In Plain Sight

Spanish lavender, blanket flower, and geranium thriving in a tiny sidewalk garden on Shotwell Street in San Francisco.


We think we know them. We’ve seen them in the woods, in gardens and along city streets and country roads our entire lives. We assume that they’re just plants, passive objects, with no intelligence or sentience. But scientists are finding just the opposite. Studies show that plants have the ability to communicate with each other through light, sound and vibration. And maybe even with us.

Camellia japonica, Japanese Camellia – Before I began this project, I didn’t even know what a camellia was: I just assumed that all big bushes with red or pink flowers were rhododendrons. But when I discovered the difference, I began to see them everywhere. On my seven-block route alone I found red, peach, pink, and white camellias, but this beauty growing in a barrel planter on the sidewalk is my favorite.

Three years ago, I began capturing images of flowers and trees with my iPhone as I walked down Shotwell Street in San Francisco to my dance class. I had been walking the same route for five years, but I’d paid little attention to the plants. With fresh eyes, I was amazed to see golden poppies nodding in the breeze, jasmine spilling over fences, freesias, tulips and irises crowding front gardens, magnolia trees covered with blossoms, and exotic succulents in planter boxes. How could I have missed these marvels of nature?

Today we’re becoming more disconnected from the natural world than ever before in the course of human history. Immersed in technology, our brains are changing, and our addiction to our devices is crowding out our interaction with nature and other people, even our own children.

Recent studies reveal that the energetic, vibrational properties of plants can improve health issues such as ADHD, depression and other mental illnesses. Research conducted at the HeartMath Institute in California shows that the electromagnetic field emitted by our bodies, which can be measured up to several feet away, connects us with all life on the planet. Considering that every plant has its own electromagnetic signature that describes every chemical it makes, it’s understandable that plants affect us physiologically with their subtle vibrations.

Passiflora caerulea, Blue Passion Flower – Native to tropical South America, tea made from this exotic-looking plant is believed to calm the mind, cool the body, tone and strengthen the heart, and sooth the spirit. I can’t speak to any of these claims from personal experience, but I can tell you that its flowers have the most intoxicating, uplifting fragrance I’ve ever encountered.

As I spent more time with my subjects, I began to tune into their energy. I developed a special relationship with a rosebush on Shotwell that was buried in a tangle of weeds and vines in a tree basin. She was horribly misshapen and appeared to be struggling to survive, but her flowers were beautiful and I often stopped to admire them and even picked one occasionally. One morning as I approached her, I asked if she had a lesson for me. I heard clearly, “Beauty is inherent in every living thing.” Startled, I wondered if I had answered my own question, but I knew that I had never used the word ‘inherent’.

All around us trees and flowers are beckoning us to see them and to accept their help. Connecting with a plant and honoring its beauty with our attention, lights up pleasure pathways in our brains and helps us regain our equilibrium. By opening our eyes and our hearts to the plants in our immediate surroundings, we open ourselves to receive their energy and their wisdom. If we are to survive our current ecological crises, it’s imperative that we shift our thinking and come to value the plant kingdom, for we only save what we love.

Rosa Hybrid Tea, ‘Claude Monet’ – Rose invites us to see through the eyes of beauty and to release beliefs and emotions that no longer serve us. In addition to its energetic properties, as a cooling nervine rose is known to comfort and calm the heart, ease depression, anxiety, irritability and grief, and may even help alleviate exhaustion and insomnia.
Loropetalum chinense, Chinese fringe flower – With its vibrant frilly flowers and burgundy-colored foliage, this evergreen shrub is prized as a garden plant but it’s also a powerful ally in herbal medicine. A member of the witch hazel family, it’s used to treat coughs, dysentery and enteritis, and the leaves can be pulverized for external application on wounds to stop bleeding.
Calendula officinalis, Pot marigold – Appreciation of calendula’s powerful healing abilities extends back to medieval Europe when the flowers were added to soups in winter to fight off colds and fever, and used as a remedy in folk medicine for wounds and glandular problems. Today the flowers are highly valued as a tea to treat sore throat, inflamed gums and skin conditions, acne, athlete’s foot and gastric ulcers, while the infused oil serves as a base for salves, ointments and creams that promote skin and wound healing and ease muscle spasms.
Euphorbia characias, Mediterranean spurge – This alien-looking plant is a member of the very large and diverse Euphorbiaceae family with approximately 7,500 species that includes everything from the common poinsettia to stem succulents. The white milky sap extracted from the stems is considered poisonous, but it’s been used in traditional medicine to treat skin cancers, tumors and warts.


Buhner, Stephen Harrod. The Secret Teachings of Plants: The Intelligence of the Heart in the Direct Perception of Nature (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2004).

Chevallier, Andrew. Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine: 550 Herbs and Remedies for Common Ailments  (DK – Penguin Random House, 2016).

Gerber, M. D., Richard. Vibrational Medicine: The #1 Handbook of Subtle-Energy Therapies (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2001).

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder  (Algonquin Books, 2008).

Mancuso, Stefano and Viola, Allessandra. Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence (Island Press, 2015). 

Montgomery, Pam. Plant Spirit Healing: A Guide to Working with Plant Consciousness (Rochester, Vermont: Bear & Company, 2008).

Turner, R. G. Jr. and Wasson, Ernie. Botanica: The Illustrated A-Z of Over 10,000 Garden Plants and How to Cultivate Them (Mynah, Random House Austalia, 1999).

Wood, Matthew. The Book of Herbal Wisdom: Using Plants as Medicine (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1997).  

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  • I am so moved and delighted by your article! You take me with you on a journey down Shotwell, and open my eyes to the extraordinary beauty that always surrounds us. You clearly commune with plants and flowers on more and higher dimensions beyond sight, to their essence and wisdom. Thank you for helping us open our eyes. And, your photographs are stunning — I can feel the flowers with them.

  • Your writing is refreshing and revitalizing — as are flowers and plants when you take the time to appreciate them, and maybe give them character, as you have! Selene’s missing part? Your writing here reminded me of the book. (I only got half-way through it, but it’s waiting to be picked up again by me whenever I find my next quiet moment!) Thanks, Charlene! Janet

    • Thank you so much, Janet! And I’m delighted to hear that you’re making your way through my novel :).

  • Such a beautiful reminder to be present in every moment and appreciate our complete sensory experience! I had no idea San Francisco offered so many hidden living treasures and this speaks to the power and tenacity of nature to do its thing even in the most inhospitable circumstances. I could feel the vibrational energy of the plants and flowers through the photography – amazing!

  • What a beautiful blend of herbal knowledge, beautiful photography, as she usually produces, plus insights into the relationships we can have with plants, all in a referenced article. I hope to see more Charlene!

  • What a thought provoking article- beautifully written and researched. The photography is breathtaking. Keep up the writing and photography. It is a gift to be treasured.

  • BEAUTIFUL photographs! So nice to be reminded to stop and take in the beauty and energy around you. Thanks Charlene!

  • Lovely piece, Charlene. It certainly will make me stop and smell the roses and pay more attention to the foliage around me as I wander. What beautiful photographs too!

  • Charlene,

    Wow… you have opened up new floral dimensions… I am stunned by how beautiful the images are, and even more taken by the lesson you convey. Really thoughtful and well-crafted piece. Keep it up.

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