In Praise of Plants












On the last rare occasion I found myself in that large collection of people, smog and greed they call London, I heard a phrase from a sickly looking barman that really got me thinking.

He wasn’t an extraordinary person in any way, in fact as an Australian working as a barman in central London he was really quite typical. I always cringe when someone meets a cultural stereo-type such as this, like seeing Brits on a drunken rampage in Spain.  But there he was, a chirpy Aussie serving drinks in a UK bar.

Anyway, what this antipodean said as I sat down to order a pub lunch I found both matter of fact and utterly bizarre at the same time.  I asked him what the vegetarian option was like, to which he replied,

‘Don’t know mate, if it comes out of the ground, I won’t go near it’. 

I laughed, nodded, then as he walked away I shook my head and took a mental double take. ‘What the fuck?’ I thought to myself.

As an off-hand phrase it’s meaningless, it’s banter, it shouldn’t be given any notice whatsoever. He meant nothing more than he didn’t like vegetables. However, as soon as I began to dwell on the phrase I realised how utterly ridiculous it was.

Imagine a life without going near anything which came from the ground?

First thing in the morning, I usually have a cup of tea.

Tea comes from the leaves of an evergreen shrub botanically known as Camellia sinensis, it’s a plant, it grows in the ground. So, for our man in the capital no morning cuppa!

Perhaps I was being culturally assumptive; perhaps he’s a coffee drinker? Well he better think again, coffee comes from the seeds of  a fruit called coffee cherries, these seeds are more commonly known as coffee beans. This small, evergreen shrub or small tree, native to Ethiopia grows not in mid air, not on a number 24 bus, no it grows in the ground. Again, by his own omission, he couldn’t go near it.

Perhaps he’d light up a morning smoke?

 NO, NO, NO!

This is a leaf of a tobacco plant, a close relative to the tomato, the aubergine and the potato.  So, where do leaves come from eh? Are they part of a fantastical beast which lives in a large shoe near Dulwich? Are they derived from a hair plucked from its fantastical nose or a pimple from its cheek? No, they’re part of a plant which, unless I’m very much mistaken, COMES OUT OF THE GROUND!

So what goes around this collection of crumbled and chemically preserved, flavoured and generally fiddled with leaves?  Is it paper? Paper where does that come from eh? Could it be a tree, oh, right, what’s a tree, is it a plant? Hmmm, I think it could be. 

We’re not even on to what he might eat.

Morning toast?  Made from wheat = PLANT

Margarine on the toast? Made from Orang-Utan habitat destroying palm oil = PLANT

Jam on the toast? = NEED I EVEN SAY IT?

Perhaps he has a 100% meat diet?

But what do the animals he eats eat? PLANTS, FUCKING PLANTS, FROM THE GROUND.

Okay, so perhaps no need for me to get quite so freaked out and worked up but, his fear of the botanical, his detachment from the living world is so alien to me. 

Perhaps we’ve all met some weird Goth in our time that claims to lives off bats blood and petrol. Or even a Breatharian who claims to live off nothing more than ‘Prana’, mystic energy they absorb from sunlight (sounds a little like the actions of a plant to me).  

Or perhaps that’s just the circles I keep. 

Anyway, we’ve all met people who claim they don’t eat plants, you know the sort of person I mean someone who vociferously dismisses salads as ‘rabbit food’. They usually have quite pallid skin, lank greasy hair, bloody scurvy ridden gums and retinol depleted eyesight.  

The truth is, in urbanised society we don’t come into contact with plant life too much and this type of person is not unusual, in fact it might even be you reading this.  If that’s the case I’m sorry for being so offensive.  Not so long ago, I didn’t really care for anything green and leafy myself either. Growing up as I did in Northampton I remember some parts of town were so devoid of plant life I only really knew what season it was if I felt I had to do my coat up or if I could get away with just wearing a t-shirt. Botanically speaking, the streets were a desert.

But how did it come to this?  Our lives depend on plants and we evolved alongside them, we have four fingers and a thumb which enable us to pick berries, crush the hard shells of nuts with stones and dig up roots with sticks.  Our back molars grind down plant matter and our saliva breaks down starch contained in plants.

Not only have we adapted to live alongside plant life we also adapt plants to our own needs.   Wheat has been bred to have larger grains which are easier to harvest and process.  We also breed plants for taste, colour, size, etc and we’ve been doing it for millennia. Very little of our food exists in the form we know it in the wild. Potatoes would have been poisonous tubers if not for man’s influence and carrots would have been tough spindly rooted plants more similar to dandelion than the swollen orange tap roots we know today.

 What I find even more interesting however, is that plants have been adapting to their environment without us for longer than we can imagine.  Long, long ago very basic life forms gained the ability to take energy from the sun and basic chemicals, producing sugars and oxygen – two things we and all animal life would find it hard to live without.  In time life became ever more complex until we ended up with oddities such as the Sequioa sempervires, or giant redwood reaching over 115 meters or 379 feet in the air or the titan arum, amorphophallus titanium(the latin translates as huge penis) who’s flowering parts are over 6 feet in height and smell like rotten flesh in order to trap flies rather than other common pollinators.

Abandon any piece of land for enough time and you’ll see nature reclaiming it back for itself.  Mosses and lichens will break down concrete enabling larger rooted plants to get in and reclaim the land for themselves.  If we don’t trigger run-away climate change by melting frozen methane (it only takes a small change in temperatures to do this) then once we inevitably destroy ourselves nature will find a way to reclaim the land once again.

