Why plants matter

Plants fulfill basic human needs.

Though some of the ways that plants fulfill these needs are more obvious than others, it is undeniable that we rely on plants and their products every single day. Click on the images below to learn about some of the services that plants lend to us. Try to think of some of the ways that plants are impacting your life!


Everything you eat comes either directly or indirectly from plants! Some foods (like fruits and vegetables) are easy to recognize as plants. Plant material is hiding in processed foods in the form of ingredients like flour, soy protein, and corn syrup. Even meat comes indirectly from plants - animals obtain materials to live and grow from eating plants. Plants are always the first link in a food chain because they are one of the few kinds of organisms able to make their own food with help from sunlight!



Plant use in medicine has evolved from home remedies to the development of a huge number of drugs that mimic plant compounds (some familiar examples include codeine, morphine, and aspirin). Often, the compounds produced by plants to protect themselves from damage can also help protect humans from damage. The discovery and research of new and diverse plant compounds can lead to the development of medicines and cures for diseases like cancer.



Beyond the extensive use of plant material in manmade architecture, plants provide habitats for our fellow Earth inhabitants. Different animals have different needs that can be met by plants. Some animals build shelters using plant material (birds and beavers are examples) while others simply use existing plants to hide on or behind (sloths, for example, live almost exclusively in trees). Often the relationship between animals and plants is mutualistic (both receive some benefit from living together).



Plants as a source of life is a broad category that can be divided into the literal and abstract. Plants add oxygen to the atmosphere as a by product of photosynthesis, thereby allowing humans to breathe and live. Human quality of life is also improved merely by the existance of plants. The beauty found in plants is one that brings peace and happiness to people worldwide - evidenced by the number of parks, gardens, and forests protected and visited worldwide.


Some of the ways that we use plants leave them particularly vulnerable. The way that crop plants are grown, for example, is different from how plants grow in the wild. This usually makes them more susceptible to infection from pathogens (anything that causes disease, for example: bacteria and fungi). Plant research is important because we need to learn how we can give plants a chance to survive in situations that they aren't always prepared for.

One example of plant disease that you may have heard of is Chestnut blight:

Chestnut blight Chestnut blight
left: Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Development Archive, Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Development, Bugwood.org
right: USDA Forest Service - Northeastern Area Archive, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

The native range of the Chestnut tree was focused around the Appalachian mountains and dominated eastern forests in the 1800s. Beyond the economic use of the chestnuts themselves (for eating, roasting on an open fire, etc.), the wood of Chestnut trees is easy to work with and rot resistant. The fungus that destroyed trees (Endothia parasitica) was introduced to the United States around 1904. The first trees affected were in New York but in 40 years almost all Chestnut trees in the United States were destroyed.

This fungus had a huge impact on the eastern timber economy (about 50% loss of value). At the time, scientific knowledge was not advanced enough to come up with a solution to the blight. Currently, scientists are working on ways to revive the Chestnut tree. Possibilities include creating hybrids between American chestnuts and Chinese chestnuts (Chinese chestnuts are somewhat resistant to the blight) or inserting DNA (from another plant entirely) that encodes resistance to the blight into the genome of Chestnut trees. This second option is only possible because of our current knowledge of the genes important for resistance and the tool of transgenics.

Continue on to learn more about how plants naturally defend themselves.