In praise of plants, and the three-billion-year-old trap

When the light shone on the greenness, the greenness welcomed it, and comprehended it, and put it to use.” [Oliver Morton, Eating the sun]

The sunlight’s energy bounced from one molecule to the next like a frog across lily pads before reaching the subtle trap at the pool’s centre, the three-bilion-year-old trap where the light becomes the stuff of the earth.[Oliver Morton, Eating the Sun]

We need to talk about Kevin plants. I discovered this yesterday after having a revealing (and humorous) conversation with my lovely niece (5 years old; K) and nephew (3 years old; L), which went like this:

L: What are you doing today?

Me: Working.

L: What’s your work?

Me: Looking at plants.

K: Why don’t you do real work?

Me: …but this is real work. Plants are great.

K: But plants can’t do anything!

So I want to put the record straight! Plants are, in fact, the most fascinating creatures to study, and for any number of reasons: Plants power the planet, they have shaped Earth’s history and climate, they eat the sun, they produce most of the food we and other animals eat, they form the backdrop to the most beautiful views…the list is endless.

I am fortunate enough to be able to study plants for a living; one of the most rewarding career/life choices that I have made! Richard Feynman once wrote about the pleasure of findings things out…and I am constantly inspired by finding out new things about plants and how they function. I have been helped in this pursuit by many wonderful books, which I highly recommend. My top five books are: Eating the Sun (Oliver Morton), The Emerald Planet (David Beerling), The Secret Life of Trees (Colin Tudge), In Praise of Plants (Francis Halle), and The Wollemi Pine (James Woodford).

As a quick aside, the story of the Wollemi pine (not an actual pine, of course) is one worth recounting. Wollemia nobilis (which is closely related to the Auracaria‘s, or Monkey Puzzle trees!) is called a “living fossil” because it was first described from fossils, similar to the Coelocanth and the Dawn redwood. Living specimens of the plant were only discovered in 1994 (!) in a refugial valley in Australia’s blue mountains. Notice how similar the branches of the living plant are to the fossil specimens in the photo below, taken from The Wollemi Pine. Although the exact location of the natural populations is a well-kept secret, many plants have been grown in botanic gardens around the world since it was discovered. While I was in Australia I was lucky enough to see Wollemi Pines in the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney in 2016 (see below) and in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hobart.

So why are plants often under-appreciated? My theory, which is my own, is that us humans are biased towards focusing on things that stimulate or trigger our senses. We are hard-wired to pay attention to and appreciate movement and new noises, which is why birds and animals appeal to us. There is possibly an adaptive (or survival) element to this: animals and birds that grab our attention can be hunted and eaten. At the same time, we have also evolved to ignore less mobile and more common organisms or items because it would require too much energy to constantly focus on everything. The colour green is a good example: it is ubiquitous and constant during daylight hours. The three-billion-year-old chlorophyll trap works relentlessly while the sun shines to generate carbon-based products, and we would be hard pressed to acknowledge this incredible (microscopic) dance all the time.

The good news is that this under-appreciation can be over-turned. There are many ways in which the exciting world of plants can be brought to life. We can use our innate senses: Red excites us (because this is the color of ripe fruit…which is consistent with the survival aspect of interest that I mentioned in the previous paragraph), as do new smells from flowers. We can also observe plants in motion: seedlings growing towards the light, or the venus fly trap clamping down on a hapless fly. But more than that, we can learn new and exciting aspects about how plants work. Did you know, for example, that plants can have heart attacks?

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