Even in our current towns and cities nature squeezes itself in around us.  Buddleias send their roots between bricks searching for water and sustenance in the mortar.  Eventually the roots burrow so deep into the brickwork they bring down chimneys, walls and even whole buildings.

Less destructive but equally interesting is the plant which has a name that is sure to make you sound like a well-versed urban botanist. The Ivy-leaved toadflax or Cymbalaria murali  is essentially a weed but then again most well adapted plants are so-called weeds.  This toadflax started life in the Mediterranean where it lived amongst sun-scorched rocks and on cliff edges.  Now adapted to live all over Europe and some parts of the USA (and no-doubt elsewhere in the world) you can find this plant growing quite happily out of man-made walls.  All the plant needs is a little hole to seed itself, once established the plant will spread far and wide.  But that’s not the interesting part of this plant. Once it has flowered and the petals drop, a small ‘bud’ is left on the end of a spindly stem.  This part of the plant no longer needs to be in view of pollinators and as it is a potential food source it needs to be hidden out of the way.  The plant does something very few plants are able to do, it actually plants itself. The spindly stem moves around probing cracks in the wall until it finds a suitable hole, at which point it starts to grow towards it depositing the seeds out of harms way.

Like it or not plants will find their way into man’s domain and our own fear or reversion is not enough to stop them.  Pesticide resistant strains of weeds are now emerging and in time no doubt all but the deadliest of chemicals will be unable to prevent the growth of ‘unwanted’ green companions. But perhaps we should give them our time and a little more consideration, they have just as much right to be here as we do, if not more so.  Even the most wretched looking scrub of a plant growing out of concrete or tarmac shows remarkable adaptation to our harsh man-made environment.  Perhaps the barman would embrace the botanical world if only he gave it some time to consider. But perhaps that’s just wishful thinking on my part!

*Common plant names can be specific to a country or even region. The latin is there not to make me sound clever (I had to look most of them up) but so international readers might have a chance of knowing what plants I am talking about.

Dave Hamiton
Pic: © Roger Wright



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3 Responses to In Praise of Plants

    1. Love this piece! The irony is he’s making his living working in a bar selling wine and beer that are made from grapes and hops!

      Comment by Claire on 18 April, 2013 at 10:35 pm
    2. everything is made of light and our friends the plants convert it into the food we eat. a miracle! I guess yer Aussie gets his nourishment{?} from unpleasant chemical beers and gm shit. So sad that with the western worlds amazing education, unprecedented communication and stores of knowledge increasing portions of the population are about as informed as, well, a dumb ignorant media drenched human. How do huge human brains turn to such unedifying mush? Loved yer article mate, pommie ?unt. {i jest)

      Comment by Mike Paul on 19 April, 2013 at 12:17 pm
    3. The Butterfly Bush (Buddleja globosa) is my favourite urban coloniser.

      If you’re in any built up area, look up at the buildings and you’re almost certain to see somewhere a scraggly Buddleia effortlessly clinging to the vertiginous concrete or brickwork. On terra firma it can grow to an altogether more impressive size and really does attract butterflies.

      Mid-C18, Carl Linnaeus (the ‘father of modern taxonomy’ and as such an absolutely key figure of the Enlightenment) named the shrub with its large panicles of small, tubular flowers after the Reverend Adam Buddle, in recognition of the cleric’s outstanding botanical work. Buddle remained as poor as a church mouse because he spent all his time collecting and studying grasses which he affixed to the pages of leather bound volumes, now held in the British Library at St Pancras’s manuscript room.

      The buddleia we see all around us originated from the Himalayas, where the shrub had learned its acrobatic skills clinging to the rock faces. Imported by commercial dealers it became a suburban flowerbed favourite in Victorian times, escaping over the garden wall to make its own independent migration across our countryside.

      The first specimen to arrive in this country, however, (and the one named by Linnaeus) had come from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, collected by Sir Hans Sloane who served for several years as personal physician to the island’s Governor, the Duke of Albermarle (who he would bleed to death as a ‘cure’ for tropical fevers!).

      It was one of 800 specimens of flora and fauna Sloane returned with to London, Linnaeus visiting him in 1736 to view his ‘cabinet of curiosities’. On his death, after a lifetime of obsessive foraging Sloane’s entire collection of plants and multifarious cultural artifacts became the basis of the newly founded British Museum Collection.

      Of course, you are not advised to eat a buddleia (deep fried flower heads, anyone? I wouldn’t even try, thank you. Or would I?).

      But the migrant barman’s and the plant’s histories share common features, both of them specialised and adaptable life forms, bundles of genetic information making extraordinary journeys across the planet and the generations.

      Items from Sloane’s collection are now on display in the cabinets of the Enlightenment Galleries in the British Museum. It is this journey, the journey towards ‘the Light of Knowledge’ that has now created the great numbers of people who are happy to live in entirely synthetic environments, and eat synthetic foods. The worlds created by science and its technologies.

      An assistant preacher at Gray’s Inn (just a mile from the British Museum) from 1702 until his death in 1714, in a sermon the Rev Buddle once described botany as “the most innocent, most primitive study, designed at first even in Paradise as a diversion for the busy inquisitive mind of man”.

      Whether our inquisitiveness will lead us to a paradise here on earth, as our technocratic leaders seem to believe, might be open to question. But should our techno future prove unsustainable, and cause our civilisation to crumble and fall, I suspect buddleia will still thrive in the ruins and the rubble.

      Comment by pnother on 21 April, 2013 at 9:06 am

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