A few weeks ago, the Guardian published this (very lovely) piece on the work of botanists at the Herbarium in Kew Gardens: “Plants are not just beautiful, they help us to survive.”

It is a good piece and it discusses a field that is often overlooked, frequently patronised and generally treated as an irrelevantly twee “soft option,” largely confined to colonial-era eccentrics. This article, in the same week, highlighted that Botany has disappeared as an A-Level subject and only ten of the 115 universities in the UK offer any qualification in Plant Science. This is partly because Botany is not well-suited to universities, of course; it requires large, specialist facilities and preferably gardens like those at Kew. It needs funding to undertake huge trips across the world and although it has wide applications (medicinal science, agriculture) it doesn’t always commercialise them very well. It happens in buildings called ‘the herbarium’ or ‘the nursery’ or ‘glasshouse number nine.’ It is sometimes a little ‘hullo clouds, hullo sky.’ And if I’d told my parents I wanted to do botany at university I can’t think they would have had a reaction better than confusion; “Hazel is continuing her study of the False Banana” is hardly the stuff of round robins, that great whistle test for academic respect. So in defiance of all that an article arguing that plants are not just beautiful or twee, they help us to survive is a very good thing.

Botany, though, is serious business. People tend to bring up food or clothes or medicine when talking about plants but this completely misses the point. Without plants we’d have no need for food or clothes or medicine, seeing as we would have stopped breathing, the atmosphere would have turned potentially catastrophic even supposing we didn’t need oxygen and the very surface of the planet would erode to a muddy, destructive end. Bar some desert or arctic areas it is impossible to imagine a landscape without plants and even in those extremes, there are lichens or planktons or lurking, dormant seeds and gummy, knotted grasses that for all their invisibility or apparent irrelevance are essential parts of the ecology.

‘Ecology’ is a word thrown around haphazardly a decent amount, similarly to the word ‘evolution.’ In his Outlook for Homo Sapiens (spoiler: it’s looking rocky) H. G. Wells asks what ecology actually is, referring to sociology; his point is that humans are as frail a species as any but it raises an alarming and misguided tendency to split between the “biological” and “social” sciences as though they are fighting different and mutually exclusive battles (something Wells absolutely does not advocate) and as though humans are in some way separate from the “natural” sciences. Ah, fluffy old nature; look at it, puppies rolling in grass and squirrels pausing coyly to dart a look towards you, beautiful forests and free-flopping dolphins, engaged in the joys of life.

In Farmville, perhaps. Back on earth, Wells adds. “…there can be no question that today we are, from the geological point of view, living in a phase of exceptional climatic instability, in a series of glacial and interglacial ages, and witnessing another destruction of animal and plant species on an almost unparalleled scale. The list of species extinguished in the past hundred years is a long one; the list of species threatened with extinction today is still longer. No new species arise to replace those exterminated. It is a swift, distressful impoverishment of life that is now going on. And this time the biologist notes a swifter and stranger agent of change than any phase of the fossil past can show- man, who will leave nothing undisturbed from the ocean bottom to the stratosphere, and who bids fair to extinguish himself in the process.”

Wells wrote this between 1939 and 1942. A bleak time for the world but his writing has frighteningly contemporary relevance. Today scientists from the gently-named Herbarium at Kew publish a report; the Sampled Red List Index for plants. Over five years, botanists studied a sample of the world’s plantlife, intending to make the project as representative of the 380,000 species of plant on earth as possible; a botanical MOT.* As the SRLI study was a random sample, it’s more possible to extrapolate about the entireity of plantlife from it than from previous Red Lists which have focused primarily on endangered plants without including those who face little or no threat.

22% of the species studied were found to be under threat. Over a fifth of the world’s plant life is facing an uncertain future, then. The most significant threat to plants is habitat loss, the most significant contributor to that habitat loss is human activity. The most threatened areas by far are the incredibly complex ecosystems of the tropical rain forests, then rocky areas, temperate forests and dry tropical forests. The least threatened area is considered to be desert, where the lack of potential for agriculture largely leaves plants undisturbed.**

81% of threats to plants are caused by human activity, with agriculture the top of those threats; it may seem bizarre to characterise farming, an activity bread and yoghurt adverts would generally have us believe is largely consistent of contented rural cultivation and gently-paced milk production, as destructive but the clearing and burning of acres of tropical rainforest in order to graze cattle for cheap beefburgers and grow crops like soya beans (accounting for 20% of carbon emissions worldwide, according to the SRLI report) is a violent, brutal affair born, in turn, out of economic violence.

The poor are told, in our big, happy globalised society, to use the resources they have and so the rainforest is hacked and burnt for agriculture. Even tiny air plants (the sort someone in your office probably has, stuck on a bit of bark with a comedy googly-eyed pebble sitting next to it) are being harvested out of their natural habitat to such a degree that the populous species Tillandsia Ionantha (blushing bride, after its reddened blossom) is now considered vulnerable because it is simply cheaper to pay someone peanuts to steal them from the wild than for a company to cultivate them in the UK, something that -in all fairness- no one would imagine as they picked one up from their local garden centre.

