Book Review: In Defense of Plants

Many of us who are plant obsessed didn’t connect with plants right away. It took time. There was a journey we had to go on that would ultimately bring us to the point where plants are now the main thing we think about. After all, plants aren’t the easiest things to relate to. Not immediately anyway. Some of us have to work up to it. Once there, it’s pretty much impossible to go back to our former lives. What was once just a background of green hues is now a rich cast of characters, each with their own name, unique features, and distinct story to tell. Essentially, we went through what Matt Candeias refers to as our ” green revolution.” Candeias – author and host of the long-running blog and podcast, In Defense of Plants – shares his story of learning to love plants and offers a convincing arguement for why you should love them too in his new book, aptly titled, In Defense of Plants.

It’s hard to picture Candeias as anything but a plant lover. If you’ve been following his work, you’ll know he makes it a point to put plants at center stage. It seems that much of the popular content available about plants focuses on the usefulness of plants as they pertain to humans. In many cases it can be easier to find out how to grow a certain plant species than to learn about where it’s from and what it’s like in the wild. Candeias let’s the plants speak for themselves by giving them a voice through his blog, podcast, and now his book. Through the stories he shares we get a peek into the way Candeias sees plants, with the hope being that others might also “be bitten by the botanical bug.”

One of the first plants that captured the attention of Candeias was perennial blue lupine (Lupinus perennis). While assisting with a habitat restoration project at a sand and gravel quarry, Candeias was tasked with improving the establishment of lupine, which is the host plant for the caterpillars of an endangered species of butterfly called Karner blue. The work he did at the quarry and the botanical research that went into it helped Candeias realize that plant’s aren’t at all boring, but are “incredibly interesting organisms worthy of respect and admiration” and that “plants can be both surprisingly relatable and incredibly alien all at once.” His “green revolution” had begun.

The seeds of lupine are dispersed ballistically. As the seed pods dry, tension builds. Then, as Matt Candeias writes in In Defense of Plants, “with an audible pop, the pods eventually explode, catapulting the seeds out into the environment.”

In each chapter of In Defense of Plants we get a peak into the experiences that brought Candeias to where he is now as he discovers the wonder of plants. His personal stories help introduce the main topic of each chapter. Topics include plant sex, plant dispersal, plant defenses, carnivorous plants, and parasitic plants. From countless possible examples, Candeias selects a few of his favorite plant species to help illustrate each topic. Along the way, the reader is presented with various other interesting plant-related facts as Candeias discusses the behaviors of some of the world’s most fascinating plants. In the chapter on dispersal, for example, unlikely agents of seed dispersal (like catfish!) are introduced, as well as phenomena like geocarpy, in which plants are essentially planting themselves.

Carnivorous plants provide an excellent gateway into convincing people who claim to have no interest plants that they actually do. It’s difficult to deny the impressive nature of a meat-eating plant. In the carnivorous plant chapter, Candeias introduces us to the various ways such plants capture and consume their prey, and even wonders if some of these plants should be considered omnivores. After all, certain butterworts digest pollen that falls onto their sticky leaves, and some bladderworts suck in plenty of algae and possibly gain nutrients from the act. If capturing insects inside leaves modified to look like pitchers or on leaves covered in digestive enzyme-producing glands doesn’t impress you, consider the carnivorous actions of corkscrew plants, which drill their leaves into the soil to go after soil-dwelling organisms like protozoans and worms.

Parasitic plants should also excite a reluctant plant lover. These are plants that take all or most of what they need to survive from another plant or host organism. Mistletoes are one of the more familiar parasitic plants, and Candeias describes several, including one that lives almost entirely within the stems of cacti. In fact, “you would never know a cactus had been infected until the mistletoe living within decides to flower,” at which point the flowers push their way out through the sides of the cactus. Dodder is another fairly common, highly specialized, and easy to identify parasitic plant. It basically looks like “a tangled pile of orange spaghetti tossed over the surrounding vegetation.” Orchids, a favorite of Candeias, are known for being mycoheterotrophs, which essentially means they parasitize fungi. Their seeds come unequipped with the energy stores needed to get going, so they borrow resources from mycorrhizal fungi in order to get their start. Years pass before the orchid can offer anything in return.

Datura is a genus of plants that produces toxic compounds like scopolamine and atropine. In his book, In Defense of Plants, Matt Candeias warns, “it would only take a small amount of these chemicals to completely ruin your week and slightly more to put you in a grave.”

After spending more than 200 pages celebrating plants and their amazing abilities and diversity, it’s fitting that Candeias spends the final chapter of his book mourning some of the ways the actions of humans threaten the existence of so many plants. He remarks how unfortunate it is that “plants with their unseeing, unhearing, unfeeling ways of life usually occupy the lowest rung of importance in our society.” Many of us barely notice the loss, yet “plants are the foundation of functioning ecosystems.” Due to that fact, “destroying plant communities causes disastrous ripples that reverberate throughout the entire biosphere of our planet.” Everything suffers when plants are lost. Fortunately, the book doesn’t end on this dark note. Candeias’s overall message is hopeful. When we learn to understand, appreciate, and care about plants, we will want to do everything we can to protect and restore them. With any luck, after reading this book, you too will want to offer your time, energy, and resources in defense of plants.

