Plants Make the Planet Go Round

Trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants seed, feed, and fuel life on earth.

Our favorite star, affectionately referred to as the Sun, generates energy via an amazing reaction called nuclear fusion. This process of hydrogen being converted to helium results in the release of a tremendous amount of energy. Some of this energy makes the 500-second journey across 93 million miles to Earth. Trees and other plants then soak up that energy in their green surfaces and turn it into usable forms that seed, feed, and fuel the planet. Nearly all terrestrial life – including us – relies on this green production for survival.

Within leaves, blades of grass, needles, and the like, there are remarkable cells that mix the energy from the Sun with a dash of water and a bit of carbon dioxide (CO2). These plant cells strip the carbon from the CO2 to make delicious glucose and oxygen – the latter of which we and most other animals on this planet breathe deeply and freely. This life-giving process is called photosynthesis.

Once the green plant cell makes its tasty glucose, it sends it off to be used within other parts of the plant. Some is used to fuel the green factory cells that then make more glucose. Some is used for reproduction and defense. And even more glucose isused to build the structure of the plant; perhaps a tree trunk, twigs, or new leaves. When glucose is used to build a structure, carbon is locked up in a stable form, or sequestered, as CO2. This means the CO2 is no longer free to float around in the atmosphere.

Much of the glucose (up to 80% for some plants) is sent down to the root system and discharged into the soil as root exudates. Bacteria and fungi within the soil eat these exudates. They also consume dead plant matter like leaves, stems, twigs, seeds, or entire plants that fall to the ground. The bacteria and fungi are eaten by nematodes and protozoa, who are then eaten by arthropods and earthworms. All of these creatures and activities form a food web within the soil. In fact, soil is its own HUGE ecosystem. How huge? 95% of all life on land lives in the soil and participates in this food web. In just one teaspoon of healthy soil, there are more living organisms – like the ones described above – than there are humans in the world! Some estimates suggest that at least one-quarter of all species live in the soil. Let that sink in. And we are discovering new soil organisms all the time. In January 2015, scientists announced that the first new antibiotic in 30 years had been found in soil bacteria.

Soil is truly one of our most precious natural resources. Without it, life on Earth would look very different.

Not only do plants feed life in the soil, but they also feed life above ground. Their leaves, twigs, bark, and other parts provide nutrients that make their way through the food web all the way to top predators. Plants also feed humans; most of our food either comes directly from plants or from something that consumes plants. From the spinach in our salads to the corn that feeds cows, plants can be found in almost every part of our diet.

When it comes to terrestrial life both above and below ground, plants form the building block of nearly every food web on the planet.

Plants have been fueling human innovation since we learned how to farm. Cultivating plants became a leverage point by which we were able to settle into cities, grow our populations, and drive science and technology. Plants created the healthy topsoil in which food grows AND generated the food we needed to survive. They have also been fueling, well, fuel. Fire, coal, and oil are all derived from plants. Most of our coal comes from the Carboniferous Period when vast quantities of lush plant life died and formed thick layers in the earth that we now mine and pump from the ground. These are fossil fuels. As of 2020 over 80% of our global population uses fossil fuels for power. Our electricity, cars, cities, and businesses are all driven by the remains of plants.

Let’s keep going! Wood comes from plants and is used to make our homes and buildings. Concrete is another common material for construction. It requires a tremendous amount of energy to produce and thus relies on fossil fuels. Plant materials are used to make furniture, paper, tools, sports gear, and ships. Plants are even an ingredient in ice cream, nail polish, parmesan cheese, and Doritos (who knew?). And let’s not forget medicine: 40% of all medicine behind the pharmacist’s counter in the US is derived directly from plants. If we broaden the description just a bit, to include synthetic drugs that were only possible after discovering a natural compound, e.g., some synthetic painkillers came about from minor chemical modifications to morphine, then we find that of the top 150 prescription drugs sold in the US, at least 118 are based on natural sources. The examples are fascinating. Did you know that half of all approved drugs for treating cancer come from a plant? Or that morphine is made from a natural substance in poppies?

