By Savannah Troy
In day-to-day human life, plants are facets of the environment that can easily be overlooked. They do not make obvious movements, do not communicate in ways that we can sense-- they are quietly in the background of our consciousness. Yet, plants are the very foundation of the global food web. They are among the few groups of organisms that can convert energy from the sun into energy for food. Without photosynthesis, there would be no oxygen, no food, no life on Earth.
In fact, plants play a much larger role in the success of human society than we often think. The obvious way in which we rely upon plants is for food: without crops like corn, wheat, beans--the list goes on and on--where would our species be? Agriculture is the foundation of human survival, and the industry-- even where livestock is concerned-- is entirely dependent upon plant life. Furthermore, fossil fuels have propelled human society forwards into an age of technological advancement and innovation. And, contrary to popular belief, most of the oil and coal that we burn is not actually dinosaur "juice": ancient plant decay comprises most of the fossil fuels we use, not stegosaurus bones.
On a non-industrial scale, there is also an unimaginably valuable trove of uses for wild plants. Before humans domesticated crop species, we were dependent upon the treasures hidden inside the plants of the forest. The species Canna indica is an excellent example of a critically useful wild plant. Historically, multiple Native American nations used its large, hard seeds as shotgun pellets and blowgun projectiles. Moreover, the rhizomes (underground plant organs similar to potato tubers) are edible and were useful food sources to the same peoples. Other plants have medicinal values that were integral to the success of earlier cultures: Choysia dumosa, or the Mexican orange flower, was used by early indigenous peoples as an analgesic and antispasmodic. Today, plants continue to be key research avenues into the development of new drugs.
There is more than meets the eye to a patch of brush or an overgrown meadow on the side of a highway. There is a history in these plants that is intertwined with our own. How many years ago did a person harvest one of the very same plants that now grows behind a Shell gas station and use it to treat a snakebite or feed their family? Plants are the basis of life as we know it, elegantly entangled in nearly every aspect of our lives.