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Plants are collaborative. They share resources with neighbors, warn each other of incoming threats, and form partnerships to better utilize their environment. Plants are patient. They conserve their energy until the time is just right to start growing. Plants are resilient. Some of them can be hacked down again and again only to emerge stronger the next time.
Clearly, plants have a lot to teach us. What would happen if we listened?
It’s a question that Beronda L. Montgomery, Ph.D., has long asked herself. As a professor of plant biology at Michigan State University, she researches how photosynthetic organisms respond to lighting cues and adapt to the world around them. It’s technical work, to be sure, but it’s rife with lessons that extend far beyond the lab.
Montgomery’s new book Lessons From Plants distills some of the plant realm’s most phenomenal features into advice that scientists and nonscientists alike could use.
3 lessons that plants have to teach us.
As a Black woman working in STEM, Montgomery is passionate about helping her field be more inviting to and supportive of young scientists of all backgrounds. That’s how she first got to thinking about how plant lessons might be a teaching tool for her and her colleagues.
Plant scientists, she realized, know better than anyone else how important one’s environment is for growth. “When we were talking about mentoring, a lot of the conversations were about whether the individuals we had recruited had what it took to survive,” Montgomery tells mbg. “And I thought, well, do we have the environment that they need to grow?”
That thought led her on a path to find quite a few other ways that academia could look to plants for guidance on mentoring and leadership. The plant lessons she found and subsequently shared in her book are ultimately applicable to people from all walks of life.
Montgomery has been heartened to have readers that run the gamut from faith leaders to 4-year-old children reach out to tell her about how they are putting them into practice. “It’s wonderful to hear that so many people are engaging with them in ways that I wouldn’t have even intended,” she says. “I think it tells us something about the power of nature to inspire us to think about our place on the planet.”
Here are three powerful plant lessons she’s seen resonate with people the most:
1. Growth is not a given.
Think about how you’d react if you saw one of the plants in your home or garden struggling. You’d probably rack your brain thinking about what it could need; what you got wrong. You wouldn’t blame the issue on the plant itself. But do you extend the same courtesy to other people you see in distress?
“What I see in so many cases is that with our fellow humans, we often look at whether they’re growing well or not. And if they’re not, we make assumptions about what their capabilities are,” Montgomery says.
We’d all be well served to extend the same philosophy of care to our community that we do to our greenery. Just as we don’t expect plants to survive without water and sunlight, we can’t assume people will grow without proper support.
2. The world needs more pioneers.
Pioneer plants are the trailblazers of the botanical realm, able to survive in conditions that most plants can’t. They are the first to colonize tricky new areas (say, in the crack of a sidewalk) and somehow able to make do with the limited resources available to them. What’s fascinating about these plants is that in the process of settling in this new spot, they also make it more suitable for future generations to thrive.
Human communities have pioneers too. They’re the people who make something from nothing and break away from the status quo to forge new paths. From Montgomery’s perspective, these folks deserve more credit, especially in the workplace. “Everyone must recognize the importance of pioneers—those that have the traits needed to initiate robust culture change at the right time and place—and support the need for leaders to function in this pioneering way,” she writes in her book.
3. Diversity breeds resilience.
Though industrial agriculture has made us used to seeing rows and rows of the same type of crop, in reality, plants naturally want to grow alongside different species.
This is something that Indigenous farming populations have long known, as evidenced by the Three Sisters growing method. “This Indigenous agricultural practice exemplifies the positive outcome of reciprocal relationships promoted by diversity,” Montgomery writes in her book.
You see, when you place corn, beans, and squash together to grow, they all share resources with each other: The tall corn provides space for the bean vines to climb, the beans impart the soil with essential nutrients, and the stout squash keeps the ground cool and moist. Every plant has something to bring to the exchange, and together they form a complete, harmonious system.
The Tree Sisters remind us that when a diverse group meets in community, the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts: an essential lesson now and always.
When we take time to really learn about the natural world around us, we find it to be a source of profound wisdom. And plants are only the start of it. As Montgomery says, “All of us are sitting with some knowledge that has lessons for us about how to be better humans on the planet.”
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