5 amazing plants win our Big Picture Plant Awards

We’re here at the Eden Project in Cornwall to meet some fabulous flora
for the first ever BiPPAs, – the Big Picture Plant Awards. These awards showcase
the glitzy glamour goddesses, clever communicators,
ultimate achievers and vile villains of the plant kingdom. Let’s roll out the red carpet! First up is our award for the Best Communicator. Plants have some surprising ways
of communicating with each other, from pollinators and even
with their own structures. If you want to reach the giddy heights,
take control of your hormones, like this Royal palm. Or perhaps like the Traveller’s palm,
pollinated by lemurs in Madagascar, you’ll choose to orientate yourself
with the compass. But can a plant communicate
danger or protect itself? Broad beans are known to activate anti-aphid defences
when a nearby plant is being attacked, and a touch on the Sensitive plant triggers a lightning-quick electrochemical
response, closing its leaves. Plants need to attract pollinators, and colour,
shape and pattern all play their part. Our winner then of the
award for Best Communicator goes to extraordinary lengths
to communicate to its pollinators. And our winner is the Titan arum
from Western Sumatra. It produces an overpowering stench of
rotting flesh that attracts pollinators, such as flesh flies and beetles. The stench is so bad that
it’s often called the corpse flower. It even heats up to body temperature, which
means that its flowering is very short-lived. From the beautiful to the bizarre,
our next award is for the Best Costume. The clock vine is pollinated by sunbirds and
hummingbirds and is definitely eye-catching. At the other end of the spectrum, the mature
Baobab tree looks like it’s upside-down. This hardy species can regrow
its bark if stripped bare and is even able to resist
drought, fire and termites. Following fashion trends might be
highly-prized for some people, but there are plants that use
mimicry to their advantage, either to attract or restrict
particular pollinators. The shape of the beautiful flowers of Heliconia,
sometimes called Lobster-claws, limit pollination to a subset of
the hummingbird population. The Jade vine has almost luminous green
flowers to attract bats at twilight. While the bat drinks nectar from the flowers,
the top of its head brushes against the pollen. This is then left on the female part
of the next flower the bat visits. However, our winner of the
Best Costume award goes to… the tulip. Tulips come in a variety
of colours and forms. In the 17th Century the tulip stirred such a
passion and frenzy when it arrived into Europe, that it sparked tulip-mania. Dutch merchantmen coveted the bulbs
that became a luxury item, prized for their streaky petals. These are caused by specific
viruses in the plant. Our next award is for Best Adaption. Whether genetic adaptation
from human influence or the ability to survive in
hostile or unusual habitats. When we think about survival in extremes, succulent plants such as
Cacti quickly come to mind. Their modified leaves limit desiccation and
their spines provide protection from animals. Bromeliads are epiphytes that
adapt to a host of environments, obtaining nutrients from air and rainfall, with their scales and hairs
helping to trap moisture. Gorse is amazing at adapting
to its environment. Its sharp spikes protect it
from hungry animals; its flowers attract pollinators with their
bright yellow petals and fragrance and its seeds are ejected
when they are ripe. Gorse is also a fire-climax plant
that re-grows from the roots after fire. Lichens are not just one organism but also
a partnership between an alga and fungus. They colonise some of the most
inhospitable habitats on earth, surviving on high mountains and
hostile regions such as the Arctic, and can be vitally important
sources of food for animals. However, our award for Best Adaptation
goes to the none other than rice. Originating in China, rice is the
world’s number one food crop, with over 400,000 varieties. You could almost say we humans
are adapted to exploiting it and even consider it a
symbol of life and fertility. But what makes rice really stand out is the opportunity to address
health and malnutrition. Using genetic modification, a golden rice grain
has now been produced to carry vitamin A, helping to provide a controversial
solution to global famine. Next, our award for Best Villain. Some are deadly in their own right; others are only villains because
we humans just can’t say no. Just like certain humans, some
plants need to supplement their diet. Carnivorous plants have developed
ingenious ways to lure and trap insects to provide them with
essential nutrients. The Yellow pitcher lures insects inside the
flower with sugar that is laced with alkaloids, intoxicating their prey and
making escape impossible. They may be toxic but they still have their uses. Californian Buckeye was used by
Native Americans to help catch fish. By crushing the toxic seeds
and throwing them into a river, hungry fish would die
and provide easy pickings. Then there’s just a whole host of
plants we just can’t do without. These Oil palms might not be villains, but our appetite for palm oil has led to
rainforest destruction and a rise in obesity. However, the award for Best Villain
goes to a plant we just cannot say no to. But it’s an award that
is certainly unfair. It’s not the plant that’s the villain;
it’s us and how we crave it. Sugar cane was perhaps
the first mass-produced crop. It’s also associated with slave labour. We are often unaware of how
much sugar we are consuming and diabetes is now one of the
fastest growing health risks of our time. Our final prize is for the
Lifetime Achievement award. So what will it be? A plant that is so useful
we cannot imagine life with it, such as Tea, Coffee or Cork oak tree. Or should our lifetime achiever be a plant that we are prepared to go
to extraordinary lengths to harvest, such as the Vanilla orchid
that requires hand pollination? Maybe we should consider plants that have been
around since the dinosaurs walked the earth, such as Horsetail Restio and
flowering plants, such as Protea. All worthy contenders, but for us we’ve
found a plant that is extremely long-lived, with some specimens
over 3,000 years old. Our winner of the Lifetime Achievement
award goes to the humble Yew. It can tolerate a wide range of
conditions, temperature and humidity. The yew has been the
focus of myth and legend, and its wood was once used
to make the English longbow. And despite being largely toxic,
it even has medicinal uses. Taxol has been isolated from the yew
and is now used as a chemotherapy drug, serving to remind us that beyond
what we see on the surface, this plant – and all of
our worthy winners – provide us with so much more
than just being green. For more information about plants,
visit our website: bigpictureeducation.com

Dereck Turner

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