Meet the plants
Acacia confusais a perennial tree native to south-east Asia and is particularly abundant in Taiwan, south mainland China, and the Philippines. With a solid constitution that reaches firmly into the ground,Acacia confusa has grown strong against the fierce typhoon winds of the Pacific Ocean. In Chinese folklore, literature, and tourism, the plant is given the romantic name “Xiang Si” to express a kind of sweet sadness that is as resilient as its sturdy roots. Among psychedelic enthusiasts in Western societies, Acacia confusa is approached as a powerful spiritual potion that can open an inner world of ecological and personal awareness. The difference between these two traditions of Acacia confusa point to different understandings of the mind of plants.
The apple - so common, yet so magical. The species originated in Asia and has been cultivated for thousands of years in Asia and Europe, and more recently elsewhere. Apples have an important place in several mythological and religious traditions, as well as in literature and art. Many of us also have personal stories and memories with apples. This chapter talks about a one such story: a personal journey guided by a one-year old apple trees - a first generation of grafted trees from a mother tree that had grown in the wild, from a seed. This is distinct to the common and delicious varieties that you may be familiar with, which have been selected and grafted for many generations. The friend and colleague who encountered this apple, Niels-Viggo Hansen, called it Mols, after the Danish Hills where the mother tree still stands. The chapter will take you on a trip from Denmark to Southern France, where the planting of young Mols trees led a series of grounded conversations and reflections on movement and roots, care, and the cultivation of a sense of home.
Luis Eduardo Luna
She begins as a beautiful striated papery winged seed, a samara, with two nourishing cotyledons at its base. In the right conditions the wing opens like a butterfly, pushed by one of the cotyledons which stretches, becoming a delicate white anchoring radical that enters the soil to absorb nutrients. A second little green cobra will soon emerge, producing at its tip two tiny leaves to suck up the sunlight. It is the birth of a thick majestic serpentine woody liana that will climb up through the tropical forest. In the juvenile stage the stem is round. Growing from within, as it elongates, swelling and differentiating into porous tubular lobes full of xylem vesicles containing water. If cut, the intersecting lobules resembles jaguar rosettes. The ascending liana twists and bifurcates, sending out exploratory branches of opposite leaves, until it finally reaches the canopy. When the time is ripe an explosion of pink and white inflorescences will appear, emanating irresistible bee-attracting aromas. This is ayahuasca, the revered vine of many names, a serpent, a river, an umbilical cord, one of the vehicles used by Amazonians to explore the spirit/natural world.
Phaseolus vulgaris L.
Andre Parise and Gabriel Toledo
The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) is a plant native to the highlands of all the Americas. However, after it domesticated some of the continent’s original people thousands of years ago, it managed to be spread to all the corners of the continent. Since then, the bean became a very important component of continental American culture. In Brazil, beans are the basis of the country’s cuisine, together with rice. Beyond this, today we are learning many things from the beans about the electrical basis of the ‘mind’ of plants, as it came to be a good plant to be studied in the laboratory. Due to the easiness of growing and using it in lab conditions, in the last years, we have investigated the electrical signalling that underlies the bean’s perception of the environment and action in the world. We have been discovering that this small plant from the Andes and Mesoamerica’s highlands has much to teach about plant life!
Banyan (Ficus benghalensis) belongs to a cosmopolitan group of plants known as “strangler figs” that begin their lives as seeds deposited by birds and other creatures into the canopies of other trees and on the tops of boulders. Until their aerial roots drop through the branches and slide down the trunks of their hosts to reach the ground, strangler figs exist as epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants yet are not parasitic. As they mature, though, their prominent airborne assemblages begin to form a meshwork that eventually suffocates the host by constricting fluid and nutrient movement in its outer layers. In addition to its fascinating growth habit, the banyan is a close relative of the Bodhi tree—pipal or Ficus religiosa. The banyans of Central Java, Indonesia, are linked not only to Buddhist traditions but also to animist spiritualities that acknowledge the spirits dwelling in particularly old trees.
