Story last updated at 6/20/2012 - 2:02 pm
After spending nearly 15 years in the Bay Area of California, which is perennially green and mild, it was a rough first winter back in Alaska. Although this experience was softened by watching the buds and shoots come up out of seemingly nowhere and experiencing the miracle of our intense Alaskan seasons. Maybe the outpouring of activity helps balance out the still dark months of winter. Watching the daily progression of the tender, spring green shoots is one of my favorite activities. Moreover, I find greenness in general to be both invigorating and calming. This experience is confirmed by the wisdom of holistic medicinal color therapy. But as a scientist I also look deeper into the color and out emerges curiosity, gratitude and questions. What make plants green? How does this greenness affect us?
Plants contain whole suites of pigments. The primary pigment, which gives them their distinctive green color, is chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is arguably the most important biomolecule in existence. In the right cellular environment, chlorophyll enables the chain of reactions that transform light energy from the sun into chemical energy, the process known as photosynthesis. Consider that about 3.5 billion years ago the atmosphere had no oxygen, and of course life as we know it requires oxygen. Around this time capable organisms began to produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. During this process the oxygen (O) molecules in water (H2O) recombine to form the molecular oxygen we breathe (O2). This type of photosynthesis requires chlorophyll. So basically: no chlorophyll means no photosynthesis and no photosynthesis means no oxygen and no oxygen means no humans.
But this giving molecule doesn't stop there. Along the lines of it being essential for our livelihood chlorophyll is directly or indirectly responsible for all of our food. Clearly if we're eating plants then we're relying on photosynthesis and thus chlorophyll. And if we're eating animal products then we're just eating plants transformed up the food chain. Going about our day we burn the energy the plant trapped from the sun. An analogy is watching a fire burn. The flames and heat are releasing back the suns energy, which was temporarily stored as chemical energy in the wood. Beyond meeting our basic caloric needs, plants also provide a host of other beneficial compounds including antioxidants, medicines and vitamins. Let's focus on one benefit of a diet rich in chlorophyll.
In her book "Prescription for Nutritional Healing" nutritionist Phyllis Balch reports chlorophyll has a cleansing and blood building effect on the blood. You may recall that blood is blue on its way back to the heart after delivering oxygen to tissues. Conversely blood is red when it's carrying oxygen away from the heart to the rest of the body. This color change is due to heme, an essential component of red blood cells.
The chemical structure of heme is nearly identical to that of chlorophyll. Blood color changes are due to heme, which is red when it contains oxygen and blue when it does not contain oxygen. The ability to bind oxygen is due to an iron atom in heme. The key difference between heme and chlorophyll is that chlorophyll contains a magnesium atom instead of iron. Just changing the type of metal from iron to magnesium changes the whole color spectrum of the molecule. Because of the otherwise nearly identical structure between chlorophyll and heme, chlorophyll is reported as a red blood cell strengthener, in addition to being a rich source of magnesium.
So there's one more good reason to hit the grocery store or garden and stock up on greens, but our beautiful wild backyard also offers rich sources of chlorophyll. Our long days and generous rainfall enable massive seasonal plant growth and in Juneau we are blessed with a wealth of edible plants. Some easily accessible ones are fern fiddleheads, dandelion greens, and fireweed leaves, and a whole host of other local edibles are also available. "Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants" is a pocket trail guide, written by Juneau local Carol Biggs, and a great reference for the wild plant foodie. Many edible greens are tastiest while tender and in their early growth stages and June is pushing it at low elevations. But consider a hike up in elevation, which is like stepping back in time as plants up there are still just getting started. It also makes for an interesting hike to transverse seasons just by going up.
Looking out my window I see cottonwood leaves gently changing from their neon spring green to a deeper summer green. Above them are the evergreens and then higher up the hillside it's still brown, farther yet are patches of snow. A hike up Perseverance will get my heart beating, red blood cells activated, and lungs full of fresh air. I'll also keep my eyes open for the soothing spectrum of greens and local flowers and edibles. Thank you chlorophyll.
Jasmina Allen currently lives in Juneau and holds degrees in Chemical Biology. She can be reached at email@example.com