My Life Sci­en­tific

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents - James Wong is a Kew-trained botanist

He­len Pilcher chats to eth­nob­otanist James Wong about the magic of plants

What is eth­nob­otany? Eth­nob­otany looks at the ways hu­mans use plants. Plants pro­vide us with food, medicine, air and so­lu­tions to com­plex prob­lems. For ex­am­ple, there’s a way to ex­tend the life of satel­lite so­lar pan­els that’s based on the fi­bres of edel­weiss flow­ers.

Do you know all the plants?

No one knows all the plants. We think there are around 300,000 species, but new ones are be­ing found all the time. I’d like to be in The Ma­trix, where you could get a chip with all the plants on and plug it di­rectly into your brain.

Tell me some­thing sur­pris­ing… Plants can count. The Venus fly­trap has hairs that sense in­sects, but the trap only shuts if the hairs are touched twice within 10 sec­onds. It then takes a fur­ther three touches, when the in­sect is strug­gling, for di­ges­tive en­zymes to start be­ing pro­duced.

The plant is count­ing two things: time and touches.

So plants are clever?

Plants can make de­ci­sions; they have com­plex so­cial lives and can com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other.

Trees can de­tect plants that are closely re­lated. They can shunt su­gar along to feed their young, or stop grow­ing their roots in that di­rec­tion to avoid com­pe­ti­tion. If they de­tect an un­re­lated plant they re­act dif­fer­ently. I’m not de­scrib­ing plants as con­scious, but they’re mak­ing us re­think in­tel­li­gence.

Yet some peo­ple find plants bor­ing…

I’m al­ways sur­prised by this. My mates who aren’t into plants tell me that their first ex­pe­ri­ence of them was be­ing dragged round gar­den cen­tres at five years old, look­ing at trays of bed­ding plants. It’s no sur­prise then. They think about plants like shop­ping for soft fur­nish­ings!

What’s your gar­den like?

I live in a tiny flat in cen­tral London so I don’t have a gar­den, but I do grow a lot of plants in­doors. Then one day I dis­cov­ered I couldn’t fit any more in. So I con­verted my cof­fee ta­ble into a gi­ant ter­rar­ium. Now I grow plants in there.

What do you grow?

Things that are weird and won­der­ful, things I feel nos­tal­gic about. I grow a lot of trop­i­cal plants from when I was a kid in Borneo. I’m cur­rently in­ter­ested in a Malaysian be­go­nia with iri­des­cent leaves that look elec­tric blue or pink depend­ing on the an­gle of the light.

Where is your favourite place?

The moun­tain rain­forests of Latin Amer­ica. These are pock­ets of for­est, high above the reg­u­lar rain­for­est, which have an in­cred­i­bly high den­sity of flo­ral plants. There are hum­ming­birds and flow­ers with neon petals. It’s like walk­ing onto the set of Avatar.

Have you ever killed a plant?

Yes, I kill plants all the time. The most tal­ented hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ists that I know all kill plants. There’s this idea that peo­ple like me are born with green fingers, but we’re not. We’re just more per­sis­tent.

If I can’t get some­thing to grow the first time, I just keep on try­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to James, eat­ing more fruit and veg is the sin­gle best thing that you can do for your health in a di­etary con­text. Don’t bother with a faddy detox plan, though!

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