Listen to Matt talk about his new book on this episode of his podcast.

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All the Plant Shows, part one

Podcasts are among the most accessible and powerful mediums through which we can tell and hear the stories of plants. The popularity of podcasts is evidence that if we want to share our love of plants with the world and get others to love them too, we have to be using podcasts to do it. They are essential tools in the communication of plant science and, when used effectively, they may even help the plant-indifferent gain a lifelong appreciation for the botanical world.

As a longtime listener of podcasts and a lover of plants, I have been on a constant search for podcasts about plants. I’ve even included reviews of some of those podcasts here on this blog (see reviews for Gastropod, In Defense of Plants, Native Plant Podcast, The Field Guides, Botanical Mystery Tour, and Plants and Pipettes). I’m not sure if it’s just me, but it seems that in the past few years, plant podcasts have experienced a boom. There are definitely more plant-themed podcasts out there now than I recall seeing when I first went in search of them nearly a decade ago, and I imagine there are more out there than I’m even aware of. Seeing that, I figured it was time to collect all those podcasts into a single post (or series of posts). Each podcast is deserving of a post of its own, but in the meantime, a few sentences will have to do.

When I say plant podcasts, I realize that could include gardening podcasts. Why shouldn’t it? After all, what’s gardening without plants? However, this isn’t a gardening blog, and even as an avid gardener (and a professional one), I don’t really listen to many gardening podcasts. A few gardening or gardening-adjacent podcasts are included here either because I particularly enjoy them or because they tend to go beyond the act of gardening and are particularly known for giving plants the center stage.

In Defense of Plants – Long-running and consistent, this is the go-to podcast (and website) for learning about plants and plant science. It’s adamant about telling the stories of plants for plant’s sake. A typical episode features the host, Matt, interviewing experts and plant science professionals about their specific area of study or work.

Native Plant Podcast – Going strong for 5 years now, this podcast is exactly what it says it is – a podcast about native plants. There is a major focus on gardening and landscaping with native plants, which the main host, John, has been doing since before it was cool. Every episode ends with a pet story and a toast.

The Field Guides – Easily one of my favorite podcasts, largely because the hosts are so affable and are clearly having fun, but also because the format is so unique. Each episode, Steve and Bill pick a natural history topic and then walk around in a natural area talking about it – the sounds of footsteps and the wildlife around them included. Not specifically a plant podcast, but plants come up in every episode even if they aren’t the main topic of discussion.

Plants and Pipettes – A podcast focused mainly on what’s going on inside of plants – molecular plant biology, in other words. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, give it a shot anyway. The hosts are fun and funny, good at explaining things, and find lots of other plant and plant-adjacent things to talk about in addition to molecular biology. Plus, you are probably more interested in cellular-level interactions than you think you are.

Plant Crimes – True crime stories involving plants. Well-researched and well-crafted tales about things like missing water lilies, redwood poaching, and how lemons and the mob are related. Ellen interviews people involved in or knowledgeable about the incidents and weaves excerpts from those conversations into her storytelling. I’m anxiously awaiting the second season.

Plant Book Club – Ellen (of Plant Crimes) and Tegan and Joram (of Plants and Pipettes) read a plant-themed book and then talk about it. Everything you love about their individual podcasts combined into one. It’s a tour de force!

Botanize! – An audio series produced by Encyclopædia Britannica. Each episode is a brief exploration of a plant, group of plants, or some other plant-centric topic. It’s way more entertaining than reading an encyclopedia entry. Melissa is a charismatic host who is clearly excited about plants and nature. Her and her occasional guests add personal experiences to the science of plants.

Cultivating Place – This is a perfect example of a more-than-just-gardening gardening podcast. In Jennifer’s words, “gardens encourage a direct relationship with the dynamic processes of the plants, animals, soils, seasons, and climatic factors that come to bear on a garden, providing a unique, and uniquely beautiful, bridge connecting us to our larger environments — culturally and botanically.” Each episode features a conversation with a grower, gardener, naturalist, scientist, artist, or otherwise and, while many of the episodes are garden-focused, others go beyond the garden to discuss other plant-y things like seed banking (see this recent episode with Dr. Naomi Fraga).

A Way to Garden – This is perhaps a more typical gardening podcast, but easily one of the best ones out there. My belief is that gardens ought have a purpose that goes beyond their aesthetic qualities. They should be ecologically functional, acting as habitat rather than destroying it. Margaret seems to think so too. Plus, she loves birds and is a great conversationalist, and who can resist her regular check-ins with Ken Druse?


