Why Plants Matter

It is said that humans consume every part of the pig, except for its squeak. Although the hog may be a versatile creature, the ways in which we utilise plants are far more varied. In spite of the fact that we routinely eat so few of the plant species that are available to us, we have found a seemingly endless list of ingenious uses for every plant product on offer. We dig up roots and underground storage organs, while fruits and seeds are devoured with relish. Plant sap is tapped to turn into rubber. We pour it over our pancakes as maple syrup or ferment it to make birch sap wine. More viscous plant secretions give us varnish, glues and violin resin. Unopened flower buds provide us with the very different flavours of cloves, and capers plus the rather less exotic tasting cauliflower. The stigmas and styles of crocus flowers are harvested to give us the spice saffron, and nectar is plundered from agave flowers to produce a range of desserts. The bark of trees provides us with items as diverse as cork, cinnamon and materials for building canoes. We use fibres from cotton and linen to make fabrics that are dyed using plant pigments. The fluffy fibres that surround the seeds of the kapok tree fill our pillows and stuff our teddy bears. The pharmaceutical and perfume industries both exploit the biochemical diversity of the plant kingdom to keep us fit and healthy, while smelling divine. Increasingly we harvest oil crops to manufacture plastics, drive our cars or fuel our energy demanding lifestyles. Over centuries we have learnt to tell the wood from the trees. So that the wood of the spindle tree is used for making spindles and spinning wool, while boxwood is used for… well you get the point!

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