In this lesson, we will explore the importance of plants in our world. We will also learn many ways humans use them both commercially and in daily life.

What Are Plants?

A plant is a living organism that absorbs water and nutrients through its roots and creates energy from light through photosynthesis. Plants are generally green in color and include trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses, ferns, and mosses. Plants are distinctly different from the other three types of living organisms: animals, fungi, and bacteria.

Humans are entirely dependent on plants, both directly and indirectly. Plants provide food, clothing, shelter, fuel, and many other things necessary for life. Plants are an important part of every food chain. Even things that don’t appear to be related to plants, like meat and dairy products, would not be possible without the grass and grain that are fed to the livestock. Let’s review each of the ways humans use plants in more detail.

Plants as a Food Source

One of the most obvious ways humans rely on plants, is for food. Humans can only survive about three weeks without food, and a good portion of the food chain is comprised of plants. Plants are grown commercially the world over, and the most produced crops are sugar cane, corn, wheat, rice, and potatoes.

To put it into perspective, 1.7 million metric tons of sugar cane are produced each year. Grain crops are also heavily produced because they not only feed humans, but livestock as well. Cattle, for example, are largely fed corn, barley, and oats. It takes between 6 and 20 pounds of corn, and around 1800 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Without these particular plants and many others, animal life on Earth, including humans, simply wouldn’t be able to survive.

Plants as Clothing ; Shelter

Although it’s more controversial these days, animals have always been commonly used to create clothing. This includes all natural materials like wool, fur, leather, and silk. Historically, humans would never have survived in colder parts of the world if they hadn’t had the ability to make clothing using animals. However, modern technology allows us the option to create fibers made from plants instead, like cotton and hemp. Natural plant fibers give us a lot more options, to create different types of fabric, and their versatility is endless.

Between 4,000 and 11,000 years ago, humans became the first animals on Earth to use trees and other plants to build shelters. Not only was wood common for building shelters, but many other building materials came from plants as well. Climbing palms, known as rattan, were used to produce shelters in more tropical areas of the world. Cork, which comes from the Cork oak, was used for flooring material. Without having to worry about being exposed to the elements, insects, or the prying eyes of enemy groups, humans were able to focus on making progress in many other areas. The use of plants in shelter building continues to this day. People all over the world incorporate different plant materials into their home designs for both aesthetic and functional purposes.

Plants: Medicine, Luxury Goods, ; Fuel

Many of the ways we use plants fulfill our basic needs. However, even the production of modern luxuries, which many of us may take for granted, are reliant on plants. From shampoo and conditioner, to deodorant, perfume, and lotion, you can be sure plants play a role. Not to be overlooked, medicines are also often created from plants. All kinds of amazing drugs, and cures for diseases, have been found in plants from the rainforest, and there are many more still to discover.

Most modern humans own and operate a vehicle on a daily basis and most of these vehicles need fuel to run. Fossil fuels are formed over long periods of time from decomposing plants. When organisms, like plants and animals, die, they decay on the ground, forming layers over the years. When those layers of dead plants and animals become compressed, buried deep underground under high temperatures and pressure, they gradually form fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas. Coal is formed from dead plant material. Oil and gas are formed from dead marine organisms that feed on, you guessed it, plants. These fuel sources power not only our cars, but through power plants, also allow us to generate electricity. Without that electricity, practically everything we do in our daily lives, everything involving electronics, would not be possible.

We have discussed the many functional uses of plants in our world. Let us not forget one other very important aspect of plants, however, and that is their beauty. A walk through a botanic garden, a look at your grandparent’s flower bed, or a picnic in a flower filled meadow proves that plants provide far more to humans than just practical benefits. They make the world a more beautiful, and a more enjoyable, place to live.

Lesson Summary

A plant is a living organism that absorbs water and nutrients through its roots and creates energy from light through photosynthesis. We humans are incredibly reliant on plants when it comes to just about every facet of our lives. Very little of our progress here on Earth would have been possible without them. Despite their many practical uses, such as shelter and clothing, we rely on the very existence of plants to provide us with the oxygen we need to breathe. From a beautiful summer garden, to food on our plates, to the electricity flowing through our homes, we are completely dependent on plants.