Big Bluestem is a perennial bunch grass and one of the “big four" grass species that characterize the tall grass prairie ecosystem. The prairie once ecosystem stretched across the center of the United States and southern Canada, though now only exists in scattered remnants.The Flint Hills region in central Kansas, whose rocky soil resists agricultural cultivation, is the site of some of the largest swaths of remaining tall grass prairie. Big Bluestem is sometimes called Turkey Foot because the seed head typically branches into three parts resembling a turkey’s foot. The seed stalks of the Big Bluestem can reach up to eight feet high, making them one of most easily recognizable grasses in the prairie. Their roots reach depths of up to twelve feet, providing a firm anchor to soil and access to soil moisture deep underground.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) grows in the deciduous forests of eastern North America. It i one of the first wildflowers to emerge in spring through the brown leaf litter that covers the forest floor. A single leaf grows out of an underground stem that, when injured, emits a blood-red juice (hence the name). This leaf tightly enwraps a still hidden flower. On a sunny day, the flower opens—a brilliant white blossom with eight petals. The flower is like a burst of light and form that ushers in spring. Bloodroot unfolds quickly, close to the ground, and in bold expression. The petals drop off soon and the one leaf begins to unfold and grow, melding overtime into the greening of the forest floor. Later in the year, ants often carry off the seeds of blood root and feed from a nutrient-rich structure attached to each seed. The seed itself remains viable, and the ants spread bloodroot into the broader forest environment.
The blue leschenaultia (Lechenaultia biloba) is a plant with an exquisite flower that grows naturally in south-west Western Australia. It forms a spreading shrub up to a metre high, and when in flower it looks like blue clouds that have fallen onto the reddish soil.
Noongar peoples, the traditional custodians of the country in which the plant grows, use plants to track the change in seasons, and the blue leschenaultia signals the end of the rainy season. The species’ name comes from the two lobes of its petals, while the genus was named for French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Théodore Leschenault de La Tour by Robert Brown, the first recorded European to encounter the plant. While the plant captivates with its gorgeous colour, it has a long history that precedes humans, having been on earth for tens of millions of years
Jonathon Miller Weisberger
Cacao, simple in appearance, or so it seems, is an understory treelet native to Tropical America. Leaves entire, bright-green, branches and fruits rich in mucilage. She is modest, as her small five-petaled bone white flowers pollinated by tiny fairy-like flies. At each sprouting node five branches protrude; to obtain maximum yield the plant is kept at five limbs like a hand reaching to the sky. When her colorful oblong fruits, furrowed with five rows of seeds bear on the tree’s trunk and branches though, she shows herself as a sign of divine abundance. We have five organs pairs and five primary senses, five fingers, toes and limbs. In the mind of the ancients, that Cacao and humans share five as a commonality validated even more so our intimate association. Chockablock with history and cultural lore, legends have it that Cacao was gifted to early peoples by the Feathered Serpent itself, so that we may remain heart-centered and energetic. Cacao is a faithful part of the human-fabric, to such an extent that we may say, “To know thyself, drink Cacao”
Originally from South East Europe, horse-chestnut trees (Aesculus hippocastanum) are distinguished by their splendid inflorescences that blossom in spring––tall conical panicles (10-30 cm) of numerous white flowers (20-50) with spots ranging from yellow to pink. Despite their name, they belong to a different order (Sapindales) than true chestnut trees (Fagales), though their slightly poisonous brown seeds bear some resemblance to chestnuts (such as the edible nuts of the Castanea sativa). In a green cemetery near where I lived, I liked to walk under and around a magnificent horse-chestnut tree. Horse-chestnuts can grow up to around 40 metres tall, their palmatelycompound leaves contain five or seven leaflets, and their seeds are held in spiky green capsules. In the UK and Ireland the seeds are used in a children’s game called conkers and ‘conker tree’ is another common name for the tree.
Coast banksias, banksia integrifolia, are a common sight in the bayside suburb where I live. Twisted and gnarled, standing like sculptures against the sky, they are native to New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria. While they can grow much taller, in exposed bayside locations such as ours, they generally grow to no more than 6 metres tall and less then 3 metres wide and often are quite spindly in appearance, at least in the branchwork. Their dark green leaves have a silver/white underside. They have cylindrical, spiky pale yellow flowers, that form cones full of seeds. Seeds germinate with fire. I feel that my poem canvases much of the description of the plant, so that is all I will say.
