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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What’s so fascinating about plants?

On 18 May, plant lovers around the world take part in “Fascination of Plants Day” to raise awareness of the importance of plant science to our lives. Well, what is so fascinating about plants? We asked some of our authors and editors to share why they think plants are fascinating and why they are worth studying.

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‘Fascination is the right noun to summarize my thoughts about plants: from enjoying entire ecosystems in the wild, to the beauty and flavours of the individuals, to understanding their growth, reproduction, cell biology and genomes. Of course, plants are the source, direct or indirect, of all the food we eat, and plants fixed the carbon for 88% of all the energy we use in biomass and fossil fuels. I enjoy the range of challenges, requiring continuously changing approaches, to study plants in the lab, and the opportunity to choose the crops and wild species we work with in the field, as well as the number of collaborations with people from throughout the world. It is very satisfying when your work can have both intellectual and applied outcomes in the ways that crops can be improved as crops and plants safeguarded in the environment.’

—Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Plant Cell Biology and Molecular Cytogenetics at the University of Leicester and Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.

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‘For me, it is in their endless ability to come up with new solutions to all the problems of life while rooted to the spot. This is most apparent when you think about flowers and reproduction. Plants have to meet a mate and exchange gametes without themselves moving – so they recruit animals to do the work for them. And the endless forms of flowers are a series of responses to the challenge of attracting the interest of enough animals of the right kind. You can see this clearly when you look at the different colours, textures, shapes, sizes, scents and patterns that have evolved to advertise flowers to different animal pollinators. A particularly fascinating example that we are working on is the South African daisy Gorteria diffua, which has hit on the great idea of attracting male flies to pollinate it by pretending it already has female flies sitting on its petals – the development of these fly-mimicking spots is a really exciting problem that we’re trying to solve in the lab.’

—Beverley Glover is Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden and author of Understanding Flowers and Flowering.

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‘As a child, I was mesmerized by the fantastic colors and shapes of flowers.  Poets and artists of all stripes have found endless inspiration in them as well. Who needs a psychedelic drug if you have flowers? My childhood fascination with columbines, morning glories, and poppies later evolved into a question: why are there so many different kinds of flowers?  Charles Darwin, known best for his theory of evolution, asked the same question.  He demonstrated over and over again that the varied colors, shapes, and smells of flowers are finely-tuned adaptations for conning the birds and the bees (not to mention the moths and the bats) into transporting their pollen.  Delving deeper into the lives of plants, one finds great variation in their less flamboyant parts as well, all of which has meaning.  The long, straight fibers of papyrus stems, the nicotine that permeates the tobacco leaf, the lightness of balsa wood (and the heaviness of mahogany), and the rapid regrowth of grass after mowing can all be explained as adaptations that enhanced the survival of their ancestors. Every tiny feature of a plant has a story, and the great excitement of being a botanist is in uncovering those stories.’

—Frederick B. Essig is Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of South Florida, author of Plant Life: A Brief History.

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‘While it can be hard to see the forest for the trees, trees and the forests they create are fascinating and important for a host of reasons. Tree stems contain lignin, which provides strength to the wood. Lignin allows tree trunks to withstand the enormous tensions required to pull water from soils up to the leaves, which are often tens of meters in the air so they can reach the light needed to fix CO2 (and simultaneously shade out nearby, shorter trees). But the strength of wood also makes it a perfect building material for humans: global exports of forestry-based products were worth $246 billion U.S. dollars in 2013. And while from a tree’s perspective, stems transport water to enable tiny stomatal pores on the leaf surface to open, letting CO2 in at the inevitable cost of water loss from the cells inside the leaf, the cycling of water through forest systems helps provide clean drinking water (and reduces water treatment costs!) for human users downstream. So, while studying how trees function is fascinating in its own right, it’s also in our own selfish interest to promote research in tree physiology.’

—Danielle Way is Assistant Professor of Biology at Western University, Canada, editor of Tree Physiology, and author of a number of articles includinTree phenology responses to warming: spring forward, fall back?

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‘Plants sustain all life on this planet: they give us oxygen, food, water, shelter, and endless sources of beauty and delight in an extraordinary diversity ranging from tiny wolffia to 300 feet-high redwood trees. Wander in a forest in spring time breathing in the scent of a thousand bluebells, listening to the wind in the tree-tops, feeling the softness of moss underfoot, and catching glimpses of all the wildlife that live there, and you start to understand and appreciate the true fascination of plants, the backdrop to the world that we take for granted, but without which life as we know it would be impossible.’

—Lucy Nash is Assistant Commissioning Editor for Biology and is inspired by such iconic bluebell woods (and books about woods) as Wytham Woods.

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Why do you think plants are fascinating? Let us know using the comments below.

Image Credit: “Photo of a field of oilseed rape canola by rotofrank.” Used with permission.

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  1. […] late. It was late in the evening of May 18th and I saw an Annals of Botany Facebook post from the Oxford University Press blog about Fascinating of Plants Day. Apparently many others knew about it, as #FoPD yielded a plethora […]

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