“The ground we walk on, the plants and creatures, the clouds above constantly dissolving into new formations—each gift of nature possessing its own radiant energy, bound together by cosmic harmony.” ~ Ruth Bernhard
I will never be a crazy cat lady—I’m not fond of cats, and I’m also deathly allergic to them.
I am, however, well on my way to becoming a crazy plant lady.
My apartment is denser with foliage than the Amazon Rainforest, and I talk to my potted plants daily.
I sing to them while I clean. I lovingly wipe dust off their leaves and remark on their growth spurts. I name them. I even play music for them (their favorite album is Mort Garson’s 1976 album “Plantasia,” with tracks such as “Ode to an African Violet” and “Music to Soothe the Savage Snake Plant.”)
I can feel my little green babies thanking me for the extra lovin’.
Before you start thinking I’ve had a little too much contact with plants of the fun kind, let me name-drop here for a little credibility. Charles Darwin (you know him, right?) studied plants for most of his life, and he was the first to propose the idea that plants actually have brains.
There may not be a microscopic cranium chilling in a daisy’s head, but it turns out roots act like teeny brains, giving off electrical signals and even producing neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and other chemicals, just like human brains. Some scientists, including the founder of the field of plant neurobiology, argue that plants have the capacity for memory and decision-making.
They also feel.
They respond to touch and even “sing.”
It’s likely they even feel pain, as scientists have found that when a plant is stressed (picked, torn, bitten) it releases a chemical called ethylene, which scientists compare to a scream.
Plants communicate among themselves in ways humans barely understand.
The definitions of “intelligence” and “sentience” will likely be debated forever. But whatever your opinion on the consciousness of plants, recent research indicates that they are highly-evolved, intelligent life forms.
Ideally, living things, including plants, would warrant respect simply because they exist. (Or when they, you know, are the reason we are able to inhabit this planet.)
Maybe you’ve never had a full-on conversation with a rhododendron, but it’s likely you’ve had some kind of interaction with a plant in your life. The interaction was probably innocent and thoughtless, and you likely did not think about your impact on the plant’s “feelings.”
I’m not saying daisy chains are genocide. If so, I would be a mass murderer.
But what I am suggesting is that if we could make our interactions with plants always an exchange, we could open more doors of awareness of our environment, whose biomass is 99 percent plant life. By opening our minds and hearts to plants, we practice compassion for all living and breathing (or photosynthesizing) organisms.
The Lenape, a Native American tribe with a rich knowledge of the medicinal value of plants, would perform a sacred ceremony to appease the spirit of the plants they gathered. They would pass the first plant, dig a small hole on the east side of the second one’s roots, and drop in a pinch of native tobacco as an offering.
If anyone would like to take after the Lenape, they have my full support.
However, there are, thankfully, many other more practical ways to make our interactions with plants a conscious exchange:
1) Acknowledge the plant…say thank you.
A few years ago I participated in a Native American sweat lodge. We needed to gather pieces of pine for part of the ceremony, so my mentor, Sunbringer, brought us to a tree and had us ask it for permission to take a piece of its body. We waited to feel the tree’s response before clipping a sprig.
To be honest, I had a really hard time not laughing as we all stood there whispering under our breath at trees and waiting for a response, but there is wisdom in this.
Not everyone can hear plants, but it never hurts to approach them with respect and an intention.
Before picking a plant, acknowledge its presence. Namaste-style, if you like— “The being-ness in me recognizes the being-ness in you.” Think of your intention for picking the plant, whether it’s to decorate your home, to eat, or to wear in your hair.
As an herbalist, I often gather plants for use in medicine. I like to silently acknowledge the plant’s healing properties while harvesting. Afterward, I thank it for its medicine.
It doesn’t matter if you say it aloud. This is an energetic exchange, and your awareness is what counts.
2) Place tobacco around the plant’s roots.
Tobacco is sacred to many Native American tribes and is most commonly used for prayer, protection, respect, and healing. You can place a pinch of tobacco at the base of the plant, or burn tobacco to offer its smoke, just like you would use a smudge stick.
Now, I wouldn’t recommend lighting up a Marlboro and blowing second-hand smoke at it—American Spirit pouch tobacco might be a better offering option.
3) Pee on the ground.
I learned this one at herbalism school in California when I first began dipping my toes into the deep healing waters of plant medicine: waters that can get a little cloudy sometimes because apparently pee offerings are a pretty normal practice in the herbalism community.
Remember, the idea is to make each interaction an exchange with the plant—you’re taking a piece of the plant’s body, so in this way you can give something from your body.
This isn’t so practical if you’re harvesting a bounty of summer vegetables—you’ll find yourself guzzling water to keep up with all your offerings—and although you’re supposed to pee on the ground by the plant’s roots, it can get a little messy and drip down on your summer squash, which might weird people out, even if you do wash your food before preparing it.
But if you do feel inclined to put this tradition into practice, go ahead and drop those yoga pants and pop a squat (or aim steady) to water that thirsty rosemary bush.
(But please don’t mention elephant journal if you get caught relieving yourself on a flower you picked at the park. Common sense, people.)
4) Sing a song.
Another (less weird) bodily offering you can give is your voice. Plants love and respond to vibrations. Sing a song or chant while you pick leaves, flowers or roots.
Whether it’s a sacred Buddhist mantra or that poppy Lourdes song you love, plants aren’t musical snobs. I once sang a Metallica song to my lavendar because that’s what I had stuck in my head at the time.
5) Don’t waste what you don’t use.
One of the easiest ways to respect plants is to not let any of their parts go to waste. It’s the same idea for ethical hunting enthusiasts who use the dead animal’s hide, organs, antlers, etc. for different uses. All parts of a plant can be used for something, or at least given back to the earth or animals.
If gathering from the wild, only harvest what you need.
If you have a yard, throw unused fruits, vegetables and herbs into a compost pile or somewhere where they will be enjoyed by the squirrels; or, you can mash up your leftovers and place them at the base of a tree.
I also like to re-use tea bags (tea is just plant water!) and to use leftover tea, vegetable broth, tincture, etc. to water my house plants.
6) Learn about them.
The greatest way to show you care for anyone or anything is to inquire about it. Take the time to learn about the plant you’re coming into contact with, even if you just look up the name of the flower you were just admiring.
There are thousands of nature conservations in the United States (and other countries), and cities usually have botanical gardens where you can discover foliage you never even knew existed, (in fact, it’s speculated that humans only know of 10% of Earth’s plant species!), and plenty of plant conservation organizations people can donate to.
7) Teach about them.
A few years ago I brought my five-year-old sister to my herb garden and explained the importance of being grateful to the plants we pluck.
She took my words of wisdom very literally. I found her saying, “Thank you,” every single time she plucked the tiniest leaf while she helped me gather bushels of lemon balm.
I didn’t stop her or tell her it wasn’t necessary to say it every time. I didn’t laugh at her when I caught her talking to a tomato.
I believe that one of the most important ways we can help save Mother Earth is to plant the seeds of understanding in our children, to teach them to respect and love all parts of the environment, to interact with the world around them and recognize the sentience of all living things. To not think it’s strange to regard all organisms as deserving of acknowledgment and tenderness.
As human actions usher in deforestation, habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and other environmental crises, there is no method too simple, silly, or outlandish to try to bring us back to a close, loving relationship with our planet.
Scientists may never be able to prove the sentience or incredible intelligence of plants, but that doesn’t mean we can’t respect the vital role they play in our environment—they provide raw materials, food, rain, and oxygen.
Why not return the love?
Author: Felicia Bonanno
Editor: Renee Picard
Image: F. D. Richards at Flickr