"Untold Secrets": What Role Plants Play in Human Lives
We eat them, they are used to build houses, they are used to cure diseases. For thousands of years, man has lived side by side with plants. But what do we know about them, are they able to feel pain or fear, as they are fighting for a place under the Sun. What plants are capable of killing and are there those that can prolong life? About this and many other things - in the story "Moscow Trust".
They are around us, but we hardly notice them. For most of us, plant life seems boring and rather primitive. But one has only to speed up the passage of time a little, and it becomes obvious: this world is not as simple as it seems. Here they play out dramas, weave intrigues, and often make real sacrifices.
"Plants fight for light, for the space in which they are located, for the resources they consume - a whole complex of things that are fought for. Being in one place, plants release chemicals that suppress or inhibit the growth of other plants," - says a junior researcher at the Botanical Garden of Moscow State University. M.V. Lomonosov Vitaly Alenkin.
"The world of plants is not at all simple, and relationships are built between plants, which are very complex. It is enough to go into the forest and see the tiered structure of the community. We can see that all plants are distributed over floors, and in a certain pattern, and in each community we can to highlight the species that create conditions and that adapt to them ", - says the professor of the Department of Higher Plants, Faculty of Biology, Moscow State University. M.V. Lomonosov Alexander Zernov.
Every blade of grass at every second is ready to take the lead in the race for resources, it only needs a reason. “As soon as one tree decays, this window is immediately occupied by the mass of plants, which are racing to be the first to get more light,” says Alexander Zernov.
Velvet Amur. Photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont / wikipedia.org
In the meantime, someone is waiting for their chance, the parasitic plants get what they need without much effort. They often settle inside trees or braid their roots. Deprived of nutrients, the host plant painfully dies in the arms of such a neighbor.
"Ficuses begin their life on the ground, then they climb up another plant, where there is more light. Then he braids the owner, and he dies, and the ficus continues to live, having won both place and light," says Vitaly Alenkin.
In order to preserve their population, the losing species are forced to either learn their lesson or completely disappear from the face of the earth. In the course of evolution, many plants have received good chances of survival and are very skillful at using them. Some have even learned to live in extreme conditions.
"The champion among these extreme conditions are lichens. They are made up of two organisms - fungi and algae. They can tolerate very low temperatures (-60) and severe dehydration. Some lichen species can lose up to 95% of their mass, and then when they are dipped into water, restore their volume and then grow normally, "explains Andrey Tsitsilin, Candidate of Biological Sciences, head of the Botanical Garden of the VILAR State Scientific Institution.
Extreme high and low temperatures, salty and alkaline environments - today, plants can survive anywhere. There are such specimens on our planet that have not been broken by anything, even the Earth's climate has changed more than once.
"Velvet Amursky is a unique relict plant from the Far East. It existed in the Tertiary times, before the onset of glaciation. It belongs to the Rutaceae family, has a thick ribbed bark that can be used to obtain cork," says the candidate of biological sciences, senior researcher at the Botanical Garden of Moscow State University. M.V. Lomonosova Tatiana Lavrova.
Even 2 billion years ago, the flora of our planet was extremely scarce. The first plants were unicellular algae that moved in water using flagella. The first terrestrial representatives appeared only 420 million years ago, they were small in size, about 12 centimeters, without leaves and flowers.
Everything changed at the end of the Paleozoic era, when a warm climate was established on Earth. Then the surface of our planet was covered with the first plants and shrubs, giant ferns, horsetails and waterfishes.
"In the evolution of plants, there is a tendency for a smooth increase in size from small to giants in the Carboniferous, then these giants died out. And their small representatives reached us. As for gymnosperms and flowering plants, then, as we know from paleontological material, now we have the largest plants ", - says Alexander Zernov.
For some plants, evolution has given an even more generous gift, allowing them to stand out from the rest with an unusual diet. It turns out that not everyone has enough sunlight and nutrients extracted by the root system.
There are predatory plants. Science does not know much about these unusual carnivorous plants, because the fossil remains cannot explain what their life was like several million years ago. One thing is clear: in order to survive, these plants had to reclaim scarce land and almost completely switch to organic food.
As a rule, carnivorous plants live in swamps, because of this, their root system is poorly developed or simply absent. But there is a cunning arsenal of tools for a real hunter.
