What is a Plant? Part 2

Here is the next chapter in the series of learning how to garden in today’s busy world. Today in January this week 2 of the 5 week introduction continues with plant basics to give you a foundation knowledge of your plants before we delve into getting a shovel into our gardens. Last week we explored what a plant is and this week we continue.


Leaves are the power source of the plant. Think of them as Tesla electric car with solar panels that charge it within seconds and added breathing apparatus. They absorb the sunlight through their green pigment, chlorophyll, and use the suns energy to transform carbon dioxide to starches to be used for everything from growing bigger to storing them in the roots. All while discharging oxygen for the rest of the world to use. Every breath of oxygen you inhale is thanks to those green little lungs.

Flowers & Seeds

These tend to be everyone’s favorites. Even the most urban nature avoider can help but enjoy a beautiful flower arrangement, the smell of a rose or lilac, or the taste of almonds and sunflower seeds. We all enjoy these and the plants know this. The flowers are the way the plants reproduce themselves. Male pollen is transferred to another of the same species, so that the female part of the flower is fertilized and can produce a fruit or pod containing seeds, which will eventually ripen or shed to produce a new generation of plants.

Each flower is made up of several parts. Petals act like a billboard to advertise to bee’s, butterflies and other pollinating insects that the pollen they want is right here. Sort of the McDonalds arches of the plant. The stamen is the male part that has a stem with pollen-bearing anthers at the tip. The pistil is the female part of the flower and has a stigma that traps the pollen, a tubular stem known as the style, and an ovary deep in the flower, where the seeds form and will eventually become a fruit or seed-pod.

Like all offspring seeds need to leave home. Plants tend to produce a lot of children and those little kids would compete with their parents for light, water and nutrients. So, plants have devised ingenious ways to get their offspring out into the world. Winged seeds think of Sycamore seeds (we used to blow them into the air and watch the helicopter movement of their wings) literally fly away. Seeds like puncture vine, literally stick to animals’ fur for a free ride (It takes me hours to get them out of my dog’s coat) Coconuts amazingly float in the sea for as long as year looking for a new island (sounds like a cruise we all dream of). Seeds inside of tasty fruits such as strawberries (my favorites) rely on animals or birds to eat them and “deposit” them elsewhere.

Some plants have flowers with both male and female parts, but some such as birch have male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious plants). Others like a Holly, have male and female parts on separate plants (dioecious plants). So, you will need to have male and female close to reproduce.

Now that the basic high school botany refresher course is over (sorry but it helps to have some basics in mind) some of you are saying I just want to grow really big tomatoes, or have a green grass and I don’t need to have all this added stuff. I sympathize but this little refresher will help you in this next part.

Plant behavior

Plants don’t behave in the sense my dogs do but they can be just as head shaking at times. Wild plants want to reproduce as quickly and as often as possible, which is why it seems we endlessly pull weeds, but in the garden, plants exist because we want them there, to feed us or make our home look pleasant. Gardening is about making plants conform to what we want as opposed to what they want.

Plants move!

Plants won’t fetch or run in circles like my dogs but they do move. Prayer plants (Maranta) folds it’s leaves up at night, Tickle plants (mimosa pudica) has soft ferny leaves that fold up when its touched to keep predators from munching its leaves. Many plants will open and close their flowers when the light the sun is on them as a response to light. Kids favorites (mine too) are Venus fly traps (dionaea muscipula) which will close its flower on an unsuspecting insect. Plants like strawberries or invasive weeds like climbing nightshade (solanum dulcamara) send out runners along or in the ground, but mostly its animals or the wind that plants move to a new location. When a dandelion seems to explode in the wind and it all flies away to find new homes or holly berries are eaten by birds in the winter and deposited along their migratory patterns these are the preferred ways of real estate shopping for plants.

Plants also move to the light. If you have ever seen a house plant lean to a window my Chinese money plant (pilea peperomioides) does this and so I recommend quarter turn every few days to keep them straight. But planting a climber like clematis on a north side garden to give you stunning flowers will surely disappoint you, the will wrap its self to the south and its flowers with go to face it. Your neighbor will however thank you. Roots will grow away from the light and are never happy in the sun.

Some plants are triggered to flower when the daylight shortens, chrysanthemums do this in the fall and the bracts on a poinsettia go red. Commercial growers have figured how to do this which is why Christmas cactus (schlumbergera) are bought in flower and with out some playing around by the plant parent they seem to flower again at Easter, their natural time to bloom.

Next week we will cover garden language, what it means, and why it will help your garden. Week 4 will cover what plants need and why you should know it (it will save you money and time) And finally in week 5 we will cover what you need to start or manage your garden easily.