Even amongst those of us too jaded to get caught up in the much hyped Valentines Day observance, one cannot help being a little disarmed by the expression of a genuine ‘I love you‘. Am I right? I believe the positive response to any source of affection is integral to every living being.To love and be loved makes one secure and happy. No doubt all sorts of good compounds are generated in the biological systems and the result is an individual who functions better. One observes this clearly between humans, humans and their pets, amongst animals. Matters are not as obvious in the plant kingdom.
Love among plants? Sounds a bit far-fetched for you? That plants compete with each other for space, light and other resources is well known. The fittest (often the thug) survive. But, we don’t consider that perhaps, plants have a way to cooperate with each other that is yet to be fully understood by man. Empirical evidence of this abounds. Consider the fact that wherever grows poison ivy, there grows jewelweed. Now, that cannot be for human benefit can it? The fact that the nasty, itchy inflammation caused by poison ivy is effectively counteracted by the juice from the stem of jewelweed is incidental. I present to you instead – jewelweed attracts bees, hummingbirds and other such pollinators. While the birds are around they get to feast on the drupe-like fruit of the nearby poison ivy. Seeds of the ivy pass through the digestive tracts and and find themselves dispersed wherever the birds travel. Poison ivy flowers are inconspicuous and could not on their own attract the birds. In turn, the poison ivy keeps humans at a distance thus keeping the jewelweed safe and intact. It is win-win for the plants in question. Mind you, I have not found any research that has come up with an explanation for why these two plants live near each other. My own reasoning brings me ample satisfaction.
Okay, so ‘love’ might be too strong a word but there is definitely a detectable level of affection n’est pas? They seem to know how to thrive if they stay together. There are other examples of plants having mutually beneficial relationships. It was by studying such conditions that gave man the idea of companion planting. Case in point – the three ‘sisters’ of America. Corn grows well in sunshine but needs the ground weed free and mulched which is handsomely addressed by squash that contentedly scrambles all over the ground under the shade of the corn. Meanwhile, pole beans climb up the sturdy corn plants whilst fixing nitrogen in the soil.
Any natural woodland contains a vast assortment of plants. The upper-story and under-story specimens provide conditions that sustain each other. The same occurs in meadows and prairies. Together with the wildlife, there is more to be found growing together in nature than anything we could ever recreate on our own.
The point is, in nature, polyculture which is a more cerebral term for companion planting, is the norm. Diversity is key. It allows for a symbiotic relationship between plants, insects, wildlife, and ultimately our palates. Natural combinations of plants fend off pests and disease, make the best use of space, protects the soil, increase flower and fruit production and generally make a space more beautiful and interesting. This very same method works when applied in our own gardens. It works in vegetable, fruit and, flower gardens. In truth, we have yet to fully understand the entire science of how plants ‘know’ who their friends are and how to create the healthiest horticultural neighborhood.
For now, in my opinion, we know enough to extend that cooperative living to our own society. A little kindness and help, some closeness and yet enough space will be good for all. We’ll grow well, fend off enemies, celebrate differences, use our strengths, compensate for weaknesses, support each other and live in peace. Isn’t that what love is all about?