This is part one of (at least) two. There are many more podcasts to highlight here. In the meantime, is there a particular plant-themed podcast (or podcast episode) that you enjoy and would like to recommend? If so, share it with us in the comment section below.

Podcast Review: The Field Guides

Who doesn’t love nature walks and scientific journal articles? Luckily there is a podcast that combines the two. The Field Guides is hosted by two guys who are obsessed with the natural world and the science behind it. For each episode the hosts pick a nature topic to study in depth, then they head out to a natural area to talk about what they learned. The discussion takes place outside as they hike around, giving listeners the experience of being “out in the field, in the woods, and on the trail.”

field-guides

The discussion is conversational as the two hosts (and occasional guests) share things from different studies they have read, inserting personal anecdotes and thoughts as they arise. Observations on what they are seeing as they walk and talk also enter into the conversation. The nature sounds in the background make for a great score, and surprises along the way add a little suspense and intrigue to the experience.

The Field Guides is a young podcast – about a year and a half old – and has averaged around one episode per month. Episodes vary in length from as few as 20 minutes to an hour, so catching up on past episodes is not an insurmountable task. And it’s worth it. The guides have already explored some great topics that shouldn’t be missed, including hibernation, birds in the winter, salamanders, spruce grouse, and ice spikes. A bonus episode takes the listener along on a Christmas bird count, which, speaking for myself, is an inspiration to get involved in this 117 year old tradition. As a plant nerd, the botanically themed episodes are particularly interesting, and have so far included fall foilage, witch hazel, pokeweed, staghorn sumac, and others.

This is a ball gall on a tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima). The first episode of The Field Guides is all about the fascinating world of goldenrod galls. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

A ball gall on a tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima). The first episode of The Field Guides is all about the fascinating world of goldenrod galls. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The notes that accompany each episode are often extensive and include things like references to the journal articles discussed and other resources cited, answers to questions that came up during the episode, and corrections to any mistakes that were made. Clearly the hosts are thorough in their research and passionate about the subjects they cover, but they are not without a sense of humor. The information presented is great, but what makes this podcast so listenable is the way that it is presented. It’s approachable, fun, and light-hearted – drawing the listener in to the conversation and out in to nature.

Check out individual interviews with the hosts of The Field Guides on these two episodes of In Defense of Plants podcast: Environmental Action with Bill Michalek and Reflections on Science with Steven Fleck

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In Defense of Plants – A Podcast Review

I’m an avid podcast listener; however, the majority of the podcasts I listen to, while satisfying many of my varied interests, don’t speak to my interests in plants and plant science. Recently, when I went searching for such a podcast, I happened upon In Defense of Plants. Alas, my podcast queue felt complete.

indefenseofplants

In Defense of Plants began as a blog authored by a guy named Matt. The podcast emerged about 3 years later, and in the first episode (which was posted in January 2015), Matt explains why he started the blog. While searching the internet in an effort to learn more about plants, he discovered that people weren’t writing the stories that he really wanted to read – stories that went beyond mainly talking about the anthropogenic uses of plants. Rather, Matt was interested in the stories of the plants themselves, their biological and evolutionary histories and how they fit in with the ecological world around them. Unable to find such a blog, he decided to start one himself.

His passion for plants for plant’s sake continues in his podcast. It’s evidenced both in the topics he covers as well as in the way he speaks enthusiastically and affectionately about the plants involved in the stories he tells and their habitats. He finds people to interview that are as excited about plants as he is – some are friends, some are research scientists, and some are people otherwise involved in botany or horticulture. All have interesting things to say about the world of plants and plant ecology.

Ludisia discolor - the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog

Ludisia discolor – the plant that inspired Matt to start the blog (photo credit: www.eol.org)

Over the mere nine months that the podcast has been in existence, Matt has shared some of his personal botanical explorations. When he started the podcast he was living in Buffalo, NY. He completed a Master’s degree program there and has since moved to Illinois to pursue a PhD. His most recent episodes find him exploring the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest. He’s got my attention, since this is one of my favorite ecosystems in North America.

Standout episodes to me so far have been the two part episode with Russel Funderburk as they walk through the grounds of the Highlands Biological Station, the discussion with Dave Spiering about urban ecology, and the interview with Dr. Robert Warren about invasive species (“a refreshing take”). The episode about pack rat middens and the candid discussion with Matt’s friend Steve about why they botanize are also great. Matt and Steve also do an episode about plant poaching, a topic that deserves much more attention than it gets.

The love Matt has for plants is infectious, and it is hard not to feel his excitement as he helps tell their stories. So, if you find that your podcast queue is lacking something purely plant related, In Defense of Plants is a podcast you should definitely be following.

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)

Yerba Mate (Ilex paraguariensis) is featured in two episodes of In Defense of Plants. Listen to part one and part two. (photo credit: wikimedia commons)