Bigging up botany

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Scott Bauer, USDA ARS.
Scott Bauer, USDA ARS.

It being such a rare TV event these days, I have to ensure that everybody is aware of the recent series on BBC4 (a digital channel from the UK’s British Broadcasting Corporation), Botany: A Blooming History. It was a three-parter presented by Timothy Walker, Director of the University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, and it dealt with … BOTANY! True, it was ‘hidden away’ on a non-mainstream TV channel, but such programmes do have a habit of appearing on the major BBC channels subsequently, where they could reach a bigger audience. The triplet consisted of: (1) ‘A confusion of names’, which really grabbed the bull by the horns in delving into 300 years of the mysteries of plant taxonomy and gave a long-overdue mention to Thomas Fairchild who created the world’s first artificial plant hybrid in the early 18th century; (2) ‘Photosynthesis’, which demystified the process and shows how far we’ve come from the notion that plants grew by ‘eating’ soil; and (3) ‘Hidden world’, which explored the world of plant genetics (which may yet be the world-population’s life-saving science). Not since David Attenborough’s Private Life of Plants BBC series in 1995 have we really had hard core botany on the box in the UK. To a great extent, Attenborough’s series relied on time-lapse photography to speed up plant activities so they could be appreciated better (and maybe seen as more animal-like entities?). Walker eschewed such ’gimmickry’ but presented interesting plant biology (botany) in a straightforward, not-sensationalist way and did it well. I was particularly impressed by the photosynthesis episode – what was especially strong for me were the historical dimensions of how the process was slowly understood; the Benson–Calvin story was particularly illuminating. Although Walker’s programmes are no longer available for viewing on the BBC website – and not that this column can encourage or condone such activities – you may be able to ‘source’ copies on the interweb. I for one applaud this quite brave venture by the ‘Beeb’: more please, ‘Auntie’! Let’s hope botany at the BBC may yet help stem the haemorrhage of botanists in the UK. (I’ve heard rumours that the BBC is currently planning a new major botany TV series…).


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