The Private Life of Plants

The Private Life of Plants:
Sir David AttenboroughA book and television series

Book and TV series by Sir David Attenborough. Review by Joy Buslaff.

Seldom does a book qualify as a reference manual, a coffee table picture book, and a good old read. Add the qualification that the author would also create a stunning television series of the same script, and you have come to understand the value of Sir David Attenborough and his latest creation.

Attenborough will tell you that you cannot “think like a plant” because plants don’t think – but they do see, feel, count, have sex, communicate, capture prey, travel, gamble, sacrifice and struggle socially. The point most people miss is that all this goes on in a different time scale than we are used to running.

I had the opportunity to describe my plans for a back yard prairie with this critically acclaimed writer/filmmaker when he visited, by phone, with Wisconsin Public Radio’s Jean Feraca early in October on WHAD. I also mentioned the concept that a prairie takes a thousand years to “hit stride” (which is, of course, why prairie remnants are so much more valuable than a newly established plot). Here is what Attenborough had to add:

“We tend to think that the world, as it were, is static – that the prairie is static or the tropical rain forest is static, except when we turn up and knock it down. But in fact hardly anything in the natural world is static. In the long eye of eternity, over centuries and millennia (as against months) the world is changing – lakes are filling up, cliffs are falling down, mountains are being eroded, and the population of plants that occupy these changing circumstances also change. So that a hundred years in the life of a prairie is really a flicker of time.

“After we have done the sort of actions which you described (putting in native seed), it will take time for the prairie to re-establish itself. But if there are a lot of local plants around, in time those things will get themselves planted, and in the end will survive the extremes of climate that you get in Wisconsin and win out.”

In The Private Life of Plants we expand our knowledge of the workings of the plant world beyond our American experience. While in this country we argue the merits of prescribed burning of prairie or forest for a number of reasons, I learned from Attenborough’s book about a peculiar function of fire in western Australia’s bush:

“As all the vegetation goes up in flames, great quantities of ethylene gas are released. This permeates to the heart of the grass trees and causes a major change within them. A few months after the fire has passed and the leaves have regrown, a vertical green rod emerges from the centre of the leaves. It grows taller and taller until it may double the plant’s height. Then, along its length emerge a multitude of tiny white flowers. It may be the production of ethylene on a vast scale following the fire that cues the flowering of almost all the adult grass tress in the bushland.”

Pretty fantastic stuff. This book gives you a good science fix, unique photos, and verbal ammunition for your next ecology debate.

Joy Buslaff was the editor of The Outside Story, the official publication of Wild Ones in 1998.

November/December 1998 The Outside Story.