Stephen Blackmore on How Plants Work

All the plants around us today are descended from simple algae that emerged more than 500 million years ago. While new plant species are still being discovered, it is thought that there are around 400,000 species in existence. From towering redwood trees and diminutive mosses to plants that have stinging hairs and poisons, the diverse range of plant life is extraordinary. Stephen Blackmore’s How Plants Work is a fascinating inquiry into, and celebration of, the complex plant kingdom.

Why is the book called How Plants Work?

Too many people overlook the fact that plants are at work all around us. The title helps convey the idea of plants as active players, not just a green background. Our species and other animals could never have evolved if photosynthesis, first in blue green algae,  later in plants, had not made the atmosphere and oceans rich in oxygen. Plants are now known to make up 80% of the living biomass of our planet, and having created the conditions for animal life they are essential for our continued survival as the base of our food chain and as providers of essential ecosystem services.

What attracted you to becoming a botanist?

As a child, I was fascinated by nature and curious about all living things. As such, I wanted to know their names and understand how they lived. At first I was most interested in animals, especially, butterflies, birds and reptiles. As I began to learn more about them I understood that each lived in a specific kind of vegetation, fed on different fruits or seeds, or laid eggs on a particular species of food plant. It dawned on me that plants were at the heart of nature and I wanted to know more about them. I have been fortunate to travel widely as a botanist, collecting plants in several continents.

My own journey led me from studying pollen grains and spores to plant conservation. Pollen fascinated me because each cell-sized grain is an entire male gametophyte plant. I wanted to understand how their enormous diversity of form, surprising since they all perform the same task of delivering the male gametes, originated during their development in the anther. I came to plant conservation through seeing some of the finest forests and grasslands disappearing before our eyes. Botanists are now in a desperate race to save plant diversity to keep the biosphere working.

But, aren’t plants all more or less the same?

Plants are deceptively simple in that they are constructed from so few, very familiar, organs: roots, stems, leaves, and flowers or cones. But within each of these organs there is great diversity of form, a consequence of plants solving such problems as how to live in widely differing environments, from a desert to rain forest. Because they are literally rooted to the spot plants have found ingenious ways to colonize new places, dispersing seeds, pollen, and spores on the wind or harnessing animals to carry them from place to place. A major theme of the book is to explore the diversity of each major organ of the plant and to understand their life cycles and reproduction as products of this diversity.

How were the authors selected?

In bringing together a team to write the book it was important to select world leading botanists, people with the experience as research leaders, and teachers to be able to share their specialist understanding of the workings of different parts of the plant. Just as medical practitioners specialize in different parts of the human body, so botanists focus on investigating specific organs or processes in plants. By engaging such talented botanists, the most authentic information emerges, in a new telling, hopefully resulting in a freshness rarely found in standard textbooks.

What do you hope the book will achieve?

The authors, in sharing their passion for plants, hope to attract people to look more closely at plants and to understand more deeply how diverse they are and how important for our future. Plants, as the source of our food, the foundation of the natural and agricultural landscapes we cherish, are a vital for the future of our species. It matters profoundly to the quality of life in the future that as many people as possible understand the value and importance of plants, as much as their great beauty and endless fascination.

 

Stephen Blackmore is a botanist and conservationist. His books include Green Universe and Plant Conservation Science and Practice. He was the 15th Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and was appointed Her Majesty’s Botanist in Scotland in 2010. He is chairman of Botanic Gardens Conservation International and the Darwin Expert Committee.