Fascination of Plants

For the last 3 years, Fascination of Plants Day has been observed to take note of plants in our world and to really become aware of these organisms that are right in front of us and yet go unnoticed so often. Plants are ubiquitous to the point that they’re a medium we exist in. Even in the most urban environments, plants exist if only in the form of food, clothing, paper, buildings and air— far away plant life affects us too.

Plants are fascinating in and of themselves, however, let me also state that if you are a human or nearly any other Earth dwelling creature, you have a self-interest in plants. If they disappeared tomorrow (even if a critical subset disappeared), we’d be in a huge amount of trouble. And it’s not just our crop plants. Even ancient plants hold interest for us; they’re what make up most of the fossil fuels we consume to drive our economy.

How many plants do you se e in this picture?
How many plants do you se e in this picture?

Agriculture and its continued improvements over time enabled diversification of economies since more of us can focus our efforts not on merely feeding the population, but on helping humans thrive. It is a bit of an irony that we find our selves in 2015 running up against the natural world as we seek to continue improving the human condition for everyone. As I noted previously, 7 billion is a big number of people that is projected to go up. And we may be able to feed that many and more well enough, but can we do it while reducing carbon emissions and integrating our systems better with nature? This is the science, social, technological, and political problem of our times. And plants are central to it.

This week, I’m going to highlight some stories about plants and plant scientists that I’ve run across over the last few years. Some are funny, some are simply amazing stories of plant science, but all highlight why the ~300,000 some known species of plants on Earth are fascinating and worth a at least a moment’s consideration by anyone.

There is a plant out there that will pique your interest. I guarantee it. I likely can’t cover them all here, but I’ll do my best.

These links are intended to pique your interest in the plant world, so none are links to primary plant science literature. And of course, my list is not mean to be comprehensive, there’s a lot more out there to find about why plants are fascinating!

Audio:

One of my favorite podcasts, “Good Job, Brain” (your offbeat trivia podcast), has done multiple episodes dedicated to plants:

Good Job, Brain, ep 21 “Plants are Messed Up“. They talk about the titan arum, nightshade family plants, and kogon grass.

Good Job, Brain ep 63 “It’s A-Maize-ing“. All about maize/corn and the surprising places it shows up.

Good Job, Brain ep 94 “A Berry Good Episode“. Fruits and berries are fascinating, including the “miracle berry”.

The podcast 99% invisible ep 155 “Palm Reading” is all about the theft and trade of palm trees.

BBC Radio 4’s series “From Roots to Riches” tracks the history of Kew Gardens, but also that of plant science from The Enlightenment to the present. It really underscores how economically important plants are and shows how there’s still a lot we just don’t know about what riches remain to be uncovered from plants.

Visual/Video:

I’ve referred to this one in several posts, but it’s worth watching Pam Ronald’s TED Talk:

Percy Julian was a research chemist in the early 20th century who worked out how to derive animal hormones from soy beans, amongst many other chemicals over his long career. He was the second African American inducted into the National Academy of Sciences (National Academies membership is a big deal in the academic world). For instance, progesterone, the predominant ingredient in the birth control pill. It made production of such molecules much cheaper. It is Not Safe For Work (R-Rated too), but he was the subject of a funny segment on Drunk History. Yes, it is what it sounds like, someone gets drunk and recounts a historical figure/event that gets re-enacted by actors. It seems right since most alcohol we drink is derived from plants.

TED has a list of plant talks, many revolving around plant derived food.

Jonathan Drori on the tricks of the many flowers of the world.

Plants in Motion is a series of time lapse movies of plant behavior)from Roger Hangarter. Remember, plants move, grow, and behave. There’s a lot going on underneath the surface.

And a video running down The 10 most deadly plants in the world.

Writing:

Ed Yong in Aeon “What Ants Can Teach Us About Agriculture” on chocolate trees, plant pathogens, and why that’s a problemm (beyond a threatened chocolate supply).

Henry Nichols “The Seeds that Sowed a Revolution“. The story of how Darwin, who was very interested in plants, used observations of them to help form his ideas about ‘descent with modification’.

In Defense of Plants is a fantastic site with all sorts of stories about diverse plants. Matt has also started a podcast.

Carl Zimmer on genome sizes and junk DNA, including the fact that plants have the biggest variation in plant genome sizes of any type of organism known.

Of course you can always check out the Plant science blog library I keep here. And I have a series on my other blog of Plants in Popular Culture you can check out too where I write about Groot, Weirwoods, and more plants that are key parts of things in popular culture.

And lastly, I was interviewed by SciLogs Paige Brown-Jarreau about running and Starting The Quiet Branches for anyone interested in what running a blog is like. I’m grateful for all the readers I have and I hope to keep producing better and better content.

Happy Fascination of Plants Day! Drop me a line and tell me what you find most fascinating about plants, or about your encounters with plants, plant scientists of the present or past.

I hope you take a moment to appreciate the green world, not just today, but regularly.


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