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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Rethinking our Attitude to the Sensitivities of Plants

Updated: Sep 6, 2018

Momordica balsamina fruit

This is not an argument against vegetarians and vegans, but who is to say that plants don't have feelings. The popular 1970s bestseller, The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, put the case for seeing plant life in an entirely different way. Plants, it claimed, have a profound consciousness or awareness. I find this easy to accept and I admit to occasionally having a kind word to my orchids when they are considerate enough to bloom (immediately after having a long and serious discussion with the cat!)

This idea, that there is more to plants than we might think, gets support from one medieval source. When visiting the region of Antioch in the thirteenth century, the German traveller, Wilbrand of Oldenburg observed a strange wild plant called Iesupubeledemis “Balsam of Jesus” which displayed a remarkable high-strung character:

On Good Friday people sow its pips, which grow up among the springing vegetation and at first produce white flowers, which afterwards change colour to green, then red, and finally yellow. These are then transformed into apples; and if anyone is disparaging about the beauty of them, saying that they [have seen] finer, the apple in question becomes angry, swells up and bursts apart into tiny pieces in indignation.

Now, is that not a fruit with attitude? And in case his readers might think that he is being naïve in repeating such an outlandish tale he continues:

And this is remarkable, seeing that the apple is non-rational; but we testify to what we have seen, and our testimony is true.

What Wilbrand is describing appears to be Momordica balsamina, a tendril-bearing annual vine, indigenous to tropical Africa and Asia, Arabia, India and Australia. I recall seeing it growing on the fences of orchards in the coastal plain outside the town of Rehovot (where sadly the orange trees have since been replaced by apartment buildings). It produces round, lumpy, orange fruits which, when encountered, one should perhaps quickly commend for their great beauty. For indeed when ripe they quite suddenly burst open, revealing a rather nasty looking sticky interior of scarlet coloured seeds.

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