Book review – Lessons from Plants

6-minute read

Plants are so drastically different from us mobile mammals that we struggle to fully grasp them. With Lessons from Plants, Beronda L. Montgomery, who is the MSU Foundation Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Microbiology & Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University, reveals their surprising abilities and connections. Along the way, she reflects on how we as humans can draw lessons from this to live better lives, both for ourselves and for those around us.

Lessons from Plants

Lessons from Plants, written by Beronda L. Montgomery, published by Harvard University Press in April 2021 (hardback, 220 pages)

With Lessons from Plants, Montgomery wishes to raise what she calls plant awareness: a deeper appreciation and understanding of plants. It is a mission she shares with, for example, Matt Candeias from the In Defense of Plants podcast (and now also book) who regularly speaks of his desire to cure plant blindness. That is a term Montgomery is not fond of: “[It] has become increasingly controversial because it is based on a disability metaphor; that is, it reflects deficit-based thinking around blindness” (p. 2). She rather calls it “plant bias”, which I do not think is a great term either. Feel free to skip the following linguistic tangent.

Maybe I am just being a blunt Dutchman, but I have little issue with the term “plant blindness”. Still, one can argue that it is not quite precise. We see plants alright, we have just stopped noticing them. However, without an accompanying preposition, “plant bias” strikes me as an unclear term. Does it refer to a bias against or in favour? Plus, the opposite of having a bias is being neutral – not quite the plant awareness Montgomery is trying to raise. Plant unawareness is also a bit of a mouth full. In a discussion over the kitchen table with my partner, we raided the thesaurus and came up with “plant apathy” or “plant indifference”.

Linguistic tangent aside, what Montgomery does here in six chapters is discuss a plethora of botanical research and conclude with life lessons that we could draw from it. Thus, the fact that plants are rooted in place and need to carefully monitor their environment at all times has taught Montgomery “the importance of intentional self-reflection, or the equivalent of taking time to perceive my environmental conditions” (p. 30). She marvels at how some plants can form synergistic relationships when grown together, paying particular attention to the so-called Three Sisters garden. This is a Native American cultivation practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together. Each plant helps the others thrive by offering protection or structural support. Montgomery finds inspiration in this practice to try and shape her commitments and activities into a synergistic whole, rather than seeing them as mutually exclusive tasks that compete with each other for her time and attention.

“The language and ideas employed here made me think of the glut of mindfulness books that have been published in recent years [though] Lessons from Plants is not a self-help book dressed in green.”

The language and ideas employed here made me think of the glut of mindfulness books that have been published in recent years. Whether Montgomery’s lessons will resonate with you no doubt depends on whether such books appeal to you. It is a genre that normally annoys rather than inspires me, but there was one lesson here that I could strongly relate to from my experience as a student. Asks Montgomery: when we care for a plant and it fails to thrive, do we blame the plant? No, we try and find out how to adjust its environment so it flourishes. How different is our approach when it comes to e.g. mentorship or supervision. Poor outcome here often leads to us judging the individual we are supposed to look after. Yep, been there.

Now, before anyone draws the wrong conclusion, Lessons from Plants is not a self-help book dressed in green. Her lessons are a minor facet and most of the book consists of her regaling the reader with the latest botanical research. She enjoys this so much that fully a quarter of the book is given over to footnotes with references to all the studies that she mentions. I found this part to be particularly enjoyable.

Thus, plants may not be able to move away from adverse environments the way animals can, but they have another trick up their sleeve: phenotypic plasticity. They can drastically alter for instance their biochemistry, physiology, or morphology to cope better. They can grow taller to reach sunny spots or change the ratio of photosynthetic enzymes in response to different light regimes. They can tell apart self from non-self through the release of volatile organic compounds. They can transform their environment by for example liberating trapped nutrients or changing soil chemistry and consistency. That last one is most dramatically shown in pioneering species: the first wave of plants to colonise an environment devastated by a disaster, such as happened after the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens or in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.

“[…] plants may not be able to move away from adverse environments the way animals can, but they have another trick up their sleeve: phenotypic plasticity.”

This book would be incomplete if it did not ask whether plants have intelligence. Montgomery discusses research that shows plants capable of for instance memory formation, risk analysis, and behaviour (if that is defined as modifying decisions in the face of information gathered from their environment). But how do plants do this without the kinds of organs that animals have? Montgomery does not mention Stefano Mancuso’s mind-blowing insight served up in The Revolutionary Genius of Plants. He argued they do this by distributing vital functions throughout their body in a diffuse fashion rather than concentrating them in organs, which coincidentally makes them virtually indestructible.

The other topic that prominently featured is the underground symbioses plants form with microbes and fungi. Especially the network of threads formed by fungi – mycelium – allows plants to exchange nutrients and information, a notion popularised as the Wood Wide Web. Some researchers, notably Suzanne Simard, evocatively talk of mother trees supporting younger trees via nutrient transport between them. My impression is that quite a few scientists are sceptical of such interpretations, which is not discussed here. I will, on that note, prominently mention Merlin Sheldrake’s criticism in Entangled Life. He calls these metaphors very plant-centric and points out that mycorrhizal networks are not all about “sharing and caring”.

Scholarly disagreements aside, there is no doubt that plants are marvellous organisms capable of far more than we give them credit for. Lessons from Plants is a neat little book that will appeal to readers of What a Plant Knows or Thus Spoke the Plant, and, given its discussion of what we can learn from plants, particularly to readers of Braiding Sweetgrass.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Lessons from Plants

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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One comment

  1. Thanks for reviewing this book, as I tend to favor (for efficiency purposes) reading the density of academic papers rather than the leisurely flow of concepts in books. Thank you, too, for pointing out that Merlin Sheldrake (fungal scientist, his book “Entangled Life”) has a less plant-centric view of agency in the mycorrhizal plant-fungi partnerships than is usually stated in popular contexts these days. I agree with Merlin — and I loved reading every page in his book.

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