There’s more. Most of our fabrics and textiles either come from plants directly or are the result of plants indirectly, e.g., grass feeds sheep who grow wool. We use these for all our clothing, bags, baskets, furniture, carpet, and towels. Textiles are part of our everyday existence as humans. Art and calligraphy are based on plant products. Even plastic is derived from petroleum, which comes from plants. The list goes on and includes soaps, shampoos, perfumes, cosmetics, paint, varnish, turpentine, rubber, latex, lubricants, and linoleum.

You may be coming to the following realization: if all of this is true, then plants must be at the core of human wealth and the economy. After all, much of our wealth comes from the production and consumption of the goods listed above. Stop reading for just a minute and look at all the objects within your eyesight. Think about how each is made and where it comes from. Most originate from ecosystems that are either directly or indirectly fueled by the energy produced by plants. So yes, you are right, much of our wealth and our very economies rely on plants.

There you have it. Plants form this remarkable technology that absorbs energy from the Sun and converts it into food that supports nearly all terrestrial life.

For humans, it does not stop there. Medicine, fun, art, countless goods, commerce, innovations, energy to drive our economies, and even our wealth. Remarkable. Who and what are we without trees and plants?

One last related thought to consider: there are many species of plants we have not yet discovered. It is estimated that there are over 8 million species of insects, plants, and animals on this planet. Yet we have only identified and described 1.5 million of them. What if there are plants waiting to be found that will provide our next generation of antibiotics? A new tree that offers better, stronger forms of chemotherapy? A super crop that thrives in poor soil conditions with little water? None of these ideas are crazy. After all, penicillin is a fungus, Taxol (chemotherapy drug) comes from a tree, and corn was once a wild plant.

All the more reason to preserve and protect the plants we have. We might not yet know about all the incredible gifts they have to offer!

Start your next project with us!

Get a free quote for tree and shrub care, compost tea, planting, pruning, Piedmont Prairies, Pocket Forests, and more!

Like this article? Pass it on.