Coffee intellectualizes, spiritualizes, energizes, commodifies, and codifies. If we are asked to think about the mind of coffee then, perhaps we cannot even approach it, because coffee exceeds the humans who study it and yet makes them more capable. Coffee has given us as much mind as it wants. Nonetheless, everyone should drink a lot of coffee for its health benefits, really. You will live longer. Much more experimentation is necessary.
Coralline algae link tightly to their surroundings. If we broadly think of plant mindfulness as the tight coupling of plants with their own environment, then when you really think of it, the capacity of coralline algae to link acutely with its immediate environment, and to communicate across kingdoms (plants -animals), positions these organisms as truly mindful.
Let’s digress as at this point; I hear the echo of the purists calling out that algae aren’t really plants. Algae are a taxonomic-challenged group, with enough dispute among the experts to place a question mark about where they sit on the evolutionary tree of life, and indeed whether they are plants. So why include algae in a series dedicated to the mindfulness of plants? The answer lies in how we mind plants. Despite the cloud of taxonomic uncertainty many of us still think of algae as plants. Frankly, I do. Algae look like plants and they act like plants in that they photosynthesise. But it is our human perception in how we see algae that directs many of us to think of them as plants. Our colloquial reference to algae as seaweeds, and our desire to place them in collective groups of kelp forests, algal gardens, beds and stands, conforms to our descriptions of terrestrial plants.
Hakea lorea, is a gnarled shrub or small tree found in the more arid areas of Australia. Its leaves are needle-shaped, it has creamy-white flowers and thick rough fissured bark. Hakea lorea occurs widely across the north of the continent, found mainly in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland. The colonial botanist Robert Brown first described the species in 1810. The name lorea refers to the strappy form of its leaves.
Corn is a gramineous plant whose grains are placed in moist earth by rural farmers a few days after the rainy season begins. Its origin is thought to be in the Municipality of Coxcatlán, in the Valley of Tehuacán in the state of Puebla, Mexico. Its birth certificate says it is 8000 years old, according to the U.S. anthropologist Richard Stockton MacNeish. This can also be ascertained by looking at the galleries in different Mesoamerican pyramids where there is abundant evidence of paintings, sculptures and engravings that represent the simple, though indispensable, plant known as corn. For the Amerindian culture, especially in terms of how it is expressed in the Popol vuh, humanity was created from corn meal. For this reason, there are so many different varieties of colors, sizes and shapes of this sacred plant. From before the arrival of the Spaniards and their Christian doctrine, corn was already distributed far and wide throughout the American continent: in the north to Quebec in what is now Canada and to the south now known as Chile, passing through Central America. The migrations of this kernel facilitated the development of new forms that were the origin of a wide variety of corn—there are currently more than 300 types that are consumed on a daily basis, producing a marvelously diverse array of culinary arts, many of which form an important part of my personal diet.
The Cornish mallow (Lavatera cretica) is an annual or biennial flowering herb in the mallow family. It is native throughout Europe, northern Africa, and the Mediterranean, and naturalised throughout much of the world as a common urban weed. The leaves are edible and parts of the plant have anti-inflammatory and other medicinal properties. Cornish mallows grow 1-3 metres tall, display small pinkish-purple five-petalled flowers, and have flat or multi-lobed leaves with seven major veins that diverge from the base. At the base of the leaves Cornish mallows have an area of specialised motor tissue known as the pulvinus. This allows their leaves to flexibly track the sun throughout the day. At night, before dawn, Cornish mallows turn these leaves to face the anticipated direction of sunrise based on stored information about the direction of the previous day’s sunrise. This mechanism is of interest to cognitive scientists interested in learning and memory in plants
I cannot speak for all crabapples. I know only one adult and a few of its saplings. Each one of them is different than the other, grows at its own rhythm branches and shapes and develops its personality or “plantality”. They get different diseases and develop strategies to overcome them. Most of the saplings perished in the first year. I feel that all of them constitute an ensemble playing parts in a major composition.
