It can be easy to forget that a plant has a point of view.
We tend to not see them doing much, so we think that they aren’t very much like us. We are constantly busy – moving, and making noise. Plants on the other hand, just sit there. At least, it can seem so to us.
But plants have the same agenda as we do – to survive, both individually, and as a species, through the passing on of their genes through reproduction. So naturally one of their motivating forces is to protect themselves from those who want to eat them.
There is a huge array of compounds produced by plants for this purpose – including capsaicin from hot peppers, cardiac glycosides in milkweed, caffeine from the coffee plant, and urushiol in poison ivy.
Oxalates are another such compound, used to provide structure in plants, but also to keep herbivores from eating them. Have you ever felt your mouth hurt while eating a kiwi fruit? That was the oxalates. Oxalates also hurt the mouths of the insects that try to eat the plants.
What about when humans try to eat these oxalate-filled plants? Throughout our history as a species, we have developed special relationships with gut bacteria. Certain of these microbes help us break down the oxalates we ingest. It’s a good partnership – we don’t get damaged by these toxic compounds, and in exchange, the microbes get a good meal.
The problem is, if our gut microbiomes become impoverished (say through overuse of antibiotics), we may not have the right teammates there to help us any longer. With no other way for our bodies to break down these compounds, oxalates can then wreak havoc inside of our bodies.
The good news is that not all plants have high amounts of oxalates in their tissues.
Not all plants go about defending themselves in the same way, so some species invest in other types of compounds – they don’t need to invest in excess amounts of oxalates.
While plants like rhubarb and spinach are extremely high in these compounds, on the other hand, plants like lettuce and bok choy are low, making them good food choices for those of us following a low ox diet.
So, are plants trying to kill us with oxalates? It may feel that way for those of us suffering from oxalate overload.
But the plant is just trying to keep from being eaten. It’s a warning, much like the bright orange of a monarch butterfly.
Has this changed your thinking about the nature of plants? Let me know in the comments.
And to read more about this subject, you’ll find more about oxalates here: