Why learning about plants should be in your daily priorities.

Four hundred and eighty million years ago, our planet saw for the first time, a little, adventurous spore that left the water, to germinate on land. This tiny, insignificant spore and the ones that follow, would eventually give rise to a group of “light eating” organisms we nowadays refer to as plants. These early plants would produce their own “food” by the CO2 in the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. CO2 is toxic at high quantities to most animals, so, it is thanks to that little spore, that oxygen loving species, like us humans, eventually thrived on earth.

"Serruria florida 'Blushing bride'" by Cerlin Ng is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Serruria is one of the genus of plants that might disappear if conservation doesn’t happen.

The relationship of humans and plants, however, goes well beyond this atmospheric feat. Ever since recorded history, there has been a clear relationship between plants and human survival. The first hunter-gatherer communities relied heavily on plants, whether it was the fruits we collected or the herbs we used to treat wounds and sickness. Plants were so useful and necessary for our survival that we started to domesticate them. Why go all the way into the forest, if I can plant an apple tree next to my home?

The “domestication” of plants, though, really left humans at the mercy of plants. Crops allowed our ancestors to leave the nomad lifestyle behind and start towns and villages. Groups of complete strangers would gather together thanks to these plants, as now domesticated plants allowed us to feed more mouths than ever before. For about 10,000 years, since the first recorded agricultural groups until the industrial revolution, all our ancestors had to be in constant touch with plants, from medicine and food up to recreation and shelter.

"Rafflesia (Rafflesia pricei)" by vil.sandi is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Rafflesia, is a completely parasitic plant, it does not have leaves anymore. It has the largest flower in the plant kingdom and is critically endangered due to habitat destruction

As humans developed a strong bond with plants, we learned how to read their life cycles, how to keep them healthy and robust, so that the entire village could eat. We perfected this symbiotic relationship to such an extent that vast empires, like the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, wouldn’t have been possible without wheat and other grains. Everything, from the bread in the table to the grain used to feed the cattle, required plants. Even war strategy involved securing safe and fertile sites to grow crops. Most often, the hardest blows one could receive at war were not the loss of a battle but the loss of crops and food supply.

For the past 200 years since the industrial revolution, however, things have changed radically. Most people go through their daily lives without touching the soil or without even grasping the delicate whisper of tree leaves against the wind. We are so pre-occupied with our daily routine and work tasks that we do not have time to appreciate the greenery around us, let alone think about how the food we eat is produced. The average person has never seen a plant grow from seed, and we live in a society where 2% of the population makes the food for the remaining 98% . We have grown so used to plants, to food and their comforts that they have become something most people take for granted. Plants don’t even make it into conversation topics anymore.

"Puya Raimondii, Bomeliad mas grande del mundo, y cara sur de Illimani, Bolivia." by Dick Culbert is licensed under CC BY 2.0
The queen of Puyas (Puya raimondii) has the biggest flower of the bromeliad family. Its royal grace might leave us soon, as it critically endangered

Like any other species in land, we humans evolved to be in close contact with our plant friends. This relationship became paramount not only for our physical survival but to our psychological and spiritual well-being. This is true to the point that nowadays, many psychological affections like depression and anxiety are treated with therapies where people spend time in the forest to heal psychological problems (Beyer,K.M, et al. 2014).

There seems to be something about that freedom and wilderness sensation that makes us humans healthier and happier.

Back in the day, the average person needed to know and memorize hundreds of different species of plants and fruits. The plant world is full of delicious and lethally toxic plants that look alike. This is the case with the “Wild carrot plant” and the “Poison Hemlock plant,”. While one makes for a delicious dish, the other can cause respiratory failure or even death if eaten. Knowing about plants then was a matter of life and death.

Nowadays, the average North American can only recognize up to a dozen number of plants.(Schlatter,M.2018) . There is even a term coined for the present inability to recognize most plants in the environment. Plant Blindness, as two Botanist put it (Wandersee,1999), refers to the incapacity of recognizing plants around yourself, with plants blurring with the background, become just “that green blur in the landscape”. Our slow “ghosting” and subtle break up with plants has cast the blanket of ignorance on many plant-related issues. This is true to the point were almost 600 species of plants have gone extinct in the last 200 years, and not a single extinct plant has made it to the news. This number is more than all the birds, amphibians and mammals that have gone extinct, combined. (Humphries,2019. City expansion and deforestation are the biggest threats to plant diversity, making plants face the highest extinction rates ever recorded. Some fascinating plants like the corpse flower (Rafflesia arnoldii), the Serrurias and the Queen Puya of Andes (Puya raimondii) could face extinction and leave us with more than a bitter taste in our mouths.

When you go into a park or a forest, do you stop to notice the trees around you? To see if they are blooming or in-fruit? Or do the trees just seem to blend as a green blur in the background?

However, there is still hope. There are many groups and people fighting to stop these overwhelming extinction rates through education and plant conservation. Most often than not, the botanical garden closest to you is promoting plant conservation, not only through the actual protection and propagation of endangered plants but through education and mind change. I believe the most significant threat plants face is not our constant expansion or even deforestation. The biggest threat to plant and ecosystem conservation is indifference. The fact that hundreds of different plant species pass as that “green blur” in the background is what has complicated plant conservation. How can you conserve or preserve something you can’t see or can’t even properly name?

With this blog post, I want to introduce you guys to my plant website, where weekly I will try to share with you, different and exciting facets of plants. The point is to start from the beginning, within the community, a knowledge-sharing platform. So, we can begin to give plants and ecosystems different perspectives in our lives. In this blog and through the free botany lessons we host monthly, we will touch on diverse plant topics Such as:

Plants have so many different properties to learn about! Medicine, toxins, drugs, religion and culture are just a few of them! Keep on reading our articles to learn more!

-Medicinal and psychotropic effects

-Plants and their role in Society and Culture

-Growing your own food at home: How to grow micro-greens, herbs basic hydroponics.

- Plant evolution and identification, among others.

Plants mold our reality in many ways that we usually ignore. Hopefully, the posts in this blog will help us all (Our team included) regain a little bit of that wilderness hidden inside us. The final goal of these posts and of Koju, in general, is that next time we go to work, we notice that gentle willow tree by the window and we start looking at it with different eyes.

References listed

Beyer, K. M. M., Kaltenbach, A., Szabo, A., Bogar, S., Nieto, F. J., & Malecki, K. M. (2014). Exposure to neighborhood green space and mental health: evidence from the survey of the health of Wisconsin. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 11(3), 3453–3472. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph110303453

Humphreys A. M., Govaerts R., Ficinski, S. Z., Lughadha, E. N. and Vorontsova, M. S. (2019) Global dataset shows geography and life form predict modern plant extinction and rediscovery. Nature Ecology and EvolutionDOI: 10.1038/s41559-019-0906-2.

Schlatter,M. (2018). Plant perception in North America. Personal communication.

Wandersee, J. H., & Schussler, E. E. (1999). Preventing Plant Blindness. The American Biology Teacher, 61(2), 82–86. https://doi.org/10.2307/4450624

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Santiago R. Said-M.Sc. Environmental Biologist