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How you can enjoy plants – even if you know nothing about gardening and nature


A moth with flowers

Simon Barnes believes everyone is a secret expert in plants and nature (Image: Getty)

You might not believe it but you are an expert on plants. Trust me. You wouldn’t be able to carry on living if you weren’t. Your day is measured out in plants. Plants allow you to eat, to drive your car, to heat your home, to wear clothes on your back.

They also help you to breathe. You know a great deal about plants at a really deep level, even if you’re not aware of your own knowledge. Are you able to eat the sun? Not unless you happen to be an oak tree or a strawberry plant or a stinging nettle, or something like that. Because plants can and do eat the sun, and all of life on earth depends on that fact. Including yours.

(Well there are some curious exceptions: hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean have their own ecosystem, but apart from such tiny populations of outliers, it all starts with the sun.)

Plants use the energy of the sun to make their own food. The stuff that makes this process happen is chlorophyll, and it can only ever be green. Green, then, is the colour of life, for without it we are all dead. And we all know this, somewhere deep in ourselves. The most determined carnivore is as dependent on plants as the most dedicated vegan.

Without the grass that grows on the African plains, there would be no wildebeest and if there were no wildebeest there would be no lions. Lions eat plants, same as wildebeest, they just do so at one remove.

It follows that we all have a store of botanical knowledge that we don’t even notice. It’s just too obvious. You may not be aware that you can differentiate between a Poaceae species and a gymnosperm, but if you can tell the difference between Centre Court, Wimbledon and a Christmas tree you have made a botanical distinction.

We take a curious pride in our ignorance. “I know absolutely nothing about plants.” I used to say this myself. I am by nature a birder and for years it was enough to know that trees were good because birds perched in them, and that other plants were important because they make up the environment, and all birds live in environments.

For me, plants were the tables and chairs and the soft furnishing of the wild world.

“You look at nature like a cat,” an old friend told me. “You don’t notice anything unless it moves.” But like most of us, I could identify a bluebell and a rose and a poppy and a sunflower and a water lily, and that’s not a bad start. I could also tell an oak tree from a silver birch and a holly. When we start looking at plants more closely – actually paying attention to them – we find we do so with a half-decent knowledge base.

Our knowledge is a little blurred round the edges because we have a rough and ready, wholly practical way of looking at them. We have fruit for pudding and vegetables for the main course, yes? We see fruit as apples, strawberries, grapes, rhubarb, pears and figs – and they are indeed all fruit, apart from rhubarb, which is a stalk.

Other fruits you might encounter for supper tonight include aubergines, tomatoes, courgettes, runner beans, sweetcorn, butternut squash, peppers and chillies: a fruit is a plant’s device for the protection and subsequent dispersal of seeds. Moral: knowledge is knowing aubergine is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Plants are not only food, they are also power. The Industrial Revolution was powered by fossilised plants, which came in the form of coal.

Most of today’s power still comes from plants: the fossils of plants and the small creatures that ate the plants give us oil and natural gas. The brilliant process by which plants make their own food involves removing carbon from the atmosphere. They do this by taking in carbon dioxide: the gas that has played the leading role in heating the earth at an ever faster rate since the Industrial Revolution began 200 years ago. Our great-great grandchildren will thank us if we look after our forests rather than chopping them down.

The plants’ process of food-making has a waste-product. The plants take in the carbon dioxide, use the carbon and then give out the stuff they don’t want. This happens to be the stuff that members of the animal kingdom – like us – need more than anything else in life: oxygen. So there’s another reason for looking after forests.

These are the facts of life – some of the most basic facts of all – and they make themselves plain as soon as we start looking at plants with purpose and curiosity. I began to do this myself after a trip to Orford Ness in Suffolk. Here, military and natural history collide with immense force and a visit is a powerful experience. My mind was full of death and destruction when suddently I found myself looking at a plant growing in the shingle.What? Shingle? Impossible!

This is surely the worst place in the world to be a plant. Shingle is always moving, can’t hold water, bears no nutrients and the air around it is full of salt. Any normal plant would die in a day. Yet here was a yellow horned poppy (I looked it up later) in glorious bloom: life carrying on with devastating determination.

From that moment, plants became my business. I sought to give them a name, and by doing so to learn about where and when and why. (The free phone app Pl@ntNet will have a decent shot at identifying plants from their flowers, leaves, fruit or bark, so there’s a helpful start.)

Nature is not all about the superstars: lions and tigers and David Attenborough’s immortal gorillas. It’s about the way everything fits together and everything depends on everything else. Nature is about ecosystems and you can’t understand an ecosystem until you understand plants. And we all do. What’s more, we get a greater understanding as soon as we make plants our business.

I live on the edge of the Broads in Norfolk: I now know it as a place of willows, alders, sallows, reeds and rushes. In summer, I paddle my kayak between water lilies and purple loosestrife and hemp-agrimony. I have learned a little about plants: as a result I live in a better world.

We are so used to picking up plants from supermarket shelves that we assume they’re quite relaxed about being eaten. They take it in stride, do they not? We think poisonous plants are a weird aberration: but that’s not the case at all.

Every part of the potato plant is poisonous, apart from the tubers, in which potato plants store their food – and even they can be dodgy, so always remove the green bits.

Potatoes are in the same family as deadly nightshade, which is a hint. So are tomatoes and aubergines.

There is cyanide in apple pips: swallow one and it’ll go right through, which spreads the seeds and is a good thing for the apple tree that produced the fruit. The cyanide is only released if you chew them; it’d take a quarter-pound of well-chewed pips to kill a human, so you’re probably safe. The fact is that plants mostly prefer not to be eaten. Chemistry – making poison – is a popular form of self-defence.

James Bond has to enter Blofeld’s Japanese garden in You Only Live Twice; it’s entirely stocked with poisonous plants.

But you could make a garden just as lethal in a single trip to the garden centre, and what’s more, the person at the checkout wouldn’t raise an eyebrow.

The suburban Garden of Death would include hydrangea, oleander, daffodil, aconite, wisteria, foxglove, lily of the valley and rhododendron.

We humans often use the defensive poisons of plants for our own purposes: aspirin from willows, caffeine from the coffee plant, nicotine from tobacco plants, morphine from poppies, and, from foxgloves, digoxin, which is used for treating heart problems.

The cacao plant gives us chocolate: the desirability of the finished product comes from the substance it contains – theobromine. Translated from Greek, it means “food of the gods”.

So next time you think you don’t know anything about plants, think again.

  • How To Be A Bad Botanist by Simon Barnes (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25

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