Plants provide key for human life


Sabal palm is the state tree of Florida.

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Spinning tales about green plants.

Green plants, including aquatic species, manufacture their own food: photosynthesis. They utilize the energy of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose, a simple sugar; oxygen is released as a by-product. Thus, humans and other creatures can eat and breathe.

Actually, glucose is the basic material, building block, for other food. Stored plant food might include seeds (peas), fruits (apples), roots (carrots), leaves (spinach), stems (asparagus) or florets (broccoli).

Other plant “gifts” are vitamins, minerals, fuel, clothing, shelter, clean air and water by evapo-transpiration which supports rainfall. Even cosmetics, hair dye, rubber gloves, car wax and wine corks are plant “gifts.”

Since plants absorb carbon dioxide, they help reduce the effects of global warming: climate change, such as heavy rain, drought and melting icebergs. Obviously, rainforests are vital to the planet. Moreover, they provide remedies for afflictions ranging from headaches to childhood leukemia.

Controversial is deforestation of rainforests by harvesting lumber and clearing land for grazing and crops. Subsequently, crops used for biofuels, such as oil palms and sugarcane (also Coca-Cola’s plastic beverage “PlantBottle” is 100 percent sugarcane plant material), might not be as environmentally friendly as claimed.

For plant reproduction, the cycle of flower pollination, fertilization and seed formation transpires. Common pollination is by bees, daytime “superstar” pollinators. Bats take the night shift. Wind pollination occurs, for instance, in grain (cereal) crops, grasses, pine and many hardwoods. Occasionally, hand (artificial) pollination is essential as in southwest China where pesticides and loss of habitat have decimated bees.

Reproduction also might involve microscopic spores. The fern plant, for example, lacks seeds and flowers. The fronds (leaves) usually display spores underneath, commonly dispersed by wind. Shady, damp growing conditions are common. The fern is among the oldest of land plants, and it is beneficial — the Christmas fern controls erosion, and the fiddlehead fern is a nutritious delicacy.

In Florida, plants flourish. The ubiquitous sabal palm, the state tree, also is recognized as sabal palmetto, cabbage palmetto and a few more labels. It is protected from indiscriminate cutting. Delectable is the raw or cooked heart of the tree, “swamp cabbage,” often cooked by Seminoles over open-fire with frybread or served in Florida Cracker cuisine. However, in the gourmet restaurant, it is savored as “heart of palm.”

To adapt to Florida environments, some plants are specialized. Such a plant is the prickly pear which needs little maintenance since it is drought, heat and salt tolerant. Its yellow blooms, pads (nopales), and fruits (prickly pears) are edible. Planted under windows, this prickly “burglar bush” deters intruders. Native Americans applied its pads to open wounds and used the spines (modified leaves) for needles. In Mexico, the pads are fed to cows to flavor milk.

Vital to the Florida economy are citrus trees. However, “citrus greening,” a bacterial infection being spread by the tiny insect psyllid, leaves fruit green, bitter, shriveled and unmarketable; eventually, trees die. There are recent advances in developing tougher fruit varieties, such as a small, seedless, easy-to-peel mandarin orange. Alternative crops also are being considered — the seed pod of the pongamia tree contains an oil-rich legume. These legumes yield more oil than soybeans. Anticipated by-products are biofuels, lubricants, natural pesticides and feed. Hopefully, delivering antibiotics to plant leaves will cure citrus greening in the future.

Undeniably, plants are exquisite, functional, and manage our survival. In turn, we need to manage them — judiciously. 


Haiku by Hailey Scalia, age 11


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