"They are very independent. The plant does not feed on the root system, but due to the fact that it has mechanisms and other adaptations for this: leaves that call with their sweet nectar and slam shut, leaves that curl, leaves that are modified into vessels and jugs, into which the insect falls and is digested in the acid inside, "explains the collector of carnivorous plants Sergei Kunitsyn.
So, a hungry Venus flytrap immediately reacts to the appearance of prey. An insect, barely touching the finest hairs or thorns on the leaves, triggers an irreversible chemical reaction. By interacting with each other, the substances generate an electrical impulse that causes the Flycatcher to quickly close its trap.
Another famous predator, Nepentes, does not catch anyone on purpose, he just waits for someone to show interest in sweet nectar. Sooner or later, along the slippery edge, the insect crawls along the bottom of the trap and can no longer get out.
"Plants hold insects in various ways. The juice is partly similar to human gastric juice, it dissolves insects and the soup, which is obtained, they assimilate through the cells into themselves, and this helps them to bloom, develop and reproduce better," says Vitaly Alenkin.
Contrary to persistent myths, plants cannot feed on large carnivores. Despite the fact that Nepentes can reach 15 meters in height, and the depth of his jugs is 60 centimeters, his appetite remains modest. Moreover, if a large lizard falls into his jug, Nepentes may die.
"In fact, the sacrifice is very heavy. And when the mouse hits the jug, the leaf breaks from the weight, and the circulation of the internal movement of the liquid is disrupted, gradually the jug will begin to dry out from the lid. But many collectors believe that Nepentes is the only plant that can throw in small pieces of minced meat a month, "says Sergei Kuritsyn.
And yet, among the 350 thousand plants known to science, there are those that can kill. "Blue buttercup", "fighter", "wolf", "lumbago" - this flower has many names. Someone even specially plants it in their areas, believing that the plant is decorative.
In fact, aconite is deadly. Flowers, leaves, stems, even aroma are pure poison. Its toxicity is comparable to that of curare - one gram of this juice is enough to cause severe poisoning. Death occurs as a result of respiratory paralysis and cardiac arrest. No antidote has been found.
"Aconite is a very poisonous representative of alkaloids, the main of which is alconitine. But drugs are also made from it. Our institute has developed a very effective heart remedy," says Nikolai Fadeev, senior researcher at the laboratory of wild medicinal plants at the VILAR State Scientific Institution.
"Among the deadly poisonous plants, we can name the common wolfberry, a plant in central Russia, it also grows in our suburbs. It is very rare, listed in the Red Book, since the plant blooms in early spring and is very beautiful. This plant has a very poisonous substance mizorinin, and others ", - explains Tatiana Lavrova.
Common wolfberry. Photo: Mmounties
Of all known species of plants, poisonous - 8 thousand. And many of them grow on our backyards and homes. We often do not even suspect that there is a real danger behind their unpretentiousness. For example, potatoes have poisonous berries, and the popular office plant dieffenbachia has both stems and leaves.
"If you accidentally scratch the plant with your fingernail or chew the petiole, then paralysis of the larynx will occur, the tongue will become numb, the person will not be able to verbally express that he is in pain," says Vitaly Alenkin.
Surprisingly, many poisonous plants can not only harm, but also save lives. Thus, drugs obtained from the deadly aconite have long been successfully used to treat malignant tumors.
In general, the group of medicinal plants is truly huge, it has more than 10 thousand species, and these are just the modest assumptions of scientists. Nobody knows their exact number. Every year, research institutes discover new medicinal properties of plants.
"I see borax under my feet - an anti-cancer plant. But it is everywhere. Not all medicinal plants are safe. It is necessary to use them in consultation with doctors," says Alexander Rabinovich, head of the laboratory of phytoncidal and homeopathic plants of the VILAR State Scientific Institution.
Medicines derived from medicinal plants can treat various diseases. From runny nose and acute respiratory infections to stomach diseases, rashes, glaucoma, stomatitis and even cancer. And some are used in the treatment of several ailments at once. For example, aloe. It is on almost every windowsill, but not everyone knows how to properly use it for medicinal purposes.
"The aloe leaves that I cut off cannot be washed. You need to cut off the bottom part, wrap it in black paper and put in the refrigerator for two weeks. The fermentation process takes place. After that, the thorns are cut off, and you need to quickly spin a pound through a meat grinder. Until it oxidized. Then a pound of honey and half a liter of Cahors are added as a preservative. Immunomodulating substances accumulate here, which help to improve vision. And the metabolism of the whole organism is enhanced, "says Alexander Rabinovich.