The roots of their ancestors are in the Far East, most probably in China, but some authors maintain that they come from Japan. The one I know is developing at the foot of the Andes Mountains, at 800 meters above sea level.
Malus floribunda is part of the Rosaceae family of plants, one with which human beings have a fertile interaction through nutrition, perfumery, therapy, beauty and art. Cherries, apples, peaches, almonds, strawberries and roses are part of the same family.
Green Bird Flower
Crotalaria cunninghamii is a short-lived, upright shrub that is widely distributed throughout the northern half of Western Australia, from the coast through to the deserts, predominantly on drainage lines and sand dunes. This species grows up to four metres high with large oval-shaped, velvety grey-green leaves and branches. But its most fascinating feature is its mass of large, vivid green pea flowers that are finely striped with purplish-brown 'veins'. Flowers are displayed in terminal clusters, with each individual closely resembling a bird that is attached by its 'beak' (the calyx) to the stem, hence its common name.
The green bird flower generally blooms from January to April in Perth or longer in its natural habitat, followed by velvety, club-shaped seed pods about four to five cm in length. C. cunninghamii is a bird-attracting plant ideal for low screening and borders.
The Kurrajong (brachychiton populneus) is native to Eastern Australia and has survived from the Gondwana era, sixty-five million years ago. It grows from five to fifteen metres tall often against the base of rocks, with vivid poplar-shaped leaves and large woody pods. Frost hardy to minus five degrees with a long, bulbous taproot it is able to survive Australia's arid climate by storing significant amounts of water. The Kurrajong has multiple uses for Aboriginal people and farmers use its foliage for drought fodder. On the eastern side of the gorge country it is found infrequently, the seeds possibly carried by birds from the more populated western side of the Great Dividing Range.
Tilia cordata, commonly also referred to as Lime, and Lipa in the Polish language. It is a large tree typically reaching 20–30m in height, with oblique leaves densely covering its multitude of branches, and providing an abundance of foliage and shade. Lipa can reach a considerable age of one to three millennia. The tree yields a delicate fragrance that emanates from its nectar-producing flowers, which are important for bees and are used in healing teas and tinctures. Lipa’s flowers are used in naturopathic remedies in many cultures to strengthen the body’s immune system and to treat various health ailments, including colds, cough, infections and inflammation. Lipa is a very special tree to me and my family. Following in my maternal grandmother’s tradition, we as a family collected Lipa flowers every summer for tea to last us during Poland’s long and cold winter months; and currently I use Lipa’s foliage in my art practice.
The wild olive tree, or oleaster, has grown throughout most of the Mediterranean basin for millennia. The tree was domesticated around 6000 years ago in the Middle East, making it one of the earliest cultivated tree species. Olive oil produced from the fruit of the domesticated olive tree was significant in the economy and culture of successive ancient Mediterranean peoples: Babylonians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks, Romans and Arabs. Today, olives and olive oil are central in the so-called Mediterranean diet. The plant has also migrated to the New World, being now cultivated in the Americas and Australia, among other countries.
An herbaceous, fast-growing perennial vine, Passiflora incarnata or “passionflower” can be found growing throughout the sub-tropics of the America’s, alongside busy highways, or in the gardens and homes of those who may or may not know of its sleep, dream, and vision enhancing companionship. Today the passionflower fruit is celebrated as a delicious and globally traded cash crop, though at other times and places considered a nuisance for its ability to grow wildly amidst mono-cropped corn and soy fields, entangling and immobilizing field machinery along its way. Despite being both celebrated and scorned for growing quickly and capaciously across a variety of anthropogenic terrains, the passionflower vine specializes in spreading the message of slowing down our fast paced and finish-line oriented senses, beckoning us back into the fertile soils of the present with the gentle yet serious message that there is no finish line, there never was.
Part of the genus rosa and the family Rosaceae, the rose is a perennial flowering plant with over 300 species that hybridize easily. Often equipped with prickles, rose plants come in various shapes, from shrubs to climbers, and range widely in size. The rose's five-petaled flowers display colors from white to yellows and reds, and many kinds are fragrant. Most species originated in Asia, with some native to Europe, North America, and northwestern Africa. Roses are grown and cultivated around the world today and are of central significance in many cultures.
