When a Plant is More Than Just a Plant

By Jesse Eastman

At its core, a plant is a carbon-based solar powered machine that exists to pass on its genes. As humans, we add a degree of utility to that definition, seeing opportunities in plants for food, shelter, and beauty. Unfortunately, this is where many people stop, but I believe there is another dimension, often overlooked, that truly connects plants and humans in such complex ways that quantifying the benefits is nearly impossible. Plants provide a myriad of different paths for us to act out one of our basic human urges – to be social animals.

Think about it. How many of you have a plant that has some sort of emotional meaning to it? Perhaps an African violet that was passed down to you by your mother. Perhaps a tree you planted with your kids. Maybe you’ve developed a reputation among your friends as the go-to source for garden-fresh salsa every summer. Whatever the case may be, as a species we’ve learned to ascribe deep meaning to the plants that surround us in ways that define our interactions with one another.

This is something I try to help my customers see when they are shopping for plants. You might have come to the nursery looking for a shade tree because your patio gets too hot, but let’s dig a little deeper. Is there a type of tree that recalls fond childhood memories? What purpose does that patio serve in your life that makes its comfortable enjoyment so key? Can this tree fulfill other needs, such as providing a future treehouse construction site or growing fruit to feed your family? Even wildlife viewing, and all the joy it brings, should be considered.

I often have to remind myself that not everyone (in fact, I’d guess quite a small number of people) pay such close attention to the plants that surround them as we plant nerds do. This does not, however, diminish the importance of the role they play in all our lives. Two young lovers may not be aware that the sweet smell of flowers they will forever associate with their first kiss came from a lilac, but that fragrance will always evoke memories of young love.

There are many subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways humans have learned to incorporate plants into our social fabric. We give cut flowers to show love, sorrow, gratitude, and joy. We delight in unique and delicate flavors from an innumerable variety of plant life. Our language is steeped in references to plants – we speak of our deep-rooted passions, family trees, and we all know someone who is cool as a cucumber. We even associate neighborhoods where big mature trees grow with safety, and studies back this up. A study conducted in Portland, OR showed that neighborhoods with large trees tend to have reduced crime rates. “…trees may reduce crime by signaling to potential criminals that a house is better cared for and, therefore, subject to more effective authority than a comparable house with fewer trees.” Contrarily, neighborhoods with smaller and younger trees tended to have higher crime rates, with the study’s author hypothesizing that these shorter trees act as visual barriers, emboldening criminals who feel concealed. In both of these instances, we see trees representing important threads in our social fabric, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but always there, always passively participating in our lives.

I’m sure there are countless additional strands that bind humans and plants together – Michael Pollan expertly illustrates some of these in great detail in his book The Botany of Desire. These links surround us, change with us, and define us. Streets, Cities, and even nations derive their names from plants (“Guatemala” is derived from the Nahuatl word “Cuauhtēmallān” or “Place of Many Trees). We bemoan the loss of rare species while breeding thousands of new ones. We wage furious war against some plants while bending over backwards to grow others. Our lives and the lives of plants are intricately woven together, and the tapestry this creates is truly beautiful if you pay close enough attention to see it.

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