Plants provide animals [and it is acknowledged that the following listing is somewhat human-biased] with many things: e.g. medicines; building materials; oxygen; useful chemicals (e.g. dyes such as madder, essential oils for aromatherapy, and the natural pesticide pyrethrin); fuel to heat our homes or move our motor cars; fibres (e.g. cotton and jute); ‘recreational’ drugs (e.g. cannabis and mescaline); reasons to be cheerful – other than drugs!; inspiration for great works of art (e.g. van Gogh’s ‘sunflowers’); model organisms to help us understand biology (e.g. Arabidopsis, maize, and Brachypodium distachyon); ‘living architecture’ (e.g tree bridges in India); memorable literary characters (e.g. JRR Tolkien’s ents, and John Wyndham’s triffids); etc., etc.
But, arguably, one of – if not the – most important of these gifts is food. Indeed, since food is a source of calories (energy), nutrients, and chemical building blocks, it’s plant-derived food* that fuels the great majority of the planet’s ecosystems, thereby enabling the tremendous biodiversity of life on Earth to exist. Plant food effectively ‘makes the world go round’.** So important is an appreciation of how animals get their food, that there’s a bewildering array of terms describing these feeding behaviours by modes of ingestion and digestion, and food type. And there’s been a lot of interest in plant food and diet in the scientific literature of late, which we attempt to serve before you as a multi-course meal. We therefore invite you to feast your eyes on the bountiful, botanical banquetting quartet of nutrition-based items that follow…
* And that’s true even for meat-eating animals – such as humans who munch on steak, or tigers that nibble on a gnu or ingest impalas; if you dig deeply enough you’ll find plant-eating animals at the base of that feeding chain. It’s also true for those decomposer organisms that consume detritus (i.e. the detritivores…) because plant material provides the biggest contribution to that food–source.
** And giving the lie to Fred Ebb’s lyric “money makes the world go around” in Kander and Ebb’s song “Money, Money” – made famous by duetting-duo Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the multi-Oscar-winning 1972 movie “Cabaret”. But, I suspect that Mr Ebb wasn’t an ecologist, or he’d’ve known better, and gone with the more ecosystem-oriented lyrical flow… [Ed. – but, one doubts that such a song would have been as iconic…]
*** Musically-minded readers will recognise those three words as lyrics in the much-more-item-apt song of the same name by Lionel Bart from the 1968 Dickensian musical extravaganza that is/was Oliver!.
**** This is the first in a 5-item series of ‘plants as food’ articles. The next article can be found here.