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Misguided assumptions about plants
Although growing popular interest in both the environment and conservation is apparent, our general knowledge and recognition of plants and their interaction with both human society and the planet and our appreciation that plants are more than 'inanimate' objects is extremely limited if not non-existent. This can lead to some surprising, and sometimes unwise, assumptions of which most of us are guilty at one time or another.
We tend not to appreciate that the familiar height, colour or shape of the plant may be different elsewhere and/or in other contexts. Something growing in one habitat can change appearance and qualities when subjected to a different climate, habitat, cultivation techniques, selection for novel characteristics in gardens, etc. A simple example is the small potted rubber plant (Ficus elastica) familiar in so many Western offices and homes. In its natural surroundings in Indomalaysia it is a huge tree (which can reach way over, although this is not specified in its Biography, over 100 ft./30m. in height).
Yet another common fallacy is the amazing contention (if you think it through) that, compared with a processed/synthetic version, a plant that is fresh or has grown naturally must be good for you – and by extension, harmless. Our seemingly casual approach to alternative medicines and hedgerow plants needs, perhaps, a little caution, as warnings included in some of the Biographies would indicate.
A final example of unquerying acceptance, even arrogance, which stands in stark contrast to the previous fallacy, is a view held in some quarters that synthetic medicines can always duplicate and/or improve upon those derived from natural plants. Quinine is a sad example here. When a synthetic form of quinine was first produced successfully, and appeared to copy most of the natural product’s properties, concern about the husbandry in the wild and in cultivation of cinchona trees (Cinchona officinalis, from which natural quinine is/was obtained) dwindled dramatically. But a drug obtained from natural sources is not always easily copied in the laboratory and malaria has displayed determined resistance to many subsequent synthetic alternatives – with the result that there are now insufficient trees to meet any renewed demand for the natural ingredient were this to be desirable. [It should be mentioned that reports at the beginning of the 21st Century indicate yet another laboratory ‘breakthrough’ – and a new and successful synthetic version for treating some forms of malaria may have been found at last.] Of course synthetic preparations are not confined to the medical world. The flavouring vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) offers a similar significant example for the food industry – although in this case the ‘blood bank’ of both wild and cultivated vanilla plants has, fortunately, remained undecimated. A good synthetic copy has proved to be elusive, even now.
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