“And now, here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
-Antoine de St. Exupery, The Little Prince
The inspiring lives of herbalists Bose, Burbank and Carver are testimonials that plants have conscious intelligence, feelings and an ability to appreciate and respond to their environment. Dr. Carver called the plant kingdom an invisible world, one whose language everyone can learn-“if only they believe it.” We too, believing, can fathom the plant kingdom’s secrets of health and wholeness.
A BENGALI SCIENTIST
At the turn of the last century, Jagadis Chandra Bose made discoveries about the plant kingdom that were clearly ahead of their time. Perhaps it’s for this very reason that his greatness went virtually unrecognized. Through construction of the crescograph-a sensitive instrument that microscopically measured the growth of living things-he confirmed that plants have a nervous system. He also found that they express a wide range of emotions, including love, hate, excitability, shock, fear, pain and pleasure. With ultra-sensitive instruments, he was able to detect that insectivorous plants possess digestive organs similar to those of animals and that leaves respond to light, much like the functioning of the retinas of animals. Furthermore, he was able to measure in plants that had frozen to death a shuddering response similar to a death spasm experienced by animals.
It was Dr. Bose who first measured the phenomena that we call “metal fatigue,” proving that metals, as well as plants and animals,
are prone to exhaustion, overstimulation and depression. In other words, they too are conscious life forms. An article in a British publication documenting his discoveries includes an experiment on vegetables, concluding:
“Thus can science reveal the feelings of even so stolid a vegetable as the carrot.”1
In his own words, Bose asks:
“Is there any possible relation between our own life and that of the plant world? The question is not one of speculation but of actual demonstration by some method that is unimpeachable. . . . The final appeal must be made to the plant itself and no evidence should be accepted unless it bears the plant’s own signature.” 2
A CALIFORNIA BOTANIST
“The secret of improved plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge,” said Luther Burbank, “is love.” Nicknamed “the wizard of horticulture,” Mr. Burbank reveals in this statement the simplicity and humility with which he made the most astounding discoveries. An American plant breeder born in 1849, Mr. Burbank explained that he would simply talk to the plants and create for them a safe, loving space. Through this unorthodox method, he was able to “encourage” a desert cactus to drop its thorns. “You have nothing to fear,” he comforted the plant. “You don’t need your defensive thorns. I will protect you.”
By developing a deep communion with the plant kingdom, Mr. Burbank entered into their world to improve upon common flowers, fruits and vegetables and thus eliminate their undesirable characteristics. With ease, he created new varieties of plums, berries, lilies, roses, apples, peaches, quinces, nectarines, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, asparagus and numerous other plants. His name itself, Burbank, has become a verb listed in the dictionary that connotes improvement through selective breeding, as in the crossing or grafting of plants. The Burbank Gardens are preserved to this day in Santa Rosa, California.
AN ALABAMA AGRICULTURIST
The American herbalist, George Washington Carver, was born in 1864 of a slave mother. Through his utter simplicity and devout love of nature, he turned the tides of farming. He too had a nickname- “Black Leonardo.” Dr. Carver discovered three hundred new uses for the pea-nut-previously considered useful only as hog food-and one hundred and fifty uses for the sweet potato, including coffee, axle grease, printer’s ink and cosmetics. Once asked how he uncovered the immense possibilities of these two common foods, he replied, “You have to love it (them) enough. Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also-if you love them enough.” 3
In this description of a walk taken with Dr. Carver, one of his friends-who had intended to cover several miles in a few hours- wrote that they “did not get much farther than a hundred yards. At every little flower he met he had to kneel down. He examined it, caressed it, studied it, talked with it. This love of flowers of Dr. Carver has a lilt about it and a creative, living quality that comes only when love opens up to joy. People who love something to the point where love breaks forth in little fountains of ecstasy, are the ones who possess the secret of par excellence. And that is the degree with which Dr. Carver loves. . .with a love compounded of joy.” 4
THE PLANTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
An extraordinary book, The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, was published in the early 1970s. Were this text not backed by numerous documented experiments, it would read more like a fanciful fairy tale. One such story chronicles a cactus plant subject. Recorded through equipment much like what the Japanese police use for lie detection tests, the cactus produced song-like sounds with varied rhythms and tones. The sounds, amplified by electronic equipment, were reported at times as “even warm and almost jolly.” This same cactus was also taught to count to twenty and perform simple addition, also registered by its sounds.
Not only do plants sing, but they are fully capable of musical appreciation as well. Sound waves, it seems, produce a beneficial effect upon plant cells, favorably influencing their metabolic processes. One of the more fascinating experiments reported in The Secret Life tested the effects of both classical and rock music on summer squash. The “subjects” were placed in structures much like glass aquariums. Light, temperature, humidity, soil and water were all precisely controlled. One group of squash was exposed to Beethoven, Brahms and other classical masters. These squash not only grew toward the source of the music, but one even entwined itself around the radio! The squash exposed to heavily accented rock music, on the other hand, grew in the opposite direction of the music. They even climbed the glass walls in what looked like attempted escape. This group-all with improperly developed leaves-either remained stunted in its growth or grew abnormally tall.
As an aside, I can’t help being reminded of a testimonial from a woman in Dallas about her plants’ response to an early recording of my songs about the flower essences. The songs blended vocals, instrumentation and nature sounds that were apparently very pleasing to her potted friends. “My plants started blooming when I began playing the music. My African violet hadn’t bloomed since I got it a year and a half ago. It sprouted baby buds-the rose geranium too.” Who knows- perhaps the plants blossomed in celebration of their kingdom being musically honored! The point here is that all living things respond to being acknowledged, respected and treated with kindness.
THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWER ESSENCES
Throughout recorded history, plants have set the stage for the drama of life. The legendary Sioux Indian medicine man, Black Elk, declared:
“For the Great Spirit is everywhere: He hears whatever is in our minds and hearts, and it is not necessary to speak to him in a loud voice.” Likewise, Ayurveda, a six-thousand-year-old East Indian healing tradition, tells us that:
“The seers, through the yoga (union) of perception, let plants speak to them. And the plants disclosed their secrets-many of which are far more subtle than a chemical analysis could uncover. To become a true herbalist, therefore, means to become a seer. This means to be sensitive to the being of the herbs, to commune in receptive awareness with the plant-light of the universe. It is to learn to listen when the plant speaks, to speak to the plant as to another human being, and to look upon it as one’s teacher.” 5
In keeping with herbalism’s ancient traditions of communing with the plant kingdom, flower essences have evolved as a natural expression of healing-in the simplest ways, through the simplest means. “There are certain things,” said Dr. Carver, “often very little things, like the little peanut, the little piece of clay, the little flower that cause you to look within, and then it is that you see into the soul of things.” 6 Flower essences allow us to see into the soul of things-into ourselves, our world and all living beings.
In the next chapter, we will take a glimpse into the lives of two remarkable men whose ideas cross-pollinated to breed a variation on a theme. Their transcription of Mother Nature’s flowery song became Spirit-in-Nature Essences.