We live in a time where the dominant mechanistic worldview of the last few centuries is becoming increasingly exposed as an inadequate interpretation of the interdependent nature of life. But because this ideology has dominated our ideas of how we should grow our food, rear our animals, raise our children, heal our society and look after our planet, we have largely forgotten quite how important the web of life is. Plants take a lead role in this mysterious play of life, providing, in one way or another, most of our clothes, our shelter, our food and our medicine. It’s worth reflecting on this mutually beneficial plant-human bond, and on how re-engaging with the web of life may improve all our futures.
The story of life is really one of sharing and reciprocity. Ever since the earliest blue-green cyanobacteria such as spirulina ‘learned’ 2 billion years ago to harness the sun’s energy, green plants have been generating the energy of life. We have been interacting, communicating and growing with our environment since time began, with plants and animals developing into the life forms they express today because of this incessant sharing. As we evolved together with the plant kingdom, we both learned how to use each other for mutual advantage. It’s testimony to the success of this evolutionary relationship that our bodies are able to recognise and benefit from the natural phytochemicals developed within plants: a relationship so successful that the health of our cardiovascular, digestive, immune, respiratory, nervous, endocrine and psychological systems is largely dependent on plants.
Plants have developed strategies that attract insects, animals and the wind to carry their procreative pollen far and wide. A spectrum of colours, tempting aromas and the reward of some sweet nectar lie in exchange for this fertile foray. However, in more defensive modes, plants have developed protective compounds that help guard them against damage from a plethora of microbes. Peppermint, for example, has developed powerful essential oils to ward off fungal invasions. In response, these little microbes have over time evolved new challenges to threaten the plant’s defences. And so the dance continues, the plant developing novel and useful compounds to respond to the microbes’ ever-evolving reproductive intentions. Our use of these botanical species over millennia suggests that bacteria, fungi and viruses have less ability to develop resistance to a broad-spectrum botanical pharmacy than to a narrow pharmaceutical one as used in our modern health system. Plants long used by cultures all over the world, such as andrographis, neem and elderberry, all display a potent ability to ward off infections and avoid creating antibiotic resistance.