Botany Q & A: All Chris Martine is Saying … Is Give Plants a Chance

Whenever my four-year-old comes across a picture of a baby animal—any animal, even a beady-eyed, tongue-flicking rat snake breaking out of its shell—she responds with an Awwwww. She even wanted to make a home for the slug we encountered on the sidewalk the other day, proclaiming, “It’s so cute.” Like many kids, she’s obsessed with animals. Christopher Martine doesn’t mind people of any age fawning over fauna, but he thinks it’s time that his own field, botany, gets a little love, as well. That’s what has led the Bucknell University biology professor to create the video series, Plants are Cool, Too!

“One of the missions here is to sort of spread the word that the plant kingdom is a really important driver of all the processes that life on Earth depends on, but not do that in a way that’s sort of stale and people roll their eyes and say yeah yeah yeah,” Martine says. Instead, he’s using what he calls a “guerilla botany” approach to “draw people in with the coolest stories about plants [and] also to highlight the person or people doing the botanical research.”

In the second and most recent episode, which has been posted on YouTube, Martine travels to the fossil beds of Clarkia, Idaho, to look at 15 million-year-old leaves preserved between layers of rock. Then he interviews a group of University of Idaho scientists who have been studying the leaves and working to prove that it’s possible to extract DNA from them. (He also eats a baked potato, which hopefully wasn’t quite so old.)

“That’s kind of a controversial idea that the DNA from those specimens can actually be accessed and sequenced,” notes Martine. “Not every scientist actually believes it’s even possible to extract DNA that old. This would really set back the clock for how far back we’ve gone with DNA technology.”

Martine talked to me recently about his hopes for the video project:

Tell me about your competition. Why do animals get all the press?

With most kids you talk to that have an interest in nature or biology, their starting point is animals, and it’s because they’re like us. Particularly mammals. We connect with animals because we already have a baseline of understanding how they work or we have already assigned human-like characteristics to them. And we find certain animals cute. I think it’s almost unfair [laughing]. What I’m proposing is that with all the great stuff about animals that people are already interested in watching, there’s got to be room for at least one dynamic, visual series on plants.

Plants from the garden used to be a huge part of the pharmacopeia. Do you think people had a greater appreciation for them when they were a more obvious component of healing?

I do think that generations ago our connections with plants would have been greater, largely because we were dependent on growing and harvesting them for survival. We would be growing our own food crops and growing or collecting our own medicinal plants. Today many kids just believe crops and medicines come from the store.

What would you put on your list of top interesting plants?

If I had my druthers, we’d be going to some pretty remote places [to film]. There’s this thing called rafflesia, and we’d have to go to the southeastern Asia to get to that. It’s just a big giant stinky [tire-sized] flower that lives as a parasite and most of the time there are no above-ground parts. But in the flowering season it erupts from the soil and puts up the largest flower on earth.

Then there’s a plant in Sumatra called the voodoo lily, or corpse flower, that’s the largest sort of flowering structure on earth. It has a big thick stem with lots of flowers on it. The cool part is it has this big hood on top of it and the whole thing reeks of rotting meat. It’s this whole intricate complex of attracting pollinators, mainly flies trying to find a place to lay their eggs.

I want to do those, but I also want to find stories that haven’t been told before. Something like these 15 million year old leaves [featured in episode 2]. Only a small community even knew it existed. I’ll be relying on [colleagues] in the field to tell me what they’re doing, and why it’s interesting.

What comes next?

The second episode just went live [September 19]. This morning we were at 1,700 views [now 2,800]. It’s important for me to note that it’s not just about the story or my ideas being on camera. [My co-producers] Paul Frederick and Tim Kramer are just as much responsible for the style and feel of the video and how it gets done. It’s been a small project run by the three of us so far, and to hear people say it could run on TV tomorrow feels great.

We have the budget to do the next one and I’m leaning towards a mangrove forest in the Florida Keys. Our short-term goal is to make at least one more short video as proof of concept and use it as way to try to attract larger funding resources. We’ve had conversations with a couple different PBS stations that like the idea but don’t have the money to produce it.

Animal reproduction has inspired all kinds of popular treatments. There was the book and show, Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. And Isabella Rossellini directed the Green Porno series, dramatizing how bedbugs and other insects seduce each other. Is there anything sexy about plants?

If you look at the history of organismal science, there is a point where Linnaeus begins to give public lectures on the sexual reproduction of flowering plants. It was kind of a scandal when he said that what’s really happening in these flowers you give to the woman you’re courting is sexual reproduction. It comes down to the sharing of gametes. That’s what flowers are: ways to attract other organisms to help you achieve sexual reproduction. A lot of botanical science builds from that point. It counts as sex. It’s egg cells and sperm cells. It’s just a way of getting it done that’s different from what we do.

Tell me more about your own research.

I do the evolution and ecology of plant reproduction as one of my main areas of focus and a lot of that in recent years has been focused on these wild, unusual eggplants of northern Australia that have these somewhat novel ways of achieving reproduction. Not only do they exhibit separate genders like a holly tree or a holly bush that have separate male and separate female plants. But they do that in a way that’s different from about anything else. They produce two different kinds of pollen. The male plants make pollen that’s functional and works in reproduction, and plants that are called functional females produce dummy pollen. It’s made by the flowers, but it doesn’t work. That relates to their need to be pollinated [by bees]. I wrote a paper about these plants titled “Gender-bending Aubergines.” These females are faking it. They look like they’re capable of male sexual function, but they aren’t doing it. It’s a really unusual system.

So who’s responsible for the catchy opening song in your videos?

I recorded it with Steve Langdon, a really good botanist in the Adirondacks. I wrote that song while driving around in the car. I wanted it to be a silly, fun thing that makes the point that “plants are cool, too.” The first person I sang it to was my daughter (then 9) in the backseat. There was dead silence. She said, “I don’t know, Dad. It’s kind of dumb. It’s really silly.” I thought, I’m going with it. That’s what I want.

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