Field of Science

Naked, miserable, and hungry

A student has asked the Phytophactor's academic alter ego, “Why should I study botany?” To answer a question with a question, “What is it that makes you think plants are uninteresting and unimportant?” Let us take the most obvious point first. Without plants, specifically flowering plants, you would be naked, miserable, and hungry. The vast majority of our material needs are supplied by plants (pause for a sip of coffee), so isn’t it a good idea that people in general, and biology students in particular, should know something about plants?
Plants are not just a static background, a green scenery upon which animal players perform. Plants do all the things animals do except they do not bite or defecate (Some plants can sting.). They sense without sensory organs, they move without muscles, they react without nerves, and with a few rare exceptions, not a single animal anywhere can live without plants providing either directly or indirectly some of the solar energy they have captured and locked into chemical bonds to provide for their own growth and reproduction. Look at that sugar bowl on the table; those crystals are a molecular form of sunlight made by sugar cane (or a beet); no wonder a little candy can light up your day. Fortunately plants err on the conservative side, capturing more light energy than they actually need, so the rest of the biosphere can survive on their excess. Knowing how they do all these things is a very worthwhile endeavor, and something that will change your perspective; it will help cure your plant blindness.
Unfortunately as animals many of us have a strong bias against plants, or a strong preference for things more like ourselves. Actually our society is so removed from its "roots" that knowledge and interest in plants has diminished in recent decades, and some glimmers from interest in sustainability and sources of food give some hope. Biology in the USA reflects this bias and the human-biomedicine tail wags the biological dog (Browse through "science" blogs and look for a botanical one; good luck.). A very few people overcome this bias transforming themselves into botanists, a higher calling, and those few thousand of us spend our lives and careers in the worthwhile pursuit of these fascinating organisms. Curiously, more than any other group of plants, flowering plants have employed animals to do their bidding, bribing, and sometimes fooling animals into dispersing their spores. But they can’t get humans to get more interested in botany, and strangely enough this includes many gardeners who want to grow plants and look at plants, but not learn too much about them. And for this reason the Phytophactor dons his cape and dispenses botany in carefully controlled doses in the guise of gardening. But surely you knew this.

So heed this call to action. Go to your local institution of higher learning and demand more classes, more opportunities, and more facilities to study plants. Adopt a botanist. Why just $10,000 a year would keep my local field research clicking along, and most of the money would be used to hire deserving students who have an interest in plants.

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