Who’s who

The ecol­o­gist and gar­den­ing colum­nist on sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of plant bi­ol­ogy, and why Hol­ly­wood might need a trif­fid tech­ni­cal con­sul­tant


The Tele­graph colum­nist Ken Thomp­son on his fas­ci­na­tion with Dar­win and why he’s still wait­ing for a call from Hol­ly­wood

K en Thomp­son is sit­ting in his kitchen in New­ton Ab­bot in Devon, look­ing out over a sea of rooftops and green­ery, and mus­ing about trif­fids. “If they did ex­ist, they’d have to have a lot of fas­ci­nat­ing bi­ol­ogy in or­der to make them work. Plant senses and in­tel­li­gence, move­ment, and, of course, they are car­niv­o­rous too.” He thought about turn­ing the topic into a book, an ex­plainer of the sci­ence be­hind triff ids, but un­til Hol­ly­wood cre­ates a block­buster re­vis­it­ing trif­fids, pub­lish­ers are not bit­ing. “Though it’s bound to hap­pen and then I’ll get the book out quick and be f lown in to LA as trif­fid tech­ni­cal con­sul­tant, drinks by the pool and all that,” he says. This knack for find­ing an ac­ces­si­ble an­gle into se­ri­ous sci­ence is Ken’s forte, and has seen him write books on in­va­sive species and bio­di­ver­sity with such provoca­tive ti­tles as Where Do Camels Be­long? and Do We Need Pan­das? (to which the an­swer is a re­sound­ing no). Hav­ing worked as a plant ecol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Sh­effield for 25 years, the im­pe­tus for this di­rec­tion was years of aca­demic study, and a frus­tra­tion at what a closed cir­cle academia can be. “We would spend years un­der­tak­ing fas­ci­nat­ing stud­ies on plant ecol­ogy and then write up the re­sults in pa­pers,” he ex­plains. “The pa­pers would be read by half a dozen other aca­demics and that was that.” It struck him that he had ac­cess to a rich vein that could be mined. “I real ised that there was a lot of in­for­ma­tion about plants hid­den away in sci­en­tific pa­pers that the thought­ful gar­dener would like to hear about. I’d found a va­cant niche.” He ap­proached Or­ganic Gar­den­ing mag­a­zine and wrote a col­umn along these lines, then started writ­ing The Scep­ti­cal Gar­dener col­umn in The Tele­graph, al­ways search­ing out rel­e­vant pa­pers to trans­late for an in­ter­ested but non-aca­demic au­di­ence.

The triff id idea slowly mor­phed into his lat­est book, an ex­am­i­na­tion of Dar­win’s plant sci­ence work. “So many of the fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of plant bi­ol­ogy that I was con­sid­er­ing in re­la­tion to trif­fids have been stud­ied by Dar­win,” he ex­plains. “Peo­ple al­ways tend to think of him on [HMS] Bea­gle and of his re­search in the Galá­pa­gos, but there were 30 years be­tween that and the pub­li­ca­tion of On the Ori­gin of Species, dur­ing which time he de­voted most of his en­er­gies to study­ing and ex­per­i­ment­ing with plants.” And Dar­win was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the odd­i­ties of plant be­hav­iour. “He stud­ied f low­er­ing and pol­li­na­tion, of course, but he was also fas­ci­nated by car­niv­o­rous and climb­ing plants, and by plant move­ment and in­tel ligence.” The book aims to re- es­tab­lish Dar­win’s rep­u­ta­tion as a revolutionary botanist, whose close ob­ser­va­tions of plants are only now be­ing con­firmed by high-tech sci­ence, and whose stud­ies of plants were cru­cial to the de­vel­op­ment of his fa­mous the­ory.

Ken has al­ways worked as a plant ecol­o­gist him­self, but when his chil­dren were young and spend­ing time in the gar­den watch­ing birds and spot­ting toads his in­ter­est in wildlife grew, and much of his work has been about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween gar­dens and wildlife. He helped run the BUGS study at Sh­effield, the UK’s largest study of back-gar­den bio­di­ver­sity, in­spired by an­other of his he­roes, Jen­nifer Owen, who com­bined her aca­demic prow­ess with an in­ter­est in wildlife gar­den­ing and spent 30 years iden­ti­fy­ing and cat­a­logu­ing the wildlife in her Le­ices­ter­shire gar­den. “The work in­volved was as­ton­ish­ing, no one has done any­thing like it since, and I doubt they ever will again.” Owen found 2,673 species in her or­di­nary, neat, sub­ur­ban gar­den, in­clud­ing sev­eral new species. “She showed that you don’t have to create a pre­tend ver­sion of a nat­u­ral habi­tat in or­der to at­tract wildlife,” says Ken. His own Devon gar­den, sur­round­ing the house where he and his wife moved after his re­tire­ment from the Univer­sity of Sh­effield, is de­ter­minedly nor­mal apart from some ter­rac­ing to cope with the slope – no wildf lower mead­ows or thick­ets of net­tles. Lawn, f lower beds, paths and a pond. “Gar­dens aren’t like any nat­u­ral habi­tat and be­cause of that peo­ple think they are in­fe­rior, but they’re not. They’re just an­other kind of habi­tat. Yes, have a pond if you can, do with­out chem­i­cals, and leave some piles of dead wood around, but hedges, f low­ers and plants all create places to feed and places to rest, and that is all that wildlife needs.”

Gar­dens can be as or­di­nary as you like, but in Ken’s eyes the plants within them – even those that don’t ram­page around and ter­rify the pop­u­la­tion – are never any­thing less than fas­ci­nat­ing: “My best ad­vice for any­one con­cerned about wildlife is this: just grow plants. Crea­tures eat plants, or the nec­tar cre­ated by plants, and ev­ery­thing else eats the crea­tures. As long as you are grow­ing plants, you are do­ing all right.”

USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Ken’s lat­est book, Dar­win’s Most Won­der­ful Plants: Dar­win’s Botany To­day, is pub­lished by Pro­file Books on 1 Novem­ber, and is re­viewed on page 100. NEXT MONTH Gar­den de­sign­ers Os­sart and Mau­rières.


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