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The Importance of Seed Plants in Human Life

The Importance of Seed Plants in Human Life

Seed plants are the foundation of human diets across the world (see the figure below). Many societies eat almost exclusively vegetarian fare and depend solely on seed plants for their nutritional needs. A few crops (rice, wheat, and potatoes) dominate the agricultural landscape. Many crops were developed during the agricultural revolution, when human societies made the transition from nomadic hunter–gatherers to horticulture and agriculture. Cereals, rich in carbohydrates, provide the staple of many human diets. Beans and nuts supply proteins. Fats are derived from crushed seeds, as is the case for peanut and rapeseed (canola) oils, or fruits such as olives. Animal husbandry also consumes large amounts of crops.

Staple crops are not the only food derived from seed plants. Fruits and vegetables provide nutrients, vitamins, and fiber. Sugar, to sweeten dishes, is produced from the monocot sugarcane and the eudicot sugar beet. Drinks are made from infusions of tea leaves, chamomile flowers, crushed coffee beans, or powdered cocoa beans. Spices come from many different plant parts: saffron and cloves are stamens and buds, black pepper and vanilla are seeds, the bark of a bush in the Laurales family supplies cinnamon, and the herbs that flavor many dishes come from dried leaves and fruit, such as the pungent red chili pepper. The volatile oils of flowers and bark provide the scent of perfumes. Additionally, no discussion of seed plant contribution to human diet would be complete without the mention of alcohol. Fermentation of plant-derived sugars and starches is used to produce alcoholic beverages in all societies. In some cases, the beverages are derived from the fermentation of sugars from fruit, as with wines and, in other cases, from the fermentation of carbohydrates derived from seeds, as with beers.

Seed plants have many other uses, including providing wood as a source of timber for construction, fuel, and material to build furniture. Most paper is derived from the pulp of coniferous trees. Fibers of seed plants such as cotton, flax, and hemp are woven into cloth. Textile dyes, such as indigo, were mostly of plant origin until the advent of synthetic chemical dyes.

Lastly, it is more difficult to quantify the benefits of ornamental seed plants. These grace private and public spaces, adding beauty and serenity to human lives and inspiring painters and poets alike.

 Photo A shows small, almond-shaped cacao seeds and the oval cacao fruit. Illustration B shows the teardrop-shaped leaves and small pink flowers of a cinchona tree. Photo C shows a violin. Photo D shows a bouquet of purple and yellow tulips.

Humans rely on plants for a variety of reasons. (a) Cacao beans were introduced in Europe from the New World, where they were used by Mesoamerican civilizations. Combined with sugar, another plant product, chocolate is a popular food. (b) Flowers like the tulip are cultivated for their beauty. (c) Quinine, extracted from cinchona trees, is used to treat malaria, to reduce fever, and to alleviate pain. (d) This violin is made of wood. (credit a: modification of work by “Everjean”/Flickr; credit b: modification of work by Rosendahl; credit c: modification of work by Franz Eugen Köhler)

The medicinal properties of plants have been known to human societies since ancient times. There are references to the use of plants’ curative properties in Egyptian, Babylonian, and Chinese writings from 5,000 years ago. Many modern synthetic therapeutic drugs are derived or synthesized de novo from plant secondary metabolites. It is important to note that the same plant extract can be a therapeutic remedy at low concentrations, become an addictive drug at higher doses, and can potentially kill at high concentrations. The table below presents a few drugs, their plants of origin, and their medicinal applications.

Plant Origin of Medicinal Compounds and Medical Applications
PlantCompoundApplication
Deadly nightshade(Atropa belladonna )AtropineDilate eye pupils for eye exams
Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)DigitalisHeart disease, stimulates heart beat
Yam (Dioscorea spp.)SteroidsSteroid hormones: contraceptive pill and cortisone
Ephedra (Ephedra spp.)EphedrineDecongestant and bronchiole dilator
Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia)TaxolCancer chemotherapy; inhibits mitosis
Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)OpioidsAnalgesic (reduces pain without loss of consciousness) and narcotic (reduces pain with drowsiness and loss of consciousness) in higher doses
Quinine tree (Cinchona spp.)QuinineAntipyretic (lowers body temperature) and antimalarial
Willow (Salix spp.)Salicylic acid (aspirin)Analgesic and antipyretic

Career Connection: Ethnobotanist

The relatively new field of ethnobotany studies the interaction between a particular culture and the plants native to the region. Seed plants have a large influence on day-to-day human life. Not only are plants the major source of food and medicine, they also influence many other aspects of society, from clothing to industry. The medicinal properties of plants were recognized early on in human cultures. From the mid-1900s, synthetic chemicals began to supplant plant-based remedies.

Pharmacognosy is the branch of pharmacology that focuses on medicines derived from natural sources. With massive globalization and industrialization, there is a concern that much human knowledge of plants and their medicinal purposes will disappear with the cultures that fostered them. This is where ethnobotanists come in. To learn about and understand the use of plants in a particular culture, an ethnobotanist must bring in knowledge of plant life and an understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures and traditions. The Amazon forest is home to an incredible diversity of vegetation and is considered an untapped resource of medicinal plants; yet, both the ecosystem and its indigenous cultures are threatened with extinction.

To become an ethnobotanist, a person must acquire a broad knowledge of plant biology, ecology and sociology. Not only are the plant specimens studied and collected, but also the stories, recipes, and traditions that are linked to them. For ethnobotanists, plants are not viewed solely as biological organisms to be studied in a laboratory, but as an integral part of human culture. The convergence of molecular biology, anthropology, and ecology make the field of ethnobotany a truly multidisciplinary science.

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