Botany: the roots of civilisation

Prof Kathy Willis of Kew Gardens
Prof Kathy Willis of Kew Gardens. (Photo: BBC. Click to enlarge)

Plants underpin all life, yet botany fails to capture our imagination. Tom Chivers hopes a BBC radio series will change that view

A billion years ago, a primitive single-celled organism ended up inside another, slightly less primitive organism, and something strange happened: it didn’t die. Now, a billion years later, the descendants of that hybrid creature are all around you – in a terracotta pot on your desk, underneath your feet as you walk across your lawn, towering hundreds of feet above your head in the Sequoia National Park in California.

Those descendants are, of course, plants. And their history is thrilling and surprising, just as the history of all life is. But for some reason, botany – the study of plants – lacks the glamour of its animal counterpart; or so says Prof Kathy Willis, the director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It’s the “Cinderella science”, she says: the boring sister of exciting zoology. She hopes to turn that reputation around with a new 25-part series on BBC Radio 4, Plants: From Roots to Riches, talking about the history of plants, and of botany itself.

“Plants aren’t cute, or most of them aren’t,” says Willis. “They can’t move, they’re not immediate like animals. But they underpin all of human life.” That we eat plants is obvious; but we also run our cars on them, fire our power stations with them. Almost all life runs on energy that was first captured from sunlight by a plant. We make drugs from them, we build houses from them. Yet for some reason we are not, it seems, so interested in the science of them.

The study of plants is ancient. Theophrastus of Eressus, the “Father of Botany” and a student of Aristotle, wrote a treatise on plants in the fourth century BC. In AD 78, Pliny the Elder wrote in his magnum opus, Naturalis Historia, of the uses of various plants – papyrus, olives, grapes; attar of roses as a base for perfumes; opium as a painkiller. Willis talks about Pedanius Dioscorides, a Roman physician and the author of a five-volume encyclopedia of herbal medicines, De Materia Medica, which was used by doctors for 1,500 years.

Modern botany began, though, in the 18th century, when Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish naturalist, introduced the modern system of classification that we still use today. As the Enlightenment took hold, the study of plants for the simple sake of knowledge took off, with the foundation of major centres such as Kew and the botanic gardens of Oxford and Cambridge and elsewhere.

Willis may be right that, to outsiders, botanists lack the glamour of the other biologists. But they don’t see it like that themselves.

“It’s the thrill of the chase,” says Dr Mark Hill, a specialist in mosses and a former head of the Biological Records Centre, when I ask him what the appeal of botany is. “Identifying something new. And there’s a childlike element to it: Max Walters, the former director of the University Botanic Garden in Cambridge, once said that all botanists once collected stamps.” When you’re a child, there is an excitement in collecting the complete set; for botanists, the feeling never leaves you.

Not that botany is merely checking things off a list – Prof Willis bristles somewhat when I tell her the physicist Ernest Rutherford’s quote, that “all science is either physics or stamp collecting”. “If that’s the choice, then I’d say we’re physics,” she laughs.

Dr Hill agrees: “There are different kinds of botanist – those who, like the twitchers in birdwatching, just care about spotting and identifying them; and those, such as me, who like finding out what’s there, and what the processes are.”

But this love of discovery doesn’t seem to be translated in school lessons, says Willis. “My children, at age nine, get to draw a cross-section of a flower. At age 12, they get to draw a cross-section of a flower. At age 15, if they’re lucky, they get to do it again.”

And yet there clearly is great passion for plants: Kew itself welcomes more than 1.3 million visitors a year. “The crowds are five deep around the orchids, just because the plants are so beautiful,” she says. If they understood more about the plants themselves, and the history of research into them, they would presumably flock in even greater numbers.

Orchids at Kew Gardens.
Orchids at Kew Gardens. Click to enlarge. (Photo: PA)

The pure research, the discovering new plants and working out how they work, is what drives individual botanists: but the driving force of the field is usually economic, and has been for centuries. “The story of botany, and the story of Kew, is the story of the British Empire,” says Willis. In the service of the Empire, Kew became a great economic clearing-house; vast industries were built on the back of plants that its researchers brought home.

In 1875, as demand for rubber grew in Britain and elsewhere, the rubber plant, Hevea brasiliensis, was smuggled to Kew by an explorer called Henry Wickham: he took 70,000 seeds from their native Brazil.

“There were rumours he was fired at as he made his escape,” says Willis, although Wickham appears to have been something of a fantasist in such matters. But it was the skills of Kew’s botanists that turned these seeds into a global industry. Previous attempts to cultivate rubber outside South America had failed, but a few of Wickham’s seeds were persuaded to germinate, and a few of the plants survived the journey to the colonies in Ceylon and Singapore, and within a few years millions of pounds in revenue were pouring into the Empire’s coffers. Similar stories can be told about coffee, about quinine; Britain’s glory days as a trading empire were based on botany.

Britain’s glory days as a trading empire were based on plants such as rubber. (Photo: BBC. Click to enlarge)

And the importance of botany to our modern economy – and to our survival as a civilisation and as a species – has only grown. Plants’ role as a sink for carbon, sucking carbon out of the air and into their bodies, is keeping the climate from changing any faster than it already is, says Willis. Even the mosses that Hill studies, humble though they seem, are powerful indicators of pollution: which of the 1,000 or so British species is growing in any given area provides clues to the acidity of the rain, and as the climate warms, they will provide a record of that. And, of course, plants are the basis of all the food we eat.

Keeping the world fed is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, and the plant sciences are at the heart of efforts to do it. An earlier generation of plant scientists created the dwarf crops that sparked the “green revolution” that is credited with saving a billion lives in India in the Sixties and Seventies; as the population continues to grow, they are going to have to do it again. However, says Willis, it will not be traditional breeding, but modern genetic engineering that will be the key. “The future relies on engineered plants,” she says. She points to photosynthesis. Most plants use sunlight to build little chains of three carbon molecules; a few build little chains of four, in what is called C4 photosynthesis.

It sounds like a small difference, but the latter plants use much less water, and so can live in far drier areas. Rice is one of the three-carbon plants; if scientists can engineer rice to use the C4 process, it will become possible to feed millions in land that is currently too dry for agriculture.

It may not be glamorous, it may not be sexy. But botany can change worlds and save lives. If Willis’s radio show can bring her Cinderella science to the ball, it will be thoroughly deserved.

‘Plants: From Roots to Riches’ begins on Radio 4 on Monday July 21, 1.45pm, and continues at the same time each weekday

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