Rediscovering Plant Intelligence With Dr. Lily Liu

By Allan Chan

What is your relationship with plants? Have you ever sat down and talked with a houseplant? I have always heard of the suggestion that talking with your plants would help them to grow, but I personally have never followed through on that practice. Recent studies have shown that plants have a noticeably positive effect on our mental health, and gardening has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. With such a positive reciprocal relationship, in how both plants and ourselves are supported by each other’s presence, maybe we should reconsider our relationship with them in our daily lives. 

Consider the concept of “plant blindness”, many of us subconsciously ignore the presence of plants over the presence of animals. Despite plants making up little over half (57%) of threatened species in a study conducted in the United States, only a small percentile of the funding (4%) goes towards their conservation, being instead diverted towards the conservation of threatened animals. Despite the presence of plant blindness though, it is not an inherent feature of human society. Many point toward the presence of robust relationships with plants in Indigenous societies across the world, compared to a society that often times focuses less on the presence of plants in spaces such as education and in our daily lives.

Several place names in Downriver Halkomelem refer to the presence of plants in said locations, highlighting their integral role in Indigenous societies here in Vancouver prior to colonization. Katzie, or q̓ic̓əy̓, means moss. We are learning more that the Katzie have a very intimate relationship with the Wapato, or as they call it xˇʷəq̓ʷə́l ̕s, which features prominently in their origin stories and mythology as a staple crop and important resource in trade. Vancouver’s Musqueam people, or xʷməθkʷəy̓əm in hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, has their name derived from the məθkʷəy̓ plant. Described as a saχʷəl, which translates as “grass”, research into the name has uncovered that it may be another species of yet-unidentified plant. It is said that the məθkʷəy̓ plant is now no longer found on the reservation’s grounds after log boom development in the 1960s.

Recently, I had the incredible opportunity to collaborate with and organize VACS’s Invasive Plant Walk & Dye with Kwantlen Polytechnic University Professor Dr. Lily Chunling Liu, a biologist, horticulturist, and expert in all things plant-related. Lily’s passion runs deep, even her English name is derived from the waterlily (genus Nymphaea), which she said symbolized deep-seated beauty in Chinese culture, both inside and out. Our talk opened my eyes to the magical intelligence that plants display beyond what we perceive in the every day, and she helped to show me each wonderful facet of the plants that live around us on our walk together.

Dr. Lily Liu inspecting a stand of Nootka Rose (Rosa nutkana). 

When Lily first encountered and interacted with plants, she saw them merely as objects of her research. But as time went on, she grew to appreciate and see their intrinsic value in aiding us as well as finding their deeper intelligence. Lily said that plants themselves “changed her attitudes towards nature”. Evolving her outlook towards them from passive objects of her study to active and intelligent beings. She wants to foster a closer relationship with plants to get to know them better. Plants, to Lily, help her to “grow and help me know more about the world”, they’re almost “like a role model [to her]”, helping her grow to be a better person in some ways.

In her line of work, Lily gets an up close and personal chance to study and foster a strong relationship with plants. Her work in forestry gives her the opportunity to work with them year-round. It was her research that helped her to bring her closer to the plants that have helped her to grow and be a better person. The time that she had spent helped her to gain an appreciation for their form, they are “beautiful, very efficient, [they] seem [like a] perfect organism”.

At first, Lily practiced pressing plants in order to identify them for later use. Eventually, she discovered the opportunity to make all sorts of beautiful products from those plants, bookmarks, cards, and framed artwork. She would extract essential oils from them during her research into medicinal plants and would find all sorts of ingredients that she was able to derive from the plants that she could use in all sorts of products. Lily seemed exasperated with how many things plants could be used for, “they could do everything” she said to us. 

Recalling to us scenes from her childhood, Lily’s grandma utilizing her knowledge of traditional Chinese herbal medicine. She would recall how she would mix together a mix of herbs such as ginger, the roots of green onion, pepper, and sugar to alleviate the symptoms of a cold. Foods would be eaten in certain seasons in accordance with what was best to deal with the heat or cold, green beans and watermelon were eaten to cool down during the summer heat. Strong and fundamental relationships with plants early in our culture help towards the development of recognizing the intrinsic value of plants. Chinese culture stands alongside many Indigenous cultures in forging a robust relationship with the natural world. Returning to the idea of plant blindness; at the end of the day, this is a learned behaviour, positive relationships with plants help us to bridge the divide that we more often than not develop.

Lily tells us that there is not much of a difference between eastern and western approaches towards plants, but rather a difference between ancient times and modern times. The older generations see plants as another living creature, with a very robust relationship with them. In our modern society, she says that we oftentimes see plants as materials, looking at what they can provide for us, rather than the bigger picture. Modernization has frayed, even detached, our relationship with nature. Though, Lily offers us a glimmer of hope, in that she is starting to see that we are beginning to reopen our eyes, “come back and find out our relationship with plants is really meaningful, for both human beings and our own ecosystem”. 

Hope is not yet lost, while it is true that many people do suffer from “plant blindness”, these behaviours are learned. The debate on whether plants are conscious rages on, we are predisposed to see creatures that do not resemble us as bereft of humanity. We exist in a world where the human reigns supreme, and all who do not fall into our understandings of perception are therefore unable to engage in the same notions of humanity that we fall under. Philosopher Michael Marder muses that we should “let go of our fixed association of biological, if not psychological, structures and the functions they fulfill, imagining the possibilities of seeing and thinking otherwise than with the eye and the brain”, it is then that we are able to see plant consciousness.

But why speak entirely within the scope of Western empirical knowledge and return to the Katzie of the Fraser Valley. The Katzie understood the Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) as an ancestor’s spirit, sˇxʷəlı, a person who was transformed into a tree. Whenever the Coast Salish people are to use any portion of the Red Cedar, they are taught to pray to their ancestor Xepa:y and to respect the tree as an elder. Perhaps we should consider the intrinsic humanity that plants have like the Katzie people do. It is because of the work of researchers such as Dr. Lily Liu that we are starting to rekindle and rebuild stronger relationships with plants and begin to see them as living beings. 

Dr. Lily Liu, alongside VACS Executive Director Keiko Honda and I at Musqueam Park


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