Economic, Social, and Religious Significance of Plants

The world’s economy rests on a foundation of plants. Depending on the productivity of plants, agriculture is the largest sector of the economy in many parts of the world. Humans use all parts of a plant as food: roots, tubers, leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds. Trees supply lumber and paper. Fiber crops yield textiles. Ornamentals are prized for their beauty. The tulip once commanded outrageous prices. Some plants—cinchona is an example—supply medicine, whereas others alter one’s consciousness. In the developed world, humans drive cars, heat and cool buildings, and generate electricity by burning coal, oil, and natural gas, the remains of plants from the Carboniferous Period. In the developing world, people cook and heat their homes by burning firewood. In ancient Mexico, corn kernels were currency. There is scarcely an economic activity that does not involve plants. Even the typing of this manuscript would be impossible but for the electricity generated by a coal- or natural-gas-fired power plant.

Plants are a status symbol. A well-manicured lawn announces the presence of a devoted home owner. Not only must it be well kept, the lawn must be a monoculture of turf grass. Weeds, especially dandelions, reveal the home owner to be careless and lazy.

Because they yield abundantly, many plants have been thought to be aphrodisiacs and have been associated with fertility rites. In the United States, well- wishers shower a bride and groom with rice to ensure that they will have many children. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Inana nurtured a sacred tree. The Garden of Eden had an abundance of plants, among them the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Jewish tradition holds that the Tree of Life conferred immortality on the first humans, but in eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they became mortal and lost paradise. The author of Psalm 104 credited God with planting cedars on Earth. The Hebrews and Egyptians regarded the date palm as a symbol of longevity given its ability to survive arid conditions. According to legend, the prophet Mohammed built a mosque in Medina from date wood. The Koran mentions the date palm more than 20 times. The Christmas tree commemorated a pagan festival before Christianity co-opted it. The Egyptian sun god Ra traveled across the sky in a boat of cedar. Osiris was the Egyptian god of vegetation. The goddesses Demeter of Greece and Ceres of Rome ensured the bounty of the harvest. The Aztecs worshipped Pitao Cozobi, the corn god.

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