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.
MY BEST ADVICE FOR ANYONE CONCERNED ABOUT WILDLIFE IS THIS: JUST GROW PLANTS. IF YOU DO THAT, YOU ARE DOING ALL RIGHT