Public engagement with research

Biodiversity is being lost locally, regionally and globally, at an alarming rate. New species of plant are still being named and described each year, whilst others are shifting towards extinction, losing the battle against the threats they face amid a growing human population. So there is a growing urgency for botanic gardens to inform and inspire people with the scientific wonder of plants, and foster a greater awareness of their importance and the need for their conservation. Yet unlike animals, plants often go unnoticed, a phenomenon that has been described metaphorically as ‘plant blindness’. We recently published a review called Astonishing Plants which examines how plants are a blind spot in the human psyche that need bringing into greater focus.

Botanic gardens’ collections are visited by millions of people every year so the opportunities for engaging people with the importance of plants and plant conservation are significant. One approach, explored at Oxford Botanic Garden, is to astonish people with plants, changing their perceptions that plants are inanimate or insignificant compared with animals. For example carnivorous plants, those that attract and trap animal prey to obtain nutrients – have inspired generations of scientists since Charles Darwin. They turn the tables on animals and challenge conventional concepts of plant behaviour. Plants such as these are a powerful engagement mechanic.

Online communication can also be used to show plants that cannot be seen in cultivation and are rarely encountered by people in the wild. Parasitic plants, those that lack chlorophyll, leaves, and roots, can challenge people’s perception of what comprises a plant existentially. Articles on such plants such as those published in the ‘Flora Obscura’ series in the journal Plants People Planet, which are accompanied by visually engaging digital media, have achieved significant online activity and engagement with audiences worldwide. Some of these species happen to be of extreme conservation concern. Promoting awareness of them and the need for their conservation, beyond a conventional academic readership, may be a catalyst for the lobbying of local conservation action.

botanical oddities

An assortment of ‘Botanical Oddities’ in the genera Hydnora, Langsdorffia, Oxygyne, and Rhizanthella that have Featured in a series of Flora Obscura articles in the journal Plants, People, Planet. From Thorogood, 2020.

Selected References:

Thorogood C. 2020. Astonishing plants Trends in Plant Science 25(9):833-836.