Fascination of Plants Day

I found out about it essentially too 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 of tweets. Maybe I’ll be more prepared for it next year.

I love that we have a Fascination of Plants Day. Heck, I wish it was my birthday (eh, six months off….) Five years ago I would have thought, “That’s neat,” and moved on with my life, but for better or for worse I took Dr. Steven Stevenson’s plant biology course in the spring semester of 2011. He also studies fungi, so he took the liberty to include the kingdom in the plant course, assuming right that other introductory classes would not include them.

This phase of enchantment spawned a craze of early photography for documenting purposes.

A plant biology course is a lot like a traumatic experience. You see the world one way and when it’s over your interpretation of the world will never be the same. Vegetation is no longer tree, bush, grass, moss and algae. You now distinguish between leaf shapes and bark texture, enabling yourself to identify the unique lobes of the leafs of most oaks, the white bark of sycamore, and bizarre hoodie-shaped flowers of the hophorn beam. Bushes become honeysuckles and privets. Grass is usually a wide variety of wildflowers that have nothing to do with the grass family, Poaceae.

Plant taxonomy is far more intricate than what many of us grow up loving, the vertebrate animals. Just about everyone knows when they see a gray squirrel, a Pacific salmon or an eastern cardinal. But can we just as easily recognize a Chinquapin oak,  Carolina horsenettle or a fungus like the cedar apple rust? Unless you’re a farm kid, a naturalist or from another region of the world you probably don’t.

I know after I started learning about plants anyone around me had to be prepared to learn too because I was prepared to recite! My favorite lecture is explaining how the majority of the “vegetables” we eat are actually fruit—this makes the “is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit” dilemma of my childhood redundant, as it and bell peppers, squash, legumes, corn and even grains are technically reproductive structures and thus fruit. Silly us, getting so worked up over a berry like the tomato!

Botany, entomology, geology…so much of the natural world passes beneath our education standards so when we do learn them you see the world in a new light. Plants, insects and rocks are everywhere yet we hardly acknowledge them as more than a background. A comic by Unearthed Comics illustrated this.

How Scientists View Their Vacation
How Scientists View Their Vacation by Unearthed Comics

An aquatic ecologist at my university called it “being bamboozled.” Students enter biology programs intent on pre-medicine, wildlife biology, or lacking a specific intent. Maybe they’ve had this intent or lack of intent most of their lives. Then one professor or graduate student introduces them to a new facet and something clicks. They fall in love with the new facet.

At my university the wildlife courses were offered irregularly and often overlapped with their schedules, and the medical classes had far fewer seats than the number of premedical students. Thus the aquatic, plant and fungi ecologists managed to gobble up the strays. I was a stray. The pre-pharmacy student sitting in the desk in front of me was a stray. The first graduate student I conducted field work with had been a stray. Then we all became our own clique—a clique that spent hours in the forest surveying plant communities.

Forest study site
One of our study sites in West Virginia’s Fernow Experimental Forest. I spent 10 days there with a doctoral student surveying seedlings and saplings near ectomycorrhizal trees (usually oaks) to see if the mycorrhizal, or fungal, networks linked the adult trees to the young ones and helped them grow faster.

I could have selected a model plant, maybe the Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense) which I wrote my senior thesis on. Maybe I would go on about what makes this plant fascinating or use it to illustrate the general awesomeness of plant evolution. Nope, clearly that idea did not fully form in my mind when I thought about Fascination with Plants Day.

Fascination with plants for me has less to do with admiring the beauty and biology of plants but more with how they enlighten you with the greater complexity of nature, fascinating you to always learn and expand your perceptions.


One thought on “Fascination of Plants Day

  1. Pingback: Future of Botany and Herbaria | Chestnut Leaf Media

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