Feb 8, 2007

So What About Plants?

My friend's youngest daughter was making a huge fuss as she wanted to eat mangoes in winter. I tried to explain to her that Mango trees do not set fruits in winter and so we cannot get them at that time of the year. She shot back without batting an eyelid "What have trees got to do with it, we can buy mangoes at the store!!" I was speechless. I realized that the younger generation especially the kids growing up in cities are quite oblivious about the role plants play in our everyday life. I was in for a greater surprise when one of my friends confessed that she had never seen a rice plant.

With the increasing trend of bagged and canned food finding its way to the dinner tables, iPods, computers and flat-screen TVs occupying our spare time and more and more artificial plants improving the decor of our houses and offices, it is no surprise that we are raising a generation that believes everything comes from the store.

Plants have played an important role in the development and progress of mankind. Starting right at the basic level of food, shelter and clothing, plants have soothed and inspired the aesthetic sense. How we all long with bated breaths for spring to come around after a long winter when nature unfolds its beauty in all its splendor. Who has not read the lines "And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils" from Wordsworth's timeless poem and whole-heartedly agreed with it.

Plants are largely divided as non-flowering and flowering types. In the evolutionary tree, the flowering plants are at the top. The flowering plants are further divide into monocotyledons and dicotyledons, one of the distinguishing features among many, being the single and double cotyledons found in the embryo, respectively.

The group of plant that provide us our daily bread are called cereals and include Rice, Wheat, Corn, Barley, Sorghum, Oats, Millets, Rye, Buckwheat, Fonio and Quinoa. The last two are not very common and are grown in Africa and Andes. Botanically, cereals belong to the grass family also known as Poaceae or Gramineae, an economically important group of the monocotyledons. Monocotyledons also include the breathtaking floral group of orchids, the economically important bamboos and members of Arecaceae or the palm family.

Vegetables, the source of every child's nightmare and a good source of minerals and fiber, come from various group of plants as well as various parts of the plants. On one hand, leaves of spinach, lettuce, parsley, rosemary or thyme serve as a chef's inspiration for mouth-watering cuisine and on the other hand, potatoes, carrots and radishes, the buried stems and storage units of plants serve as a source of French fries or finger food for the fast-food eating generation. The popular (or not) floral parts comprising the vegetable group include cauliflower and broccoli. Fruits of plants like tomato, eggplants, chilies, cucurbits (pumpkins, opo), jackfruits etc. provide a vast array of vegetables to choose from.

The food fit for Gods and the food that humans have for long ignored to include in their daily diets are the delicious fruits with all the goodness of mouth watering deserts and yet low calorific value and numerous phytonutrients. Today, most researchers agree to the overall benefits of fruit consumption so much so that they recommend including five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables to the daily diet. Healthy eating habits require inculcating the consumption of fruits and vegetables at an early age.

Despite all care, humans are prone to fall sick some time or the other. Viola!! the plants have a role to play in this aspect of human existence too. Numerous plants with medicinal properties are known to provide cures for various ailments. Starting with ginger which is known to help a sore throat, plant extracts from Digitalis, Cinchona and Periwinkle are known to be curative for heart ailments, malaria, and cancers respectively. Numerous plants are used in Western medicine as well as in the traditional and herbal remedies.

How can we ignore the importance of fashion in human lives? It is the bread and better for a large mass which caters to the whims of a fashion conscious, hip and trendy larger mass. Cotton, the cool fabric that keeps coming back in vogue grows in the pods of the plant called Gossypium as a protective fiber around the seeds. Burlap, a fiber made from jute is actually a shiny vegetable fiber obtained plants in the genus Corchorus. This fabric has been used in clothing, making gunny bags, ropes etc.

The timber from various trees is used in construction of houses. In many islands, bamboo is the material of choice for house construction. Leaves of coconut are used to thatch the roofs of huts in many rural areas of India. Woods from trees such as oak, ash, mahogany are valued for making furniture. Plant parts are also used for making paper.

I have very superficially touched on the various ways in which plants touch our lives. There are numerous plants affecting numerous aspects of our everyday living. The best homage that we can pay to these silent servers is to acknowledge their contributions in our lives and to inform ourselves about them and most importantly protect and preserve them.

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