Even ancient people believed that plants not only cure many diseases, but can give a person eternal youth. So, the first mention of the elixir of immortality dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. And the most ancient work about the Sumerian king Gilgamesh tells in detail about the search for the flower of immortality, which was never found.
In Sumerian writing, it is quite often mentioned how the priests, who have secret knowledge of herbs, were looking for a recipe for decoctions and infusions with a rejuvenating effect. However, all these attempts were just as useless.
But, according to medieval legends, one person still succeeded. It is believed that the elixir of immortality was created by the brilliant Persian scientist, philosopher and physician Abu ibn Hussey ibn Al Dalai ibn Sina, known as Avicenna.
Legend has it that, using various herbs and thanks to his knowledge in medicine, Avicenna prepared 40 potions that were supposed not only to revive him after death, but also to give him eternal youth. Having passed on knowledge to his disciple, he passed away.
Fulfilling the instructions of the teacher, the student soon found that the wrinkles on the teacher's face were smoothed out and the cheeks turned pink, and soon breathing appeared. Not believing his eyes, the young man became so agitated that he made a fatal mistake - he broke the last vessel with the elixir. It was not possible to resurrect the brilliant doctor. Avicenna took the secret of immortality with him to the grave.
However, historians are sure that the secrets of longevity can be found in the ancestral books of the ancient Slavs. Herbalism has always been an area of special, sacred knowledge in Russia. The healing and other properties of herbs were carefully recorded and passed down from generation to generation to people belonging to a special class.
"The estate of those in charge was engaged in this. These were sorcerers, healers, healers, herbalists. And this class was more engaged in collecting herbs, studying their properties, treating people, transferring knowledge and experience from generation to generation," says Yuri, a researcher of the Slavic traditions of herbalism. Sushkov.
And although each family of herbalists had their own secret information, the rules for collecting plants were the same.
“On the eve of collecting herbs, a person had to wash, put on clean clothes, put his thoughts in order, tune in to the same wavelength with the world around him. And, going to that place, he had to not only agree with the plant, but also enlist the support of his gods and ancestors and, communicating with the plant, treat it respectfully, calling it a brother or sister, a queen, a king-father, "says Yuri Sushkov.
The most important condition for a successful collection was to ask permission from the land. Otherwise, the healer risked calling himself the curse of the spirits of the forest and the wrath of the higher gods. With particular scrupulousness, all the rules were observed on the night of the fern hunt.
According to ancient Slavic legends, you can see how the fern blooms only once a year on the night of Ivan Kupala. It was believed that the mysterious flower appears only for a few minutes, blinding everything around with its beauty.
The Slavs believed that the color of ferns has inexhaustible magical properties and can fulfill any desire. Collecting this amazing plant required a special skill from the herbalist. It was necessary to immediately pick the flower without being lost and run home as quickly as possible, without looking back.
But there is no real information in history that someone managed to get this amazing plant, and for quite obvious reasons.
"The fern does not bloom at all, it is not a flowering plant. The fern has spores that form regularly, once a year, on the leaves. To see them, you have to turn the leaf. Since the fern does not have flowers, this belief arose that it blooms like this it is rare that no one sees it, "says Alexander Zernov.
It was not enough for a true herbalist to know what plants, how and when to collect. To preserve all the medicinal properties, it was important to dry them properly. This was done in a dark and well-ventilated area. The main condition is that the flowers should retain their color over time. Only dry and brittle raw materials were used for infusions and decoctions. By the way, the more herbs were used, the more valuable and useful the decoctions from them were.
“It's a rare occasion when we take one herb and drink it endlessly. As a rule, to enhance the effects of the herb, we compose the ingredients. So it is with teas.You can brew one Ivan-tea, but if we add a pinch of Melissa, the sleepy lemon catnip to it, put a rosette of marigolds, then the tea will acquire a completely different shade and sparkle with all flavors and tastes, "explains Elena Sushkova, a researcher of Slavic traditions of herbalism.
But no matter what medicinal properties and amazing tastes herbal teas have, you should not get carried away with them. Each plant has its own side effects. For example, St. John's wort. Many people know about its universal healing properties. It is believed that it relieves depression, gastrointestinal diseases, but it can also cause great harm.
"St. John's wort stimulates cell division. It should be used carefully, as it can stimulate the development of cancer cells. In general, I would be wary of the advice of traditional medicine," says Alexander Zernov.