Related Articles

How I Learned to Love My Trees
Point of View: Behind the Scenes at Leaf & Limb
Planting a Piedmont Prairie Helped Change the Way I See the World
Measure What Matters - We are B Corp Certified!
How to Perform Structural Pruning
Video | How to Perform Structural Pruning
Video | How to Perform the 3-Cut Pruning Method
How to Properly Prune Using the 3-Cut Method and The Reduction Cut
April 2024 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Learn How to Save Time and Help Heal Earth in Our New Book
Setting the Stage—A Conversation About Why Change is Necessary
Tree Root Structure
January 2024 Treecologist Tribune
Point of View: 2023 Year in Review at Leaf & Limb
November 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Bats are the Best (and, Unfortunately, They're Endangered)
October 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | The Story of A Seed
September 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Meadows, Thickets, and Pocket Forests: Going Beyond the Traditional Landscaping Model
Strength in Numbers: The Basics of a Pocket Forest
Wondering How to Get Rid of Crape Myrtle Bark Scale?
August 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | From Seeds to Serenity: The Piedmont Prairie Process
10 Native Flowers and Grasses to Plant in a Central North Carolina Piedmont Prairie
July 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Tree Roots Don't Break Pipes
Do Roots Cause Damage? Debunking 3 Common Myths About Tree Roots
Stop Blaming Tree Roots: 5 Ways to Proactively Prevent Property Damage
June 2023 Treecologist Tribune
10 Native Shrubs to Plant in Central North Carolina
Video | How to Manage Invasive Plants
Managing Invasive Plants
May 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Video | Earth Day is Every Day
Plants Make the Planet Go Round
Spring Scavenger Hunt
March Treecologist Tribune
We Are Safe At All Times: Our Approach to Tree-Climbing Safety
Video | Climbing with Archie: How to Climb a Tree Like an Arborist
Video | Day in the Life
February Treecologist Tribune
Why I Recommend Herbicide for Some Ecological Restoration Projects
Point of View: Behind the Scenes at Leaf & Limb
Video | How Hand Pruning Your Shrubs is Faster, Cheaper, and Healthier than using a Hedge Trimmer!
Checklist: Tools and Supplies for Hand Pruning Your Shrubs
Still Using Hedge Trimmers? Hand Pruning is Better for Your Shrubs
January 2023 Treecologist Tribune
Sapling Stories: Bald Cypress
October 2022 Treecologist Tribune
Friend or Foe? Snakes (Yes, Even Copperheads) Are Important to Our Ecosystem.
Project Pando Needs Your Help! How to Collect Native Tree Seeds
Project Pando: Community Seed Collection
Video | Piedmont Prairies: An Alternative to Grass and Lawns Where Beauty and Life Thrive!
August 2022 Treecologist Tribune
Planting a Piedmont Prairie Helped Change the Way I See the World
Piedmont Prairies: The Process & What to Expect
Video | How to Structurally Prune a Tree for Strength
[Case Study] Before and After: Structural Pruning on an Oak Tree
Video | How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree
Video | Bigger is Not Always Better! Planting Small Can Lead to Big Benefits.
Bigger is Not Better! 3 Reasons Why You Should Plant Trees When They are Smaller
Video | How Invasives Harm Our Local Ecosystem (And the ONE Thing You Can Do to Help)
How Invasive Trees and Shrubs Harm Our Local Ecosystem and One Way You Can Reverse That Damage
10 Invasive Plants to Watch Out for in Central North Carolina
Spring Scavenger Hunt
Fascinators and Flagella: How to Host a Tea Party for Soil Microbes
Compost Tea Makes Soil Healthy and Trees Happy
Video | Tea for Your Trees
Video | Mulch Volcanoes: Deceptively Deadly
Are Mulch Volcanoes Threatening The Trees in Your Neighborhood?
Sapling Stories: Beryl's Beauties
Video | Sheep, Seeds, and Swales: An Update from Project Pando
6 Reasons Why Planting A Native Tree Benefits the Environment and Our Local Ecosystem
Video | Drop That Rake: Save Time and Money by Leaving Your Leaves
Project Pando: Native Seed Drive 2021
Video | How to Plant a Tree: The Definitive Guide to Proper Planting
10 Simple Steps to a Perfectly Planted Tree or Shrub
Video | 3 Ways City Life Stresses Trees (And What You Can Do to Help)
Why is Tree Care Important? Outside of the Forest, Trees Face Unique Challenges.
Emerald Ash Borers are Killing Trees. A Simple Treatment Can Stop Them.
Business Conservationist of the Year
Video | Did you Know? The Secret to Fertilizing your Trees and Shrubs Without Using Chemicals.
Chemical Fertilizers: 3 Surprising Myths and Why You Should Choose Organic Matter Instead
