Nature, health, happiness
  All plants provide endless rewards

November 24, 2005

Victoria County Master Gardener Interns

On this Thanksgiving morning we have much for which to be grateful including products of nature.

As gardeners, we understand the natural side of things and accept modern advances with care. All in all, we are grateful for the opportunity to express our thanks in a real sense.

For decades, schoolchildren have played with Pilgrims' hats at Thanksgiving. And some have learned about the Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving celebration. Perhaps they also learned about the part played by the Indian who befriended the Pilgrims. He taught them how to grow corn, which was unknown in Europe, Asia and Africa. They produced an abundant crop that provided them food to survive the New England winter.

Like many plants, corn has qualities and properties we can enjoy and benefit from. Today, we derive ethanol from corn for our vehicles, and even make plastic from corn. Also, plants provide much of our food and energy, plus nutrients and medicines. Some provide vital parts of clothing and building materials. Don't forget the latest push - biodiesel, now being made from many crops. And some help us guard, even restore, our environment.

The large number and variety of plants offers us possibilities for many benefits. The largest plant family, orchids, contains more than 30,000 known species. The aster family, the next largest plant family, contains more than 19,000 known species. It is the largest family native to the continents north of the Equator. The large number of species reflects plants' ability to adapt to different growing conditions. Adaptability allows a plant species to adjust to growing in different temperatures and soil types, at different elevations, with different moisture and light levels. For example, avocados have naturalized to Texas and produce fruit north to San Antonio. Adaptation and specialization of dandelions, an aster, provide another example. An empty lot had many dandelions growing on it. To get rid of them, the owners mowed frequently. Instead of eliminating the dandelions, however, they got even more dandelions, all of them with stems only about 1 inch long, a benefit to the plants but not the owners!

Another example of specialization is plants' adaptation to cold-weather or warm-weather areas. Tomatoes, peppers, citrus fruits, yams/sweet potatoes and cotton, for example, grow and produce much more readily in warmer temperatures. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, apples, pears, corn and wheat, are better adapted to cold-weather areas. President Andrew Jackson ultimately quit trying to grow cotton profitably around Nashville, Tenn.; it is simply too cold there. Try tasting cabbage grown in both areas; cold-weather cabbage tastes better. Similar differences occur in flowering plants. Northern azaleas and other rhododendrons may look like our azaleas, but they do not grow well in our area.

Variations in plant species may occur in either natural or planned ways. The dandelions in our example adapted naturally in one season. Epiphytic plants, such as Spanish moss, adapted over time and now naturally grow without soil. And a beautiful, vining orchid's seeds provide us natural vanilla flavoring. The orchid developed vanilla-aroma seeds over time to encourage animals to eat them, thereby distributing them to new growing locations.

Hybridization by man can lead to development of plants for a particular objective, such as resistance to diseases, as with tomatoes. Another could be a seedless watermelon; at least one has been available for several decades and there are numerous seedless varieties today. Hybridizations have produced shorter-growing plants (many dwarf trees, shrubs, fruits and vegetables), longer-stemmed plants (red roses, which unfortunately are also less aromatic), higher crop yields, and new species (nectarines and pluots).

(Look up pluots: )

We hear of nutritional and medicinal uses of plants being discovered daily. Others have been known for centuries, like our old friend the dandelion, used for treating early-stage diabetes and hypoglycemia. Rich in vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium and beta-carotene, they can be eaten as salad greens, or their flowers can be breaded and sauteed like onion rings. Another example is the variety of teas with various healthful effects. And who can forget penicillin, the antibiotic derived from bread mold; or quinine, the malaria treatment, from the cinchona tree's bark.

Sometimes Mother Nature tops man. The malaria-causing plasmodium parasite has developed resistance in some regions of the world to quinine substitutes synthesized by man but not to natural quinine.

We are thankful for plant-based fabrics used today, such as cotton and linen. A synthetic fabric, rayon, comes from wood fibers, as do most paper and the plastic cellulose. Developed in the 1800s as an ivory substitute, cellulose saw use in billiard balls and, in the 1900s, in photographic film for movies. In animated movies it was also used for drawing the individual cells for animation.

Our ancestors were thankful for old-time building materials using plants, like bousillage and adobe. Our Cajun neighbors found the best bousillage for log-chinking and walls. It comes from epiphytic Spanish moss and mud. Adobe used in Southwest Native American and Spanish buildings contains straw and mud. The once-plentiful native Texas palm was used for dock pilings; long-grain pine, for ship's masts; cypress, for ship's hulls and planking; tulip poplar, for walls and floors.

When man injures the environment or natural disasters occur, we can be thankful for plants. Growing in three stages plants can restore an ecology. The first stage, colonizers like grasses temporarily stabilize a disturbed area's soil by quickly covering it. Second, deeper-rooted plants called stabilizers solidify the colonizers' gains. Third, woody plants mature into permanent plantings to maintain the area as restored. Marine scientists are restoring marsh ecologies utilizing discarded live Christmas trees. Grouped in shallow water near damaged marshes, they trap mud and provide nature a durable habitat and shelter to reestablish aquatic plants and animals.

Many people benefit from nurturing plants. Gardening includes many activities and seeing the results from each task rewards a gardener. Research shows it has special benefits for older folks and for people with some type of disability. Benefits may come partly from the seasons' rhythms or from providing them something they can participate in and see results. This often helps improve the nurturer's mental and physical health.

Of course, the pleasure we all get from the blooms and the fruit that plants produce is truly a benefit, both physically and mentally.