Most of the plants that our ancestors collected are still not included in the pharmacopoeia - the state official collection of medicinal herbs. This means that many of their properties have not yet been fully studied. However, it is thanks to the ancient tradition of collecting herbs that a huge number of rituals, signs and beliefs have appeared in Russian culture.
"For example, nettle. On the one hand, it was believed that this is an evil unclean plant that stings, unpleasant to touch, and the etymology of this plant is associated with the fact that it grows in the place where something bad happened. And people believed that If there is a lot of nettles on their site, it is worth waiting for trouble. On the other hand, nettles were used as a talisman, and even small children were put nettle leaves in the cradle, "says Anna Osipova, Ph.D.
Myths and legends of ancient plants
Every plant that ever surrounded a person was associated with a belief, myth or legend. And all flowers had and still have stable symbolic meanings. It is not surprising that in the Middle Ages, people even invented the language of flowers - forces.
"Forces are a way of communicating in the east, its appearance is associated with moral and ethical norms, principles of behavior adopted in Islamic society, where women and girls were not allowed to communicate directly with men. Therefore, the flower allowed building some kind of proposal, conveying a thought, a message ", - says historian, etiquette specialist Eleonora Basmanova.
Having appeared in Turkey, the forces very soon became an international language. In the 18th century, the fashion for him first came to France, then to Germany and to Russia. Soon the whole world began to speak in it. Therefore, the forces became part of the court etiquette of many states. He found his reflection even in world literature.
"In Lermontov's novel" Princess Ligovskaya "there is a phrase:" An incorrectly pinned flower could forever ruin her future. "
Silam was not only an exciting game, with its help they encrypted not only love, but also political correspondence. So, a sent bouquet of wildflowers tied with a blue ribbon meant an offer of friendship or cooperation.
The red rose spoke of serious intimate feelings. If a young man gave such a flower to an unmarried girl, and even publicly, a grandiose scandal could erupt in society. More than 400 plants were used in the language of flowers, and they all spoke of human feelings and intentions as well as words.
For example, hyacinth reported that a person is in sorrow. The number of its buds could indicate the day of the meeting. The color will fill the message with even more meaning: blue - constancy, white - love and innocence, yellow - jealousy.
Lily of the valley symbolized deep romantic feelings, and the lemon leaf symbolized well-deserved forgiveness. Thanks to the craze for the language of flowers, the first flower etiquette was born. It was believed that forming a bouquet without taking into account the gender, character of the addressee was the height of ignorance.
Floral etiquette is still used today. Forming a bouquet is not an easy task. So, a bouquet for a birthday for a young girl does not tolerate lush red roses and is collected from unopened buds of delicate shades or wildflowers. On the contrary, it is customary for mature ladies to give lush flowers of saturated colors for their birthday. When collecting bouquets, do not forget about mathematics.
"If we are talking about flowers of the same kind, for example, a rose, there are numbers that are very easy to read with the eye: 3, 7, 11, 13, 17. After 21 it is already difficult to count, so it does not matter anymore. If the flowers in the bouquet are mixed , that is, such a rule: only those flowers that dominate in the bouquet should be read. All other elements are secondary, "explains protocol floristry specialist Irina Gracheva.
And although today the language of flowers is remembered less and less, some do not doubt that plants are capable of building relationships with the outside world in a special way.
“I believe that at the chemical level, plants really have some kind of memorization of the conditions, circumstances under which they subsequently act and react differently. It also seems to me that plants communicate with each other, possibly through roots, with the release of chemical elements, which allow plants to repel or attract neighbors, "says Vitaly Alenkin.
The first suggestions that plants are capable of feeling, hearing, experiencing fear or other emotions, as well as possessing memory, appeared about 100 years ago. However, then this hypothesis seemed to scientists nothing more than speculation.
Until 1966, Cliff Baxter, Ph.D., announced his discovery. As a polyphysician at the CIA, he had access to lie detectors. As you know, these devices are able to accurately record emotional outbursts in people.
By connecting the sensors of the device to the leaves of a common room dracaena, Baxter decided to evoke the emotion of fear in the plant. First, he dipped the leaves of the plant into a mug of hot coffee, but the polygraph did not record any changes.
The researcher decided to set fire to the plant. And as soon as he thought about it, sharp long jumps appeared on the recorder tape. It is surprising that Baxter himself remained motionless during his thoughts and did not touch either the plant or the polygraph.
The section on the recorder exactly corresponded to how the emotion of fear in a person would be expressed. According to the records of his laboratory journals, he conducted a series of similar experiments, during which he obtained the result again and again. But the world scientific community reacted coolly and with great caution to these studies.
