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Health Hack #29 - Respect Thy Plants

It’s easy for us to take plants for granted, and to view them as inert, or nonliving. Dietary camps such as veganism have adherents railing aggressively over the consumption of animal foods, because animals are beings that us humans perceive as living. Like us, they inhale oxygen and they emit CO2, and, well, they walk around in a traditional sense. It’s perfectly natural to guard animals in more protective a manner than plants. They’re more like us.

Among many of the COVID-era interests and hobbies that have emerged, DIY home gardening is surely at the top of the heap. Many of us have taken to growing plants in some capacity, be it as simple as planting flowers throughout our landscape or in a pot on our city stoop, or as complex as beginning a vegetable garden from seed. Now more than ever, people seem much more connected to their little piece of Earth, better known as their home. Garden centers represent one of the unlikely success stories amidst our quarantine era, with more and more homeowners taking a deeper interest in nurturing their land, and in working in a variety of respects with different plants.

Whether we’ve taken the opportunity to get our hands dirty of late or not, at the very least we’re likely to have become much more conscientious of the land upon which we live, or (for apartment and townhome dwellers) the land around us. We’re home much more frequently these days, and by being so, it's easy to notice certain things that hadn’t been on our radars before. As we become somewhat disconnected from traditional commerce, commuting, and reporting to the office building - and from life as we’ve known it in general during these past however many decades we’ve been alive - it’s only natural that we become more connected to nature. It’s tricky to establish harmony between the two, and unfortunately our respect for nature has taken more of a backseat over these past few centuries, as we strive evermore to improve upon our progress story as a species.

Survival Of The Fittest

Throughout much of history, we were taught that human beings represented the only species capable of some of the worst vices that can be conceived. Motivations driven by greed. The propensity to wage war, and to murder members of our own species indiscriminately. We were wicked creatures, whereas all other animal species functioned on a different premise inside of a different behavioral paradigm. Animals and other mammals, it was thought, were altruistic by nature. Certain carnivorous species would kill for food, yes, however within one species, life was blissfully harmonious. All chimpanzees more or less got along, and decisions that were made amongst a particular troop of chimpanzees was assuredly made for the betterment of the troop as a whole, with altruism representing a staple characteristic that defined behavioral patterns.

The intense research throughout the middle-latter part of the 20th century by the likes of Jane Goodall and other behavioral scientists painted a very different picture of reality. Chimpanzees have the ability to act just as savagely as us humans. They commit head-scratching acts driven by greed, like males pummeling weaker males in efforts to snatch a certain female that the lower male was poised to mate with. Chimpanzees wage war with neighboring troops. Worse yet, they will savagely murder an entire troop from a different region, premeditated and carefully orchestrated.

What in the world does this have to do with learning to deepen our respect for plants?

The cold hard truth that emerged and was now as clear as day, was not that the animal kingdom behaves for the betterment of their species. Quite the contrary, it was that the primary behavioral motivator behind every action for virtually all known species was to spread as many copies of one's genes into future generations as possible. In other words, species’ place so much value on their progeny that their every move is geared towards bettering their chances of creating (and later nurturing) their offspring. Not very altruistic!

Most readers are likely familiar with the Darwinian phrase “Survival of the Fittest”, and it in many ways captures this behavioral mentality. To be fit is to survive, yes. But survival goes beyond one’s own mortality. To survive, from an evolutionary perspective, is to propagate.

Without getting graphic, we all likely share a fairly distinct vision of what the act of procreating looks like. But what about when it comes to plants?

Spreading Seeds

It turns out that this same evolutionary paradigm also persists within the plant kingdom. We’re not triggered to think of it like this, but it’s actually the case. It would be hard to speculate on the specific treachery existent within the survive at all costs mindset of a plant from another plant’s perspective, but it may very well be there. Nonetheless, from a purely positive perspective, there is plenty for us humans to marvel at while analyzing their survival tactics, knowing that they lack many of the survival and fitness tools that we have at our disposal.

Consider two examples, the first more obvious than the second...

A dandelion sprouts in a field of grass. A gust of wind ripples through, and seeds from the dandelion are scattered about. Within days, the field is awash with dandelions, majestically yellow and screaming of spring. This is a novel way for a simple plant to proliferate, and one that rose to being after eons of evolution, mired by struggle and strife in an effort to survive.

Indigenous to only select African countries, the berry of the pollia condensata plant possesses the most intense and reflective color of any living thing on the planet. Smaller than a blueberry, it’s not particularly noticeable to the human eye at a distance, but upon close scrutiny it’s said to be quite brilliant. Interestingly, the berry possesses no nutritional value whatsoever.

Through a feat of evolutionary wonder, the pollia condensata has yielded a berry with coiled cells, layered much like an onion. Devoid of any actual pigmentation, the berry’s skin comes to life under light, eliciting the magical glow shown in the photo above. Why would evolution favor preserving such a tremendous trait for such a simple little inedible berry?

To survive, the plant requires birds to carry its seeds and haplessly drop them throughout Africa’s savannas and deltas. Having nothing to offer from a nutritional sense, the vibrant coloring of the berries provides a sought after decorative piece for birds nests. Through genius ingenuity, the pollia condensata has overcome wildly unlikely odds. Despite serving as a food source for no one and for nothing, while dwelling at the bottom end of the food chain, it’s managed to survive, and survive quite gloriously.


So where is the hack? This is a Health Hack, right? Not a science journal.

This brings us back to gratitude (The Power Of Gratitude). By applying the deserved reverence to the plants that sustain us with nutrients, that keep us awe-inspired with their beauty, and that surround us virtually wherever we are while outside, we’re able to remain more balanced, and grateful for what we have. In learning this past week that our quarantine restrictions will remain in place at least until 6/4, we need more reasons to stay hopeful and positive. It’s become cliche at this point to recite our new mantra, which is that we’re all in this together. The truth is, we are. But how do we define “we”? When we humans are feeling sorry for ourselves and pondering our survival, let us consider the far more rigorous battle being fought by the fragile plant world around us, lacking the arsenal of protection that us humans possess and likely take for granted. We gather our sustenance from them each and every day. We either consume them directly to the benefit of our health, or we consume the animals that consume them, and yield nutrients from the animals who’ve already yielded it from the plants. Let us respect them. After all, we’re all in this together.