive predators like us and harsh elements without running away. They’re all fight, no flight. Plants resist natural enemies by emitting toxic chemicals and slowly adapting to their surroundings, like prickly desert cacti and feathery tropical ferns.
We cut them and they grow roots, insects drink their nectar and they reproduce. Plants win when it comes to life hacks and survivalism, but we can learn more from them than mere survival methods. They teach us how to slow down and help us thrive.
Rethink Your Relationship to Plants
Plant shapes and colors have inspired human art, design and creativity from ancient civilizations to modern industries. We mimic their beauty in sweeping brush strokes, soaring music and intricate tapestries.
Even our language about plants reflects our deep connection to them and the characteristics that we share in common: our skin, flesh, cells, tissue, veins and reproductive organs. Plants’ phallic stamens jutting out next to curved yonic pistils closely resemble the tools of human sexual reproduction.
Science shows that plants perceive and interact with the world more like animals than minerals. Just like us, they take time to get to know: the particular way they respond to their environment, their appetites and the energy they bring to a space.
Plants have a presence in our homes and we feel more alive when they are near us because they are literally the embodiment of our existence. Instead of seeing a flourishing plant as a symbol of our own success in its maintenance, we should approach plant care as an act of gratitude, a moment we say thank you for the mostly-thankless work that plants have being doing for millions of years to transform our once inhospitable planet into a lush, liveable home.
“12 Principles of Plant Biology” American Society of Plant Biologists, 2017. https://aspb.org/education-outreach/k12-roots-and-shoots/the-12-principles-of-plant-biology-2/#toggle-id-2