"The internal process of plants is rather difficult to study, this is not an animal into which you can insert a fistula and develop reflexes. It is known that when plants move, a nerve impulse is generated that is very similar to the impulse of an animal. But what happens there and how the plant perceives it is completely unknown. because they have no nervous system, "says Alexander Zernov.
Having never received the status of a scientific fact, the hypothesis that plants hear and feel has become very fashionable among amateur flower growers. Prince Charles is one of her followers. In an interview, he admitted that he talks with his houseplants and sees a clear effect of this communication.
"There was such a case in St. Petersburg. Greenhouse facilities. Two identical greenhouses with cucumbers and tomatoes, two greenhouses of about the same age. One has a yield one and a half times higher. When they began to find out the reasons, the woman admitted that she was talking to them. That is, a plant feels a person's attitude and responds to him, "says Nikolai Fadeev.
So can plants communicate and read our minds? Feel our attitude, experience emotions, or maybe it's all about our imagination? It turns out that there is no mysticism.
"This is connected with care, with the attitude to the plant. The care changes, the plant reacts instantly. It adapts to the person," says Vitaly Alenkin.
For example, Prince Charles, who talks to plants, is actually just indulging his pets with a lot of carbon dioxide, which he himself exhales in the process of communication. Unsurprisingly, the Prince of Wales's flowers grow bigger and better with the systematic filling of the air with carbon dioxide.
For quite a long time, scientists have studied another amazing property of plants - the ability to recognize a threat and defend against it. It turned out that many representatives of the green kingdom can actively stand up for themselves.
Geranium is one of the most common indoor plants. Many people dislike her for the pungent smell that appears as soon as you touch her. In fact, this scent is the result of a powerful chemical reaction. Upon contact, geranium immediately releases phytoncides - volatile chemical compounds that kill pathogenic bacteria.
"The fact is that the plant's immunity is very strongly tied to the fight against its pathogens. And if the plant needs to defend itself, then phytoncides contained in the intercellular space come to the rescue. And when we damage a leaf, we will be the first to hear this smell. Therefore, phytoncides are nearby. with the place that was damaged ", - says the head of the station of young naturalists Danila Sorokin.
Depending on the degree of damage, geranium is able to regulate the concentration of phytoncides and increase it until the danger passes. But to what extent, and can it be dangerous for a person?
Take two geraniums that grew in the same conditions in a greenhouse. We will not touch one geranium, and another biologist will inflict several damage in order to trigger a chemical reaction of self-defense.
The pungent smell that filled the room indicates that the geranium has already begun to actively defend itself. Next, we will try to find out exactly what effect the high content of phytoncides in geranium has. To do this, we will cover both plants with glass caps, and launch fruit flies there.
Fruit flies have been working for the benefit of humanity for more than a century. For more than a hundred years, they have received the title of the main model organism of science. And they have become an important object for the study of many human diseases.
Wolfberry flowers. Photo: Bernd Haynold / wikipedia.org
Today, flies will again have to perform a feat and prove on themselves how fiercely an ordinary indoor geranium can defend against a pest. For this purpose, a special species of Drosophila was bred in the laboratory.
"This is a special line with a slightly suppressed immunity. If we take ordinary flies and start testing some drugs on them, we will not always be able to see its effect, since they have very strong immunity," says Danila Sorokin.
During the first hour, the biologist does not record any changes. After 10 hours of the experiment, under the first flask, where the intact plant was located, the usual activity of Drosophila was observed. But in the second flask, under the influence of the intoxicating scent of geranium, all the flies fell asleep.
"Thanks to a special line of flies with low immunity, we were able to see this the very next day, but the plant itself does not expect such an outcome, it is enough for it to stop being interested in it and fly away," Sorokin says.
Of course, the result of this experiment does not indicate the presence of intelligence or cunning in the geranium. Rather, we are again witnessing what amazing chemical processes can occur in plants. But who or what regulates them when the plant realizes that the threat has passed?
We still know very little about how plants live. And although scientists work hard in their laboratories, the natural course cannot be measured. To fully study one plant, the entire research institute must operate for at least 30 years.
But there are more than 300 thousand plant species on Earth, and thousands more unknown species are stored in herbarium archives, waiting for an hour when they are described and classified. And how many have not yet been discovered! The world of plants is a big mystery. And the question of whether we can find out everything about them will remain open for a long time.