why don’t students study plants?

By Alison Campbell 21/04/2010

was going to write about yesterday’s dreadful Herald headline on the risks of multivitamin pills (which implied that women taking multi-vits are at a hugely increased risk of breast cancer) – but Jim McVeagh beat me to it.


I’ve just finished giving my first-year ‘plants’ lectures. I really enjoy them & so, judging by appearances, do most of the students 🙂 But every year, when I ask for an indication of where they might be in terms of prior knowledge, then judging by the show of hands at least a third (& sometimes more) of the class tell me that they didn’t study the plant-related standards in year 12 of secondary school. (Either that, or they don’t remember studying them, which is much the same for my purposes.) This means I get to tread the fine line between losing that third of the class & boring the rest, who remember at least some of what they learned. And I don’t get any complaints to that effect in the end-of-semester paper appraisals, so I guess I manage to do that OK.

But it is a bit of a concern. I mean, plants are wonderful organisms in their own right, quite apart from the fact that the flowering plants, in particular, can be the inspiration for some beautiful works of art:

 New York City, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art: Autumn Landscape (c1923, Tiffany Studios, New York City)

 This one’s a Tiffany window (Autumn Landscape) from the Cambridge 2000 image gallery. And then there’s this quilt (which I want!) by Leonore Crawford, which my brother saw & photographed in an exhibition in Beaujolais, France:

And of course plants, like all living things, have a natural beauty all their own. This shows the transport tissues in the root of a plant called Smilax:

This is a cross-section through the tissues of a leaf:

And I could go on & on.

But quite apart from all of that, plants – with their ancient ancestors, the blue-green algae – changed the nature of our planet. Without aerobic photosynthesis churning out oxygen as a waste product, there’d be no oxygen-rich atmosphere, no biosphere as we know it, and the complex plant, animal, & fungal life around us could not have evolved. They underpin most food chains & are of enormous economic and ecological significance. It’s hard to see how you could study ecological restoration, for example, without at least a passing acquaintance with the plant kingdom.

So – back to my initial question: why don’t more students study plants?