Have you ever looked at a plant before? I mean really looked at a plant. Have you ever wondered why it grows the way it does or how it adapts to an ever changing world when it itself is incapable of moving? These thoughts have peppered my mind from an early age.
I remember the first time I looked at duckweed under a microscope. I was amazed to discover that this strange green coating on the surface of my favorite fishing ponds was actually made up of thousands of little plants. I would later learn that some species of duckweed produce the smallest flowers in the world.
I soon realized that when I try to find out more about the plant species that we share the world with, all I seem to turn up are information regarding some sort of medicinal property or folk lore we humans have ascribed to them.
It would seem that most people don’t pay any attention to plants unless they are pretty or useful in some way. I reject this reality outright. If no one was going to write the kinds of stories that I wanted to read, then I guess it was up to me to do so. Thus, In Defense of Plants was born.
Plants are everything on this planet. They have this amazing ability to use our nearest star to break apart water and CO2 gas in order to grow and reproduce. When you stand at the base of a giant sequoia or redwood and look up at the canopy some 300+ feet in the air, you are looking at a tower of carbon whose atoms were once floating around in the lungs of the animals in that forest. This is a powerful thing to realize.
What’s even more staggering is all of the action going on out of sight beneath the soil surface. Plants extend their roots down into the nutrient-rich humus in search of food and water. To watch a time lapse of this conjures up images of an organism with a brain and a purpose.
Of course, plants don’t have brains or anything approaching a nervous system, but they do have chemistry. Plants are able to achieve amazing things using basic chemistry. They even go to war with one another. Some plant species don’t like to share their space. From their roots, these plants release chemicals that poison the soil, killing off the competition.
As with any type of warfare, counter attacks are prevalent. Some species produce chemicals from their roots that neutralize toxic compounds. It’s a form of chemical warfare that has been at work since before the ancestors of all animals ever left the ocean.
The leading cause of extinction on this planet is habitat destruction. For a vast majority of terrestrial, as well as many aquatic species, plants are the habitat. Plants not only grow on every continent on this planet, they also inhabit our waterways. When we remove plants from the system, the system begins to collapse
Despite this grandeur, plants are all too often shoved into the background as nothing more than a green backdrop, overshadowed by more charismatic organisms. This is quite a shame. We are losing plant species at an alarming rate and yet they receive almost no protection when compared to animals. We mow them, we pull them, we trample them, and we pave them over. We are losing plant species before we even have a chance to describe them.
A brief foray into the world of plants will reveal seemingly endless diversity. There is a reason that the great Charles Darwin paid them so much attention. Every plant you see has its own ecology, its own evolutionary history. Each species has adapted to its metaphorical neck of the woods by growing, fighting, defending against enemies, forming alliances, and reproducing.
Of course, we are most familiar with plant reproduction because of flowers. Despite what we may think, flowers didn’t evolve to wow our sense of aesthetics. They are there for sex. We will be most familiar with the age-old tale of flowers and bees, however, since reproduction is the main purpose of life, plants have gone to some amazing lengths to ensure pollination occurs.
This becomes especially apparent when we look at one of the most famous plant families in the world – the orchids. Orchids come in many shapes and sizes. They are the largest plant family on the planet with around 30,000 recognized species and countless more awaiting discovery.
One peculiar example of this can be seen in the hammer orchids (Drakaea) from Australia. The flowers of this genus offer no rewards, such as nectar, nor are they particularly showy. Instead, they present their pollinators with something no male can pass up, the opportunity to mate.
The flowers slightly resemble a female wasp that lives in the same habitat. The orchid takes this ruse to the next level by producing a scent that closely mimics the smell of a female wasp ready to mate. Male wasps cannot resist and they descend upon these flowers, attempting to carry them off to get down to business. The lip of the orchid is hinged so that every time the male attempts to fly off with this dummy female, his head gets slammed into the reproductive parts of the orchid, thus achieving pollination in a most unique manner.
The story of plants is the story of life on this planet. They have undergone fantastic evolutionary trajectories since they came onto the scene some 700 million years ago. From the smallest duckweed to the tallest redwoods, plants offer the observer a chance to get to know our planet a bit better. They can inspire and enlighten.
Best of all, you don’t have to travel to some exotic place to find them. Plants are alive and well in our own backyards. Endless fascination awaits anyone with a field guide and a hand lens. In Defense of Plants is simply here to lead the way.
Hammer orchid photo by Mark Brundrett
Matt Candeias is a plant fanatic. His current research is focused on how plants respond to changes in their environment, which takes him to the southern Appalachian Mountains where ample topography and seemingly endless plant diversity offer a window into how and why plants grow where they do. He is always reading and writing about plants on his blog, In Defense of Plants.
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