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HomeOde to Plants

Ode to the Plants We Live With

Contributed by Joanne K. Lavengood, Master Gardener


The students of an enlightened monk walked up to him as he was working in his garden and asked, "If you knew you had only fifteen minutes left to live, what would you do, Master?"  The monk smiled, said, "This" and went back to his gardening.- Bernie S. Siegel, M.D., Prescriptions for Living  



People garden for many reasons, these reasons are as varied as the people who garden themselves.However,those who garden eventually learn that among other virtues, gardening teaches patience, and one cannot garden without having patience. 

It is this time of year when we gardeners need to have the most patience.  We can hardly wait for those early spring bulbs to show their faces!  Yes, those that we planted way back in November.  We look forward to the first spring days, anxiously looking for the first green of new growth that tells us our perennials are back for the season.  And let’s not forget the excitement of picking out our annuals as we plan and dream how we are going to add color and fill in the empty spaces we find in our garden this spring - if spring ever gets here. 

Gardening teaches patience during the growing season too.  We plant our vegetables in the spring and wait for months to enjoy the results of our efforts.  New homeowners, as well as established homeowners plant trees and shrubs, then wait years for them to mature into the vision they dreamed of.  Gardeners planting trees later in life, often plant for future generations to enjoy.  When I first bought my house back in 1976, my grandmother planted a dogwood tree and several specialty pine trees.  As I reflect on this, I think of her and the gift of gardening she gave me.  In addition, my house is a home built in the early 1900's.  I have lilac shrubs and a few apple trees that were mature when I moved in, and are clearly older than I am now.  They, along with my grandmother’s plantings and my own, have made plants an intrinsic quality of my home.

Aside from teaching us patience and giving us beauty, we live with plants in other, more subtle ways. They provide us and other living things with food and shelter.  Without plants, we would not have our homes, which are made from the wood our forests provide; other cultures use plant material that is readily available to them for their homes as well.  Fruits and vegetables required for good nutrition clearly come from plants, as does our bread. Both cattle and poultry rely on plants and seeds for nutrition, without them we would not be able to enjoy our meat, milk and eggs.  Some fish are herbivorous as well.  Plants, however, are not just content to provide us food, they also give us additional gastronomical delights by providing us with herbs and spices.


Plants provide medications in a number of clinical areas that allow us to live longer and enjoy a better quality of life.  Some familiar ones are opium for pain control, digitalis to strengthen our heart, quinine for malaria and lupus, aspirin and cancer medications (Taxol).  Marijuana is used for both pleasure and for its medicinal effects.  Finally, absinthe, wine, beer, vodka and other alcoholic beverages some of us enjoy all come from plants.  For those who do not imbibe, coffee and chocolate are also derived from plants. 

Everyday items we take for granted such as clothes, newspapers, and books come from plants. The rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) provides us with tires and other things made of rubber (latex), and gasoline and oil are made from fossils of plants that died millions of years ago. 

There are several other characteristics of plants that firmly place them on the proverbial pedestal. First, plants provide us with oxygen by photosynthesis.  Plants also use the process of photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates for their growth and reproduction. This makes plants autotropic, meaning they do not need to feed on other organisms to survive. Humans and other animals are heterotrophic, we must consume other living organisms, including plants to survive. The energy produced by plants is taken in as food directly by herbivores and indirectly by carnivores. Being placed on a pedestal is certainly well deserved, since they literally support life on this planet.

Several books bring our appreciation of plants to a deeper level.  What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz provides insight into how plants respond to stimuli and make the choices they do.  Since they can't move, how do they deal with pests, changing weather, weeds and other hazards?  This easy to read, entertaining and well written book will give you a real insight to what plants know despite not having our classic senses.  

A second book, The Triumph of Seeds, How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson opens his introduction with this quote by George Bernard Shaw from The Vegetarian Diet According to Shaw (1918): 

"Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn!  You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak!  Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay."

This wonderful book tells us the story about seeds, a subject most of us haven't given much thought about beyond planting or eating them.You will be awed and fascinated by what Hanson has written and will be left with an entirely different view of seeds and their role in both our history and our lives.

A third book, How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do, written by Linda Chalker-Scott takes a different approach about plants than a classic botany book by teaching gardeners what they need to know in a format that is not only informative, but easy to read and interesting as well.  Chalker-Scott gives situations commonly found in gardens, then integrates the science needed for that situation in a practical way so it is easily understandable and useful.  By understanding what a plant needs and how they work, we can then make informed decisions regarding our gardens, thus improving the health of our plants. 

As the winter winds blow, and the snow piles up, sit back, read a few garden books and think about the many ways plants have enhanced your life.  Appreciate their qualities, diverse beauty and lessons in life that have made you a better person.  If you don't have any indoor plants, purchase some pretty greenery. Indoor plants create a relaxing atmosphere which will help reduce stress, and being natural air purifiers, they will improve the quality of air in our well insulated homes. Soon we will see the first crocus peeping through the snow and spring will be right around the corner!


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

by Joyce Kilmer


Chalker-Scott, Linda. How Plants Work: The Science Behind the Amazing Things Plants Do

Chamovitz, Daniel.  What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses

Hanson, Thor.  The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History


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