Fascination of Plants Day

I found out about it 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. Many others knew about it, as #FoPD yielded a plethora of tweets. 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. 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 studied fungi. So he included that kingdom in the plant course, correctly assuming that other introductory classes wouldn’t.
 
This enchantment with plants 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 a tree, bush, grass, moss, and algae.
 
You now distinguish between leaf shapes and bark texture. This skill enables you to identify the leaf lobes of the oak, the white bark of a sycamore, and the hoodie-shaped flowers of the hophornbeam.
 
Bushes become honeysuckles and privets. The “grass” is 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, mammals and birds. We know when we see a gray squirrel, a Pacific salmon, or an eastern cardinal. But can we recognize a Chinquapin oak, Carolina horsenettle, or a fungus-like cedar apple rust?
 
Unless you’re a farm kid or a naturalist, you probably don’t.
After I started to learn about plants, those around me had to learn too. I love to recite! My favorite lecture is how most vegetables we eat are fruits. The “Is the tomato a vegetable or a fruit?” dilemma of my childhood is redundant. Tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, legumes, and grains are reproductive structures and thus fruit.
 
Silly us, getting so worked up over a berry-like tomato!
 
So much of the natural world fall outside of our education standards. When we learn about botany, entomology, and geology, we 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.” Some students enter biology programs intent on pre-medicine or wildlife biology. Many lack a specific intent. They’ve had this mindset 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 subject.
 
At my university, the faculty offered wildlife courses irregularly and overlapped the schedules. 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 at the desk in front of me was a stray. The first graduate student I conducted fieldwork with had been a stray. We all became 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 wrote my senior thesis on the Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense). I could elaborate on what makes this plant fascinating or use it to illustrate the awesomeness of plant evolution.
 
But that idea did not form in my mind when I thought about Fascination with Plants Day.
 
Fascination with plants has less to do with admiring the beauty and biology of plants. It has more to do with how they enlighten you with the greater complexity of nature. They encourage you to learn and expand your perceptions.
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