“What have plants ever done for us?”


No spoiler alert needed – this was how Timothy Walker started his recent lecture for the Surrey PH group – just in case anyone dozed off and missed the talk.  Timothy is Director of the Oxford Botanic Garden and I decided early on that his students are very fortunate to have such a passionate and entertaining lecturer.

In a biblically short period of time Timothy took us from the Big Bang to the first emergence of flowering plants 125 million years ago and the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago:  millet and rice in China; maize, peppers and chillis in Central America; potatoes in the Andes and sorghum in Africa.  Then the crops on which the wealth of nations has been based: cotton, sugar cane and rubber.

After this ideas and concepts came thick and fast.  The following is a taster of what was covered.

Oils from rape, linseed, evening primrose, lavender and palm.
Fibres from Eucalyptus and building houses from hemp
Drugs from barley (lignocaine), foxgloves (digoxin), snowdrops (galantamine) yew (taxol)Fuels from sugar cane (there is not enough land or water for this to be sustainable).  Miscanthus for use in a power station

Plants for the future
Lupins as a food source
Golden rice rich in vitamin A to reduce blindness in children
Work being done by the Bill Gates foundation on modifying rice so that it uses the C4 photosynthetic pathway rather than the C3 pathway thereby reducing the amount of water needed.

Inevitably this led to a question from the audience on the GM debate and where to find an unbiased evaluation.

Conservation – 28% of plant species are threatened with extinction by 2058.  However, all over the world botanists are working on conservation.  The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity assigned tasks to particular countries and organisations, followed by the Gran Canaria Declaration.  Tens of organisations including Plant Heritage and 181 countries are party to these conservation efforts.
How does poverty fit into the picture?  Involve the locals in schemes which are mutually beneficial.
Managed wild – even our iconic bluebell woods need to have the bracken and scrub removed to keep them looking ‘natural’.
Organic farming vs non-organic – some birds benefit from the lower levels of disturbance on non-organic farm land.

A closing concept was (with apologies to JFK)
‘Ask not what plants have done for us, but what we have done for plants’.

If you ever get the chance to hear Timothy talk, don’t hesitate to go.  Or look out for repeats of the BBC4 series he produced in 2011 Botany – A Blooming History.  Fascinating stuff.
And everyone was still wide awake at the end of the evening.