By Molly Gabler Smith Postdoc at @MCZHarvard
Dr. Beronda Montgomery’s debut book Lessons from Plants is a thought-provoking read about the life lessons we can learn from the fascinating intuition of plants. Not only does the book explore interesting scientific facts about numerous plant species and their behaviors, but Montgomery also includes personal anecdotes from her own life experiences and showcases her enthusiasm for the natural world.
“Reducing plant bias and increasing plant awareness are important not only for plants, but for humans – for our physical, mental, and intellectual health.”p4 of the book
In a recent book interview she gave for the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Dr. Montgomery expressed she was motivated to write the book, “out of a frustration to have difficult conversations about [her] place as a Black woman in science, about racisms, sexism, and other isms that we encounter in the academy and in the world”. She further stated that “…Lessons from Plants really evolved into [her] unique perspective as a Black woman plant biologist”.
The main theme interwoven throughout the book, as the title suggests, is how we should take our knowledge of plant biochemistry (i.e., resiliency, risk assessment, etc.) and integrate this understanding into our daily lives. Montgomery wants the readers to be “fascinated with the complexity and intuitive nature of plants…not in the ways it confirms who we are as humans, but really for us to sit and ask what we can learn about being more plant-like”.
An example of this is presented in the book as the Three Sister system. This system, long practiced by indigenous Native American peoples, is an example of intercropping: a technique that involves planting two or more crops (e.g., corn, beans, and squash) together, which ends up dividing resources amongst the plants instead of competing for them.
In Chapter 5 of Lessons from Plants, Montgomery writes, “Corn provides vertical support for beans. The beans provide nitrogen in an accessible form that serves as fertilizer for all the crops. The squash, which is low to the ground, inhibits weed growth and maintains soil moisture for the other two partners (pg. 99)”. Montgomery argues that scientists can implement the Three Sisters approach in their daily life with research, teaching, and service, as they are often considered to compete for time and attention.
“As a professor, I often feel torn between my responsibilities to teach, mentor, conduct research…. As I began to see the overlap in these commitments and to cultivate activities that are synergistic, such as using new discoveries from my research as core materials in my lectures, I gained personal appreciation for the importance of cultivating reciprocity (pg. 107)”. By doing this, Montgomery says scientists can synergize and enrich their time and work, just as plants do, to be more productive and resilient in the academic community.
“We have much to learn from how plants care for each other. The way that nurse plants provide benefits to young plants they are “mentoring,” and the reciprocal benefits to the nurse in terms of improved growth and reproduction, show us how to prioritize collaboration over competition”.page 131
Another important lesson we can learn from plants, is that of intentional self-reflection. Montgomery stresses, “The importance of prioritized reflection time to sense conditions, stay in tune with my environment and the available resources and support, and then proceed in responding accordingly is what I’ve come to understand as a need to “process and proceed”. Such functioning is similar to plants’ environmental responsiveness (pg. 30)”. This becomes particularly important when mentoring students and other individuals. To draw from a plant example, as anyone who has cared for a houseplant that is not thriving, we as caretakers problem solve by focusing on what might be lacking in the plant’s environment (i.e., too much/too little sunlight, too much/too little water, nutrients, etc.). Rarely does a plant’s caretaker think that the plant is incapable of growth or success. However, when mentoring an individual, the mentor is most likely to take a different approach. “We are often quick to highlight presumed weakness and deficits in the individual rather than seeking to identify environmental factors that might be hindering them (pg. 125)”. By shifting our mindset as mentors, Montgomery suggests we can more effectively cultivate a “growth-focused” mentoring initiative. Montgomery has published many papers about mentoring students based on lessons from plants (see “From Deficits to Possibilities: Mentoring Lessons from Plants on Cultivating Individual Growth through Environmental Assessment and Optimization”).
Montgomery presents many other fascinating examples in the book about lessons we can learn from plants, like how plants and trees reestablished themselves in a toxic environment following the Chernobyl disasters in Ukraine and the resilience of plant growth on barren lands following the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. If you want to learn more about Dr. Beronda Montgomery and her “Lessons from Plants”, check out her website or follow her on Twitter (@BerondaM).
For more plant science:
Check out this open-access paper on how some seeds tolerate desiccation from ICB! https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/45.5.771
And how plants vs. animals solve physical problems, also from ICB. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icaa118
Connect with blogger Molly Gabler- Smith (functional morphologist and physiologist studying shark skin)
on Twitter via @MarBioMoll