thistle and bee

We often think of Nature in adversarial terms - as a struggle for survival of the fittest - but the garden teaches us that “fitness” includes the ability to cooperate with others.

For instance, as primary carbohydrate producers it is the ecological destiny of plants to be eaten - and yet they flourish!

That is because they have entered into relationships with many other organisms to obtain help with food procurement, defence and even procreation.

In fact plants actively trade up to 80% of all the carbohydrates they produce through photosynthesis for the services of other organisms in their environment.

Everybody knows about pollinating insects such as bees and beetles, and even birds and bats, but how many of us realize that thousands of plant species have effectively contracted these animals to facilitate their entire sexual propagation!

For these services plants trade primarily nectar and pollen, substances custom manufactured to meet the specific needs of their pollinators.

The nutrient requirements of some pollinators, such as ladybugs and lacewings, are more complex. Their young ones are meat eaters, feeding exclusively on small, soft-bodied insects such as aphids.

And so the plants are content to host a few aphid colonies on their buds or leaves to create breeding grounds for their pollinators - just enough to meet the needs of the ladybugs, not enough to hurt the plants.

In the human economy we call this “outsourcing”, but for the plants and their pollinators these arrangements have life or death consequences because there are no alternatives, no “opt-out” clauses.

Without pollinators many plant species will simply die out, and without a diverse plant population providing year-round food the pollinators cannot survive.

The greater the diversity, the greater the safety margin.

Other relationships are more difficult to see because they take place below ground. Half the plant lives in the soil, which not only anchors the plant, but is also its source of nutrients and water.

Like us, plants can’t live on carbohydrates alone, but require a balanced diet - and that can be challenging, being stuck in one place!

We go much deeper into this topic in our online course, which you can discover here:

Ecological Plant Knowledge 1 - Natives Online

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