I have always felt that we have never given plants the amount of respect they deserve, and are too quick to hack, chop and rip their hearts out. They keep life on earth ticking, all by the simple expedient of manufacturing their own food out of thin air, water and sunlight. Every other living creature either consumes them, or consumes the creatures (herbivores) that consume them. But, hey, let’s not forget that plants give out oxygen in the process, without which we would die in a matter of minutes.
The miracle makers are, of course, the leaves. Infused with the magic green catalyst chlorophyll, they do their wizardry through photosynthesis: Chlorophyll traps photons (from sunlight) from the sun and uses its energy to split up molecules of water into its component parts: hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen it liberates into the air (which we inhale gratefully), the hydrogen it combines with carbon-dioxide from the air (which would suffocate us) to produce simple organic acids. With a little more chemical jugglery, these are transformed into sugars, and, taking the process further, into fats and proteins, from which the various parts of living tissue can be produced. Cool and neat, eh? Next time you recklessly slash at, or pluck, leaves, pause and say a silent “thank you” instead.
Plants can’t run and hide — from those coming at them with slavering jaws or combine harvesters! They have to stand their ground and fight: So some have developed the most toxic venoms imaginable: those deadly poison dart frogs of Central and South America develop their legendary toxicity only because they have fed on creatures which have eaten these plants. The “apples” of our pretty yellow oleander can give a buffalo a heart attack. Most leaves produce toxic substances rendering them unappetizing (tea, full of tannin, is used as an appetite suppressant in poor countries). Other plants arm themselves with prickles, thorns and spikes — many poison-tipped.
Unlike animals, being rooted to the ground makes it difficult for plants to make out with the opposite sex. So they deck themselves with silken petals of a thousand hues and fragrances and make offerings of sweet, delicious (and very good for you) nectar to seduce bees, wasps, butterflies and moths, who live on nectar and pollen; the bees convert them into honey. Bats and birds greedily help themselves too. There are, however, no free lunches: these tipplers are smeared with pollen dust, which they transport to another plant where the golden dust is duly deposited to fertilise that plant. Seeds form as a result of this union and now the plants shift gears. Without movement, they now have to ensure that their babies go out into the big bad world to propagate the species.
Around their seeds they burgeon: fleshily- plump and sweet and flavourful, and often blushing furiously as they send off come-hither signs to all and sundry! Red is often the colour of choice, indicating sweetness and juiciness. The fruit and vegetables are consumed — by animals and us — and the seeds get around, hopefully, to be deposited in places where they can start their own lives. Often, the seeds are themselves consumed and die, but usually the guts of most vegetarians are hopelessly inefficient — and many of the seeds pass through undigested — and now are given booster doses of nutrients in the form of dung.
Other plants rely on different means to get their babies out and about. Some explode them out of their cozy pods like bombs, others develop hooks and grappling irons so the seed pods can hitch a lift on passing animals, and yet others develop propellers, gliding wings and parasailing silk to send off their seeds. The seeds need to leave home: with their parent towering above them, consuming light, water and nutrients, they won’t have a chance to do well. (Maybe there’s a lesson here for helicopter parents?)
Underground, there’s another miracle going on. The roots that anchor the plant to the earth can be immensely strong: some can rend apart the walls of mighty forts. Apart from sucking up and storing water and nutrients (and holding the soil in place), the roots have their own extensive world wide web. Along with threadlike fungi, which can infiltrate them and spread way beyond their reach, they can stretch out underground over vast areas, interact with other such roots and fungi — and exchange nutrients. The fungi also absorb heavy metals. The fungi get around 30 per cent cut in terms of sugars and food from the plants for this service.
Finally, wood: without which, we would have had no fire, cooking, houses, boats, sailing ships (and great explorers of the past), housing, books (and learning), knowledge and newspapers. They are invaluable even when long dead — fossil fuels have kept us going for so many decades. And, what are we doing now? We’re trying to trap energy directly from the sun: just like the plants!
This article appeared in print with the headline: Down in Jungleland: An Ode to Miracle Makers