Plants are important. Really, really important. They play important roles in society and in the nature that supports our societies: plants feed us; they are a source of many pharmaceuticals; they produce oxygen and store up carbon dioxide; they can remove pollutants from city atmospheres; and they are the foundation for much of the world’s ecological functioning. In addition they inspire poets, artists, musicians, and have huge cultural significance, as well as bringing beauty and biodiversity to even the most urban of environments. Plants positively add to our quality of life, and make us happy, whether we are aware of it or not.
OK, there’s a bit of personal bias going on here: I’ve always loved studying and growing plants, they are a huge part of my life. But the basic facts of what I laid out in that opening paragraph are correct: plants matter. So I find it troubling that there seems to be a recent trend in using artificial (mainly plastic) plants indoors and in outside “gardens”. When did this happen? When did plastic plants become acceptable?
It first struck me that there had been a recent shift in how we view plastic plants back in the summer when I visited the newly refurbished main restaurant at the university’s Park Campus. The refurb was very nicely done and there’s a big display about how much of the university’s waste we are recycling, and there’s lots of greenery about the place – except that most of it is plastic.
Then in November we visited my son Patrick in Lancaster. We stayed a night in a nice hotel in the city centre, in a room that led out into a private courtyard – full of plastic plants. There was a plastic lawn, a plastic palm, even plastic ivy. Ivy! One of the easiest plants in the world to grow – why would you need to make it out of plastic?! It makes itself perfectly well which you can see if you peep over the wall at the back of the courtyard:
Then the following week I was in London at the Wellcome Trust to take part in a project review panel. The Wellcome’s building near Euston Station is wonderful, really striking on the inside, full of light and life. I was initially please to see an avenue of fig trees in large containers arrayed along the centre of the main concourse:
But when I looked closely I realised that although the trunks and branches were real, these were not living plants: the leaves are artificial, made from wire and synthetic material. So someone has gone to the trouble of growing real fig trees only to dismember them and festoon them with faux foliage. Please, no one tell Mike Shanahan!
I’m really surprised at the Wellcome Trust, an organisation I have a lot of respect for; we know that real plants have a positive effect on psychology and health, though I very much doubt that the same can be said for artificial ones. In their defence the Wellcome Trust building does have some real plants scattered about the place, but they missed a huge opportunity in not using real figs here. Even that cathedral to capitalism that is the Milton Keynes shopping centre uses real plants in most of its displays, including some lovely tree ferns:
And splendid palms:
Finally, insult was added to injury as we entered the New Year. As I mentioned in my Spiral Sunday post a couple of weeks ago, we bought a wreath as a Christmas decoration and I took it apart to compost and recycle at the start of the year. What I hadn’t noticed when we bought it was that half of the holly berries were plastic:
This was hugely ironic given our recent study of how insects boost the value of holly by pollinating the female flowers that produce the berries!
All of this is more than just snobbery on my part. Yes, you can argue that plastic plants are a bit naff and can never take the place of the “real” thing. But my main concern here is an environmental one: plastic plants require resources (usually oil-based polymers and energy) to make. And I doubt very much whether they are recycled very often. Yes, real plants also cost resources to grow (though that can be minimised depending on how they are grown). But they also provide a range of benefits and, at the end of their life, they can be composted. Not something I can do with my plastic holly berries. Not only that, but I suspect that most (all?) of the plastic plants that are sold are manufactured in the Far East. Using British- or Europe-grown real plants would cut down on the carbon-miles required and support more local horticultural industries.
Early in 2017 Andrew Lucas at Swansea University, on Twitter, described what he thought was the most depressing tweet of 2017 so far: “Transform your garden today: buy Artificial Grass from ExpressGrass. Cut to your size for easy DIY installation”.
Agreed, hugely depressing, but we can do something about it: stop buying fake plants. Perhaps we need a Campaign for Real Plants? Its theme tune could be Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees:
Her green plastic watering can
For her fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself…..
……It wears me out