Tim has worked closely with FFI since 1999. He has edited &FFI (formerly Fauna & Flora magazine) since its inception in 2001 and is the author of With Honourable Intent - A Natural History of Fauna & Flora International, published in 2017.
How many of us have unthinkingly bought apples wrapped in plastic? Don’t worry, this isn’t another diatribe about plastic (we’re saving that for later). It’s a rant about plants.
Wrapping a layer of superfluous plastic around food items that come with their own inbuilt protective covering is just another depressing example of the disconnect between what we eat and where it comes from. It’s also a symptom of a phenomenon known as ‘plant blindness’, the term used to highlight how humans, particularly in western societies, fail to notice the plants around them.
The Green Planet, presented by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) vice-president and ambassador, Sir David Attenborough, has been a real eye-opener, and ought to be compulsory viewing for anyone questioning what plants have ever done for us. By now, we should be preaching to the converted, but – just to be sure – here’s another piece in praise of plants, liberally sprinkled with some eye-popping facts that should help focus your mind on just how extraordinary and indispensable they are.
Bending plants to our will is a double-edged sword. Our dependency on rice, wheat and maize leaves us in a precarious position in the face of climate change and the predicted spread of new pests and diseases it will facilitate. Food for thought indeed.
Our dependence on rice and other staple crops leaves us vulnerable. Credit: Tim Bergman/FFI
The answer to this problem lies in wild species closely related to domesticated crops. These wild cousins of crops are naturally adapted to a range of environmental conditions, possessing traits that can be used by breeders to develop new resilient varieties able to tolerate increasing drought, salinity or pest attack. But as FFI well knows, many of these priceless genetic resources are under threat. If we lose these wild species, we lose vital adaptations, evolved over millions of years, that could help address today’s challenges.
Before you bite into some shop-bought fruit, spare a thought for its wild counterparts in Central Asia, where FFI is working with communities to save species such as the endangered Niedzwetzky’s apple and the critically endangered Bukharan pear and safeguard the fruit-and-nut forests where today’s domesticated varieties originated.
The medicinal value of plants is incalculable. Currently, less than 15% of the species used are recorded in a medicinal publication. The potential for further exploration is fathomless.
Seeds from a medicinal plant species used on the island of Príncipe. Credit Laura Benitez/FFI
Of all traded medicinal plants, trade in which has trebled in the past 20 years, 75% are still wild collected and many people are reliant on these for primary medical care. For example, 60% of childhood malaria cases are first treated with herbal remedies. Every species that disappears is a vital resource lost, or a potential one squandered.
Plants underpin all ecosystems on Earth. They provide us not only with food and medicines, but also with countless raw materials. And that economic value is merely the tip of the taproot. Plants regulate our climate, clean the air that we breathe, safeguard our water supply and stabilise our soils.
They also shape our culture, religion and well-being, and even permeate our everyday speech. We could fill an entire article with examples of how we pepper our language with references to plants, but let’s nip that idea in the bud before someone accuses us of resorting to an old chestnut.
How many connoisseurs of classical music have heard of mpingo? Its dark, lustrous heartwood – the holy grail for woodwind instrument makers – is one of the world’s most valuable timbers, but the species suffered a precipitous decline as a result of over-exploitation. Next time you listen to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, give thanks for the SoundWood programme that FFI established in 1995 to protect mpingo and other timber species from commercial extinction.
Clarinet made from sustainably harvested mpingo as part of FFI’s SoundWood initiative. Credit: FFI
Pernambuco may sound like a Verdi opera, but it’s actually an alternative name for Brazil’s endangered national tree, pau brasil, highly prized as the raw material for violin bows and now restricted to a few remnants of the dwindling Atlantic Forest. Yes, you’ve guessed it. FFI was instrumental in highlighting its plight and producing a conservation action plan for the species.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that plants’ ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in their leaves and stems plays a pivotal role in slowing the rate of climate change. Less well-known is the fact that 25% of the world’s forest, shrubland and grassland biomass lies underground, and that those hidden depths sequester over 110 gigatonnes of carbon, broadly equivalent to ten whole years of global CO2 emissions.
What lies beneath. Visible forest in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains is only part of the carbon-storage story. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
The clearance of these carbon-rich, plant-based ecosystems, from forests and peatlands to grasslands and seagrass beds, serves only to exacerbate our alarming climate trajectory.
The total number of known vascular plant species – ferns and flowering plants, in other words – is close to 400,000, with further discoveries made on an almost daily basis. And the sheer diversity of plant species makes it likely that many will go quietly extinct before they are even recorded, and certainly before we can assess their value to us beyond their intrinsic importance as part of the tapestry of life.
This recently discovered species of iris, like many of the flowers that share its renosterveld habitat in South Africa, is threatened with extinction. Credit: Odette Curtis/Overberg Lowlands Conservation Trust
Individually, every one of those 400,000 plant species is a miniature masterpiece of evolution – or a supersized one in the case of giant sequoias and water lilies, titan arums and rafflesias.
Collectively, the plant kingdom is one glorious global gallery, a permanent exhibition of the extravagant and the extraordinary, dripping with priceless and irreplaceable plant portraits and luscious landscapes. Currently, we’re rampaging through its rooms like some swivel-eyed maniac with a Stanley knife, slashing canvas after canvas.
When we admire springtime magnolias in full bloom, or the spectacle of a tulip display, do we stop to wonder how their wild ancestors on the other side of the world are faring? Or ask ourselves how it is that 40% of all known wild plant species are in deep trouble?
Greig’s tulip, one of eleven tulip species deemed to be in danger of extinction in Kyrgyzstan. Credit: Ormon Sultangaziev/FFI
We know for certain that over 570 plant species have ceased to exist since 1750. Tellingly, that’s twice the recorded number of bird, mammal and amphibian extinctions combined.
Fortunately, as the final episode of The Green Planet demonstrated, an increasing number of committed individuals and institutions are finding inventive, ingenious and inspiring ways to protect them.
Meanwhile, FFI has been addressing the plant blindness issue for many years. Long before the word ‘flora’ was added to our name back in 1980, plant conservation had been very much part of our unofficial remit. We have been flying the flag for the world’s forgotten flora from the time of the earliest international agreements on nature protection.
Today, threatened plants are central to FFI’s conservation plans throughout the globe, from death trees in West Africa to dragon trees in Cape Verde. Working through in-country partners, we’re helping junipers in jeopardy on Saint Lucia, safeguarding seagrass beds in Scotland, restoring degraded mangrove forests in Kenya, addressing illegal trade in rare orchids, and eradicating injurious invasive plants that are outcompeting native species on remote islands.
Wild orchids are among the many plants threatened by illegal trade. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
The challenges facing plant conservationists are steep, but not insurmountable. Success undoubtedly starts with a love of plants. Let’s hope that The Green Planet will immeasurably increase the flora fan club.
For far too long, we’ve been hurtling blindly down a dead-end path, hacking our way through the forest in our relentless and reckless pursuit of ‘progress’ and deluding ourselves that we are conquering nature. That misguided approach is symptomatic of our failure to appreciate that we are very much a part of nature – and utterly dependent on it for survival.
The realisation is slowly dawning that plants are on our side – and that we need to be on theirs if we want to make the world a safer, healthier and happier place. We are at a crossroads in our relationship with plants, and with nature as a whole. It’s time we took the road less travelled. That will make all the difference.
Plants are the building blocks of a healthy, stable planet.
It is in our interests to protect every one of the 400,000
plant species that form the foundations of life on Earth.
Please help us to conserve the world's threatened plants.