Pursuing reciprocity with plants

Introduction: Beronda L. Montgomery, AB ’94, is a Michigan State University Foundation Professor in the departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics. She studies plants and cyanobacteria and how these organisms respond to light. In her latest book, Lessons from Plants, she taps into what plants have taught her about community and what they can teach human beings about human flourishing.

“I write about how we can support each other in terms of mentoring and leadership by showing examples of how these principles play out in plant life and plant communities,” Montgomery said in an interview with WashU’s biology department.

Lessons from Plants

Montgomery came to her realization while working on an experiment where her lab grew two identical plants under the same conditions, only one wasn’t exposed to light and struggled to grow.

“I started to ask how plant scientists, myself included, are using this knowledge to think about two students or colleagues who show up with basically equal aptitude,” she says. “Are we looking at the importance of the environment for cultivating and promoting that aptitude?”

Montgomery wants people to have the same empathy that they have for plants for people. Few people throw away a plant that is not thriving. They will change its location, water it more or less, give it fertilizer, or hand it over to a friend with a green thumb. People also try different strategies for a pet that is misbehaving or struggling to thrive.

“How do we get this relationship that we have with plants and pets to get us to think better and to do better, and think higher of individuals who are struggling in our environments?” she asked in a talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “And not first to ask does this person have a deficit, but [to ask] is there anything in the environment that can be done?”

Montgomery mentors many young researchers and students to help them flourish. She uses her Twitter platform (@BerondaM) which has more than 13,000 followers, to encourage and praise others. She also helped found #BlackBotanistsWeek, a social media celebration of black botanists and their work. And her book, Lessons from Plants, has tapped into the Zeitgeist. She has been featured in Bustle, Elle, Nature and Stylist as well as been interviewed on many podcasts including WashU’s own TapRoot and Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.

Here, Montgomery talks about how her time at WashU, where she was a John B. Ervin Scholar, helped put her on the path to where she is now.

I vividly recall taking ethnobotany as an undergraduate biology major at Washington University. From the time I read the course description, I was fascinated with the concept of learning about the intersection of plants and traditional knowledge and customs of people globally. Majoring in biology (with minors in psychology and mathematics) in pursuit of law school, I was more interested in the sociocultural aspects of the course and knowledge about people in context than the plant knowledge. Professor Emerita of Biology Memory Elvin-Lewis and the late Professor of Biology Walter Lewis captivated me from day one with their collective wealth of knowledge on practical and medicinal uses of plants intertwined with enthralling stories of their global travels.

I left the ethnobotany course with a greater knowledge of how plants have been used to benefit people and countless connections to the work I thought I would later pursue as a biological patent lawyer. It would be much later that I would come to deep inquiry beyond uses and utility of plants to ask what knowledge plants could offer to their human companions.

It was a plant physiology course that firmly turned my attention from practicing law to support commercializing knowledge that we possess about plants to an interest in simply learning more about these fascinating beings. It was later still that I expanded beyond studying plants and sharing the insights my research team and I had learned to asking what we – indeed what I – had learned from these amazing and generous beings.

“Professor Emerita of biology Memory Elvin-Lewis and the late Professor of Biology Walter Lewis captivated me from day one with their collective wealth of knowledge on practical and medicinal uses of plants intertwined with enthralling stories of their global travels.”

Beronda L. Montgomery

This learning from plants has taken many forms, one of the most recent of which took me full circle to my early sociocultural interest in plants. In the days after the death of my father in October 2019, my family received many plants, including countless peace lilies and lucky bamboo. Perhaps in the haze of mourning, I wondered why these specific plants were chosen.

I came to understand that the bamboo is traditionally used to attract happiness and well-being – both needed in abundance after loss. Peace lilies are said to symbolize innocence and rebirth – apropos reflections for the departed.

Even as I was enriched by knowing more about these plants that now surrounded me, over the weeks of coping with loss, I would learn much from them. I learned enduring lessons about asking for help and resilience from these hardy beings.

You see, I forgot to water the lilies and bamboo several times as I tried to resume life on a planet a little dimmer without my dad. Only when I noticed the drooping leaves – a persistent yet gentle message from the plants – would I recall they needed my assistance in transferring the water from the faucet they sat within arms distance of the pots in which they resided. The lilies always resiliently returned to their turgid, green glory within hours of my responding to their request.

Although I forget to water them much less often now, the lessons of seeking assistance when needed and bouncing back when helped have guided me from deep grief to treasured remembrance. Now as many of these peace lilies are abloom with beautiful white flowers I’m reflecting on the lesson of flourishing in due time.

The journey that I’ve taken from being impressed early with all the things that I can learn about plants, including the ethnobotanical reflections on the myriad plant uses by humans, to an ongoing pursuit of learning from them is a voyage that I eagerly continue traversing.

Beronda L. Montgomery, AB ’94, is a writer, science communicator and professor. She earned her PhD from University of California, Davis and is author of Lessons from Plants (Harvard University, 2021).

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