Known in Western scientific taxonomy as Metroxylon sagu Rottbøll - from metra meaning ‘pith’ and xylon meaning ‘plant tissue’ - the sago palm is a pinnate-leaved palm of the humid tropics that thrives along riverbanks, mangroves, and freshwater swamps. The starch found within its trunk has traditionally been a staple source of food (primarily carbohydrates) for many peoples living in Southeast Asia and Oceania, including in lowland New Guinea, Indonesia, the Malaysian peninsula, southern Thailand and Burma, the southern Philippines, and east as far as the Solomon Islands. The term ‘sago’ is also loosely used in many Southeast Asian languages to refer to starch obtained from other palm species and non-palm plants such as cycads, cassava, and arrowroot. In its industrial uses, sago starch can be processed into sago pearls or flour as ingredients in biscuits, noodles, jelly confections, rice cakes, and bread.
Giorgia Tresca and Céline Cholewka
The Silver Fir is an evergreen tree native to Europe and Asia. It prevails in most of the mountain ranges of southern and central Europe favouring moist and cool environments. One could describe it as a patient tree, given that when it grows in forests it may wait in the shade of older trees for decades, serving as a “seedling bank” before it has a chance to grow tall. When this happens, Silver Firs may reach up to 60 meters in height and live up to 600 years, becoming extremely valuable members of forests for their resistance to wind and snow, their support of biodiversity and ability to coexist with many tree species. Their pioneering and resilient character manifests in their ability to regenerate abandoned agricultural land, leading it back to forested life. Their symbolic association to rebirth is particularly felt during Christmas, as they populate uncountable houses with their evergreen foliage in the darkness of winter- All year round, silver firs provide us with paper, wood and medicinal remedies.
The City of Dresden is not short of memorials, the most prominent of which is probably the monumental baroque cathedral Frauenkirche in the center of Old Town. But not far away from it, a lesser-known witness to the air raids that destroyed much of Dresden in February 1945 keeps the memory alive in a very literal way. The Splintered Oak (Splittereiche) is a 300-year old solitary tree in Dresden’s Großer Garten. Excitement over its ›eternal green‹ still grasps the residents of Dresden. It is read as a symbol for the scarred but vibrant history of the city itself. The fascinating tree confronts humans not only with the lasting effects of the war but also with the consequences and promises of human interference in nature. It is by all means an agent which influences how history is remembered as much as it preserves it.
Afshin Akhtar -Khavari
The Tachigalia versicolor is a dense hardwood tree found in the old growth forests between Costa Rica and Colombia. It can grow up to thirty metres tall, allowing it to usually penetrate through the canopy of a dense forest. It is monocarpic, which means that it only flowers once after reaching maturity. The tree dies within a year of flowering and its seeds drop to the ground, usually somewhere within 500 metres of it. When the trunk of the Tachigalia drops to the ground a hole is created in the forest canopy which assists its future generation (its seeds) to receive more sunlight and grow. The Tachigalia is increasingly harvested because of the speed of its growth and the density of its hardwood.
Megan Ljubotina and James Cahill
For centuries, humans have been intrigued by the way that the common sunflower tilts its flowering head toward the sun. This behaviour by the sunflower (which allows it to collect more solar energy than it would otherwise) challenges notions that plants are static or unresponsive. Taking a deeper look at this familiar species reveals a variety of behaviours, although they are not always easy to observe using our human senses; the sunflower can seek out food, fight enemies, and increase its chances of mating successfully. However, there is still much to learn about how plants like the sunflower behave. One traditional approach to quantifying and understanding an animal species’ behaviour is to create an ethogram: a catalogue of individual behaviours observed in a species. Here, we discuss what an ethogram for the common sunflower might look like, using this as an exercise to reflect on the diversity of behaviours seen in this species as well as our human limitations in observing and understanding plant behaviour.
