My Life Scientific
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!