Monday, March 29, 2010

Plants Are Cool

If William Blake found “heaven in a grain of sand,” I find it in plants. Sounds goofy, I know, but consider, for a moment, these green growing things.

You know the old magic trick, where the guy pulls a rabbit or a bouquet of plastic flowers out of an empty top hat? Well, plants do that all the time, only on a much grander scale. Only a plant can take raw energy from the sun, combine it with water and carbon dioxide and plain old dirt and … presto chango, a mere flick of the magician’s wand and we have … a pineapple. Another flick of the wand and we have a tulip, a kelp forest, a redwood tree.

Without plants, who alone possess this remarkable ability to create usable energy from sunlight, the earth couldn’t support animals, couldn’t support us. And that same miraculous process of photosynthesis absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. So, plants not only provide us the food we eat (all food ultimately comes from plants), but the very air we breathe.

And if that isn’t magic enough, plants, which typically stay rooted in one place, come up with all sorts of crazy strategies to accomplish two of life’s great challenges: self defense, and reproduction. Many plants are veritable chemical weapons factories, others arm themselves with everything from tough hides to sharp thorns. Plants seduce bees, moths, butterflies, and other flying insects to pollinate their flowers. Some tempt animals with fruit to spread their seeds, while others, like dandelions, let them loose on the wind; others still, like that dratted Hound’s Tongue, create marvelously clingy seeds that catch a ride on passing dogs, deer, or—alas!—humans, as anyone who’s ever tried to remove them from their clothing after a hike in the hills can attest. Irritating? To be sure, but devastatingly effective.

So, why all this waxing poetic about plants today? Here in the last week of March, I just harvested my third or fourth crop of fresh basil from the window box above the kitchen sink, and used it to make a near-perfect caprese salad for lunch (a perfect salad would require fresh summer tomatoes straight from the garden; I settled for Campari tomatoes from Costco).

What did it take to produce that all that magic? A plastic tub, some potting soil, water, a few basil seeds, and sunshine. Leaning over, I open the blinds to let in just a little more sunlight: today’s solar radiation, tomorrow’s lunch, thanks to plants.

(Photo of a basil leaf courtesy of wilczooor on Flickr; original at: