On Botany

what we can learn from plants


July 31, 2020

(4 min read)

Since first grade, whenever I was asked to name my favorite plant for whatever reason, I would infallibly go for the California Redwood. It's cool, I thought. And it's from California! Like me! Only in sixth grade was my choice of favorite plant challenged by my English teacher. She was talking about how job interviewers would ask questions like "If you could be any plant, what would it be?"

I, not knowing anything about job interviews nor the inherent nuances of one's spirit plant, called out "California Redwood!"

"Now that would be a bad answer!" she said. I shrank as she continued. That hurt! "What's special about redwoods anyway? It just shows you want to be tall."

Looking back, perhaps the reason I was attracted to the redwood was indeed its height, because I had stood below the 25% line on the doctor's clip-boarded graph practically since I was born. I'm even now still 5' 4", a few stories shorter than most of the people my age.

My enlightened teacher revealed that she would want to be a bamboo plant(wow!), because they grow fast and bend in the wind, symbolizing her ability to learn quickly and adapt to new situations. I didn't really think of this spirit plant idea again until I joined my middle school math club.

The eccentric coach, feared for his strict discipline, boasted a classroom full of peculiar posters with messages like "Achieve Zero (the gap between accomplishment and potential)" and "Be like Cactus".

Now, why would anyone want to be like a cactus?

Our coach told us that once he had gotten his wife a cactus when she was clearly expecting flowers. He had to frantically explain that a cactus represented strength and resilience, ability to survive in the toughest situations, while remaining soft on the inside, and storing up treasured water.

As a high schooler, I can easily see how this applies. High school has got to be the worst environment ever(so far). Every day, I take hits from sleep deprivation, test scores, work overload and the ever growing peer pressure and fear of failure. Coincidentally, I ended up in that math club coach's calculus class and was slapped by a C on my first quiz.

While absorbing the attacks from the desert of high school, I try to keep my water and use it sparingly. Water represents my passion and energy to learn and succeed, which is always at risk of drying out.  A wise friend of mine once said, "When you pay too much attention to those who judge you, you're really cheating the people who actually care about you." This is true. A cactus stands strong against desert winds and (usually) retains its shape, refusing to be molded by harsh outside elements.

However, my soft succulent inside comes when talking to my best friends or doing community work; I need to remember to let down my spiky shields and share my innermost feelings in order to have meaningful conversations and truly understand people. Be careful who you open up to, because the harsh truth is: 70% don't really care, 20% are actually glad you have those problems, and only 10% are actually concerned about you. We call these 10% "real friends". Learn to identify and treasure these 10%, stay clear of that 20%, and spend less time with the 70%.

What else can we learn from cacti? They don't run around like animals do, consequently almost always living longer. Stay rooted in the ground and soak in the nutrients. This could mean absorbing love from a family, knowledge from a learning environment - including your own curiosity, and support from the 10%(see previous paragraph).  With your proverbial roots on the ground, let the sun guide you as you  reach for the sky. We all have aspirations, and like the sun, they give us the energy to develop and grow. Spread your branches wide and take in what the world has to give you, while protecting what matters most.

Cacti also adjust well to the seasons, holding dear its water in the scorching sun and quickly absorbing new water when the rain falls. Just as importantly, remember to give back to the world. Be fruitful, and don't be afraid to express that flowery side too.  Everyone truly is beautiful in their own way, and each plant blesses their respective landscape. A cactus doesn't waste its time trying to be like other plants. Ever seen a cactus jealous of the rose? Ever heard of one give up? Instead, it just works each day towards its own purpose - although it is admittedly more simple without a brain. By just existing, cacti add value to those around them, providing beauty and producing oxygen. Everyone has intrinsic value, and sometimes even just being there is enough.

Enoch Luk


​Machine Learning/Data Science/ Computer Science enthusiast and project creator. SciBowl A-Teamer and SciOly captain who avidly pursues science from meteorology to chemistry to physics. Member of the US Earth Science Organization's national camp. Also a passionate volunteer and active member of the community. Interested in the great potential of fields like data and AI to do good, such as eliminating bias and misinterpretation in data collection and computer vision or combating climate change with smart systems. ​

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