Camellia sinensis, commonly known as the tea plant, is a species of evergreen shrub native to China and Southeast Asia. Its leaves are the source of every main type of caffeinated tea (white, green, oolong, black, pu-erh), the differences between the varieties of teas stemming from the variety of plant and the method of processing the leaves. In the wild, the plant can reach tree-like heights while on farms, the plant is pruned to appropriate picking heights. The leaves of the plant are dark green and shiny, oval in shape and pointed at the tip, with serrated edges. Yunnan province in China is considered to be the original home of Camellia sinensis, and one popular myth tells of how Shennong, the mythical sage ruler of China, discovered tea when fresh tea leaves detached themselves from a nearby tree and landed into his cup of hot water.
The Tricyrtis imeldaei s a species of lily distinguished by its purple flecks and wart-like nectar glands. Collected during one of the expeditions to Mindanao to document the newly discovered “gentle Tasaday cave-dwellers” in the early 1970s, the lily gained notoriety after it was identified as a new species and named after the First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. To locals familiar with the lily, the T. imeldae not only resembled a frog’s tongue but was also used in animal capture: the lily’s flowers could be crushed, its sap layered on palms prepared to catch elusive amphibians. But the “toad lily,” as it was later called, became part of the pillaging marvel that was the Marcos dictatorship. With the fall of the dictatorship in 1986 and the revelation of the Tasaday hoax, the T. imeldae faded from the public’s mind,seized by the spectacular disgrace of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos
Ushpwasha Sanango (Tabernaemontana undulate Vahl.) is an understory treelet belonging to the Apocynaceae family and found in the tropical rainforest of the central Amazonian basin, where it can grow up to 10 meters tall. The trunk is wide with smooth bark. The leaves are large and grouped in whorls of 3 to 5. The flowers are white and pink and crown-shaped. The plant is characterized by very low fruit production. The word Ushpwasha in Quechua language means “ash grey leaves,” while the term Sanango indicates its healing properties. The parts traditionally used for medicinal purposes are the root and the bark in decoction, which are considered useful especially for the treatment of headache and small abscesses. According to the Amazonian tradition, Ushpwasha is considered a female, soft and water plant. The intake causes drowsiness and mild drunkenness. It amplifies the perception of nature and increases sensitivity, memories and dream activity.
Fagus sylvatica 'Pendula'
The plant that spoke to me was a weeping beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’, a cultivar of the deciduous European beech and a tree that sways heavy like its name sake. I met this weeping beech Kew Botanical Gardens on an afternoon when the sky was particularly musical, the hum of clouds and acordians of bee hives. I entered this tree like a house covered with long hair and histories. Time began to move at plant speed and words were whispered from its trunk. Beneath the lace of canopy, language became liquid, limbs flowed to the ground, each giving birth to another. These umbilical limbs seemed to be the nine daughters of the weeping beech, growing out in waves. This grandmother tree, propped up by metal poles, whispered of all she’d lost and how that had taught her love was letting go. Again and again, leaves, seasons, limbs. I sat against the cool stones of her branches and listened to the tide of grief and love and life.
Craig Santos Perez
Pupulon Anite (Piper Guamensis/Piper Guahamensis, or Wild Piper) is a plant that is used on Guåhan (Guam) for its medicinal qualities by eåmtis. “Eåmtis” is the Chamoru word for a traditional healer who gathered and prepared native plants as “åmot,” or medicine. Chamorus are the indigenous peoples of the Marianas archipelago, where I am originally from. Chamorus are also referred to as i taotao tano, the people of the land (“i taotao” translates as “the people” and “i tano” as “the land”). In Chamoru epistemology, plants are considered our ancestors, and are sometimes referred to as “saina,” or “parent” and “elder.” The eåmtis tradition was displaced by colonial introductions of western medicine and hospitals to the islands, and the militarization of our homeland by the United States has led to the pollution of the land, the fragmentation of the jungle, and the endangerment of many native, medicinal plants. Today, Chamoru people suffer from high rates of colonial diseases, like cancer and diabetes. In response, a new generation of eåmtis are relearning the practice of åmot to heal our people and advocate for the protection of the environment. This picture is from a medicinal farm on Guam, Åmot Taotao Tano.