Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Plants Die

As I wander around marveling at the wonders of Nature, I can’t help also wondering at my fellow human beings. Time and again, I notice that many of them act as if plants are not alive. This is especially true for trees, who exude a sense of eternity that we more transient beings lack. Their relative permanence apparently makes humans think of them as indestructible features of the nonliving landscape, kind of like rocks. (The humans who read Berry-Go-Round are naturally not in this category of humans.)

That phenomenon, a form of plant blindness surely, causes humans to visit all kinds of indignities on these supremely dignified lifeforms, strangling them with wire fences, lopping off limbs, crippling them in countless ways. Even blithely nailing signs to them as if they had no greater purpose in life than to advise us of money-making opportunities or lost pets.

So, for the record: Plants are ALIVE. Trees included, but plants of all sizes and shapes live, and breathe, and grow, and reproduce, and even, after their fashion, move. They do stuff. (Left, a grape ivy looking for something to climb on.) They eat (some more dramatically than others). If you cut them, they will bleed. If you hit a tree with a lawnmower, it will bruise. Each of those verbs could easily be an entire post in itself, but let’s expand just this one example.

“A tree is much more than a chunk of dead wood,” says Alex Shigo, a career plant pathologist with the Forest Service. “Trees are alive; they live all year ‘round, not just for a short time in the summer.” Dissecting trees with a chainsaw, Shigo revolutionized our understanding because he didn’t rest on what “everyone” knew.

“I could either go with the book or go with what I saw in the tree. Either the books were wrong or the trees were wrong. I chose to go with the trees.”

“I started to see trees in a different way because a tree is a living thing. When you hit a living thing, it reacts. When you hit a tree, it does something. When a tree is threatened, it doesn’t just stand there. It establishes boundaries.”

Citing Shigo, a profile in Irrigation and Green Industry (May 2004) adds that humans put new cells in the same old places throughout their lives, but trees put new cells in new places. A tree doesn’t heal, because it doesn’t replace injured cells with new ones; it just creates a wall, or boundary, between the injured wood and the functional tissue. And that lawnmower “bruise” will remain in the wood indefinitely.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia commons by Max Wahrhaftig June 2005: Alex Shigo (far right) explaining markings on an Oak section during one of his last symposia.

Shigo’s work changed how professionals prune trees by demonstrating that some methods actually promoted rot. Sadly, most tree-trimmers have probably not been exposed to these newer methods, and go about blithely disfiguring trees and shrubs right and left. My most pained memory of this is from Arizona, where trees (I think mulberries) are routinely "pruned" back almost to the trunks on a regular basis; they never develop normal branching patterns but become permanent lollipops.

This post topic was inspired by an outdoor planter I saw recently, full of scented geraniums left to wither and freeze. These plants are perennials, houseplants that thrive inside and add wondrous scents to our indoor air! And they’re favorites of mine. It was all I could do to resist attempting to rescue them, but having already brought all my geraniums indoors to crowd the house, I had to walk away. (I also suspected they were already too far gone to recover. May the devas of scented geraniums forgive me…)

As we head into the season of disposable plants* (or one of them), I part company with the so-called green industry, which creates so much life just to send it out into careless hands who think these living beings are mere decoration.
* Yes, poinsettias too are alive, and, in their native haunts or in greenhouses, capable of growing into mature trees of considerable height.

Confessions: I have, of course, killed my share of plants, perhaps, because of my interest in them and attempts to have them share my life, more than my share. Some, no doubt, were killed with neglect. But not willfully, not with premeditation or malice. (Okay, there are exceptions; certainly there are some plants we prefer to see dead.)

So, yes, plants die. Sometimes on their own, and too often with our help.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I offer a deep formal curtsy to any and all who treat these amazing, phenomenal lifeforms with all the respect they clearly deserve.

For Berry-Go-Round #34

p.s. Don't forget to observe Buy Nothing Day this Friday!! Eschew the hype...

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