All is Leaf
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe is probably best known for his imaginative take on an old myth in which a despondent scholar sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a moment of transcendent knowledge. But what does Faust have to do with ferns, or botany in general? Well, it turns out that Goethe was actually quite the botanist himself and even wrote a short book called The Metamorphosis of Plants. Goethe had a singular idea, which I’ve used as the title of this blog: namely, that “all is leaf.” In his book, he sought to find a unifying feature that all plants shared throughout their development and in so doing came to the conclusion that all plant structures were merely a variation on a theme (the leaf). “…in the organ of the plant which we are accustomed to call the leaf lies the true Proteus who can hide or reveal himself in all vegetal forms. From first to last, the plant is nothing but leaf, which is so inseparable from the future germ that one cannot think of one without the other.” While this theory doesn’t quite hold up in most circumstances and might be somewhat borne from the mysticism prevalent in the Romantic Era, Goethe’s idea was actually far ahead of his time. Many of the features we commonly associate with plants are in fact modified leaves. The biggest example would, of course, be flowers. The success of the Angiosperms is due, in part, to their ability to take a structure they already had available and co-opt it as a unique reproductive structure. If you’ve ever pricked your finger on the spine of a cactus, you’ve been cut by nothing more than a highly reduced leaf. Plants that eat insects do so by entombing their hapless victims in variously structured leaves.
But I also mean the title to be something of a double entendre. In a post-industrialization era in which our carbon emissions are threatening to destabilize our entire global climate, rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate, and genetically modified organisms are facing fierce resistance from consumers, it is important, now more than ever, to look back at the plants which we’ve co-evolved with for millions of years. We completely depend on plants for our existence, and unless we understand and preserve them, we may end up doing ourselves in.
I’m a pteridologist at heart, but there are tons of cool and unusual evolutionary and natural history plant stories out there. I hope to use this blog as a platform to discover some of them and share them with anyone else who might be interested. Stay tuned for what I find…