4 Options for Fertilizing Trees and Shrubs the Cheap, Easy, and Healthy Way
Video | 4 Fundamentals of Tree Care
Not Sure How to Care for your Trees? 4 Simple Steps to Happy, Healthy Trees
[Parody] Video | Introducing Timber: the Only Dating App for Trees
Video | Introducing Archie the Arborist: 5 Amazing Tree Facts
We Show That We Care: The History of Project Pando
How to Spot a Pine Borer Infestation
Video | How to Plant a Tree: 5 Questions to Ask Before You Pick Up a Shovel
Drop that shovel! 5 Questions to Ask Before Planting
10 Native Trees to Plant in Central North Carolina
Holiday Gift Guide for That Special Tree in Your Life
Measure What Matters - We are B Corp Certified!
Video | Wood Chips: The Secret Ingredient to Healthy Trees
Top 10 Reasons to Choose Wood Chips Over Other Types of Mulch
Healthy Eating Plate for Trees
Video | Welcome to Project Pando
Video | Structure is Strength - How to Make your Trees More Safe Using Pruning.
Are Your Trees Safe? Prune to Make Them Stronger.
How to Select a Safe Branch for a Tree Swing
Your Dirt is Hungry
Video | Soil is Alive
Recipe: Savory Soil Casserole
How Trees Can Heal Earth & What We Can Do to Help
Earth Day Bingo
Video | How Trees Can Save the Earth
Spring Tree Care Checklist
Spring Scavenger Hunt
Don't Make a Deadly Mistake: Top 10 Questions to Consider Before Pruning
Video | Planning to Prune? Use this simple framework and avoid deadly mistakes.
Video | Rooted by Our Purpose: A New Direction at Leaf & Limb
Why Dead Wood is Good Wood
Video | Want More Birds in your Backyard? Plant These Native Trees.
Best Native Trees for Butterflies
Fall & Winter Tree Care Checklist
Video | Fall Tree Care Checklist: Leave your Leaves, Plant New Trees, and Other Important Tasks
Top 10 Most Surprising Benefits of Trees
How I Learned to Love My Trees
Video | Trees are Critical to Our Future
Think Your Tree is Dead? Look a Little Closer
How to Spot a Dead or Dying Tree
Video | How to Spot the Warning Signs: Dead, Dying or Hazardous Trees
Right Tree, Right Place: What to Plant and Where to Plant it
Video | How To: Choosing the Right Tree for Any Location
Our Favorite Tree Recommendations for Tricky Areas
Using Fertilizer? Think Twice Before You Do.
The #1 Reason Most Soil Tests Don't Work
Friend or Foe: When to Take Action Against Pests
The Insect Apocalypse is Here. How Can You Help?
16 Fascinating Facts About Fungi
Mycorrhizal Fungi: The Unsung Heroes of Tree Care
Case Study: Watch How Soil Improvement Turned this Tree from Sickly to Stately
From Dead Dirt to Healthy Soil in 7 Simple Steps
6 Pruning Mistakes to Avoid
How to Install and Enjoy Your Rain Gauge
Help Save the Monarch Butterflies!
4 Fascinating Facts About Mistletoe
Proper Care for Newly Planted Trees
8 Ways to Accidentally Kill Your Tree When Planting
Drop that Rake! Why Leaving the Leaves is Vital to Your Trees' Health
Save Time This Fall: Leave Your Leaves
Video | How To: The Fundamentals Of Watering
Video | The Fundamentals of Mulch: Proper Care, Installation, and Selection
Too Many Choices: Which Mulch or Weed Barrier Should I Choose?
When Good Mulch Goes Bad
How To: The Fundamentals of Mulch Installation
Five Ways to Spot a Thirsty Tree or Shrub
Soaker Hoses, Irrigation Systems, and Treegators, Oh My!
Drought Resistant Trees
How To: The Fundamentals of Watering
The Joy of Planting Native Trees in Durham, North Carolina
Brightening Up Neighborhoods Across Durham
Changing lives one seed at a time in Durham
Soil Decompaction - An Essential for Good Tree Health
Emerald Ash Borer is in NC!
Cabling & Bracing - Options for Making Your Tree Safer
Tree Care for Crape Myrtles
How to Prevent Tree Damage
Help! My Tree Has a Disease!
Dragon’s Blood Tree
Deep Root Fertilization: Myths & The Truth
The Dangerous Truth About Ghost Insurance Policies
Happy Trees Begin With Proper Planting
Trees & Shrubs Need Check-Ups Too!
How To Protect Your Trees from a Lightning Strike
Mulching: A Cheap, Easy Way to Increase the Health of Your Trees!
Crape Myrtles: A Tale of Love, Murder, and Proper Pruning
The World's Oldest Trees
Help! Insects are Attacking my Trees & Shrubs!
Tree Care: Save Money and Increase Your Property Value
Root Collar Excavation is Critical to Your Tree's Survival!
Tree Risk Assessment: The Key to Safer Trees & Peace of Mind!
10 Tips on How to Choose the Right Tree Service and Avoid Scams
Happy Trees Grow From Healthy Soil
TCIA Accreditation: Empowering You With Confidence
What is Tree Care?
Mulch Volcanoes: the Mt. St. Helens of Tree Problems
Trees Need a Thriving Soil Food Web
Call Leaf & Limb Send an Intercom Message