A fifth of plants being under threat of course means that four fifths of plants are well. They are producing viable seeds, their habitats are unthreatened and they may well be flourishing. It’s unfortunate in some ways that the standard Red List metric of threat levels only goes to ‘Least Concern’ rather than ‘Thriving’ or ‘Triffid’ and even in the most threatened groups of the most threatened species, there are plants that are classified as LC.

Araucaria conifer are a 200 million year old family of only 19 species remaining, 13 of which are endemic to the tiny Polynesian islands of New Caledonia (threatened by forestry and by forest fragmentation that is set to place trees too far apart for effective pollination and by the dwindling genetic diversity which comes from small, split populations and which leaves the plants weak to disease) but even of those 19, many of whom are considered Critically Endangered and most at least Endangered, there are at least a couple of LC. And some desperately endangered plants, such as the Bermuda Juniper, have been successfully re-cultivated even after devastating population loss. 99% of juniperus bermudiana were destroyed between the mid-1940s and 1978, after two sorts of scale bug were accidentally introduced to the island from the US; the remaining 1% of the trees seem reasonably resistant, though and although it is a tragedy for the species, it has been possible (with a lot of work) to re-cultivate the plants and to begin repopulation alongside an introduced species of conifer that has been performing the Bermuda Juniper’s windbreak function for the past forty years.

Equally, some of the plants included in the study that fall into the threatened 23% include such apparently hopeless cases as the Wollemia Nobilis, a living fossil discovered living deep in the Australian outback, tens of millenia after the last evidence of it appeared; so old and so isolated, the tiny group of trees (around thirty) had interbred so massively over thousands of years that there is no genetic diversity in the species whatsoever and every one is a clone. It is a freak, an extraordinary tree; its needles erupt from the branches in four feathery spears and it is stuntedly tiny for a conifer, primeval. It is so astonishingly valuable to collectors that even in the heart of a botanic gardens, it has to be placed in a cage to be put on public display. It is very beautiful and very unlikely to see out many more millenia but then, that could probably have been said in the Jurassic era; extraordinary and fascinating but perhaps not very indicative of plantlife as a whole.

The wollemi is more significant than a freak occurrence though; surviving forgotten and distant, it had if not thrived then at least lived relatively peacefully. A small but significant number of the species under threat are primeval plants, “living fossils;” most of these plants (although not all) are the last of their genus and many are big trees. Metasequoia Glyptostroboides (Dawn Redwoods) were also discovered in the Sichuan-Hubei region of China, having been believed to be long extinct; their population is much larger than the Wollemi’s (although under 1000 trees remain in the wild) but they too sat undisturbed for a long time. We are going in to parts of forest we have never been before, new technology means we can trek further in and logging means there’s less distance to go. We are meeting species undisturbed for millenia and as we meet them, they become threatened.

Humanity is not necessarily destructive but as we encounter species, we bring them into the awareness of H G Well’s ecology (although there are countless plants we are entirely clueless about, yet we interact with) and as if we’re aware of our own sticky-fingered childishness, we instantly realise that their discovery by humans puts them at risk, like we’re rattling around in a sweet shop unable to resist the last rhubarb and custard.

The problem with conservation of course is that it’s treated, like botany, as though it’s for hippies and the slightly affected. Governments do make big commitments and steps with it but as always, it comes down to money and right now, no one seems to have a lot of that. The SRLI report contains a commitment to act like a sort of stock market for plantlife, maintaining its records so that plants which go extinct are registered, along with plants that recover or which become more severely threatened. Across the 4000 records (when they are all put online) we can watch the fate of plantlife swing up and down; spoiler alert: predictions suggest mostly down. This is conditional of funding, of course but this is not about money anymore, really.

Over a fifth of the world’s plants are threatened. If that grows to a quarter or a half, the money needed will be much greater, the potential hardship much more severe. The worst destruction of plants is caused unarguably by careless capitalism, the exploitation of resources beyond reason and yet somehow this is treated as a “plant issue” rather than a “life on earth” issue. Some pretty birds and cute lemurs might die, too, we guess but that’s about it. Crazy botanists in their OU-style jumpers and beards. The tendency of “serious business” is to ignore these wailing lefties and concentrate on the actual task of defeating the competition. And fvck knows, most of us don’t do enough ourselves; it’s all very well me sitting here finger-wagging but I cancelled my rainforest protection direct debit in a panic about my overdraft and although (as is probably obvious from this) I’m currently working at Kew Gardens, I’m an administrator not a botanical superweight.

This is no longer a botanical issue. Or rather, botany is, as part of human ecology, the mainstream now. If we extrapolate from the 23% of plants under threat that 23% of life on earth is under threat (and it could be more; removing one plant from a complex ecosystem can cause it to break down, as the moss fed the grubs that fed the mouse that fed the birds that pollinated the trees, etc.) then this is a terrifying projection and something that is not a case of sentimentally preserving pretty flowers but of desperate survival. We are a weak and strange species and we are dependent on the health of the rest of the world to maintain ourselves, which makes our short lives and shorter perspectives problematic and however much it’s needed, it’s pretty implausible to imagine that defense budgets will be revoked and plunged into combating something that’s probably the most immediate threat to our lives.

“Plants are not just beautiful, they help us to survive” is a good title, it is strangely dignifiedly twee and fits nicely with the quiet study of dried specimens. Ever since I read it, though (and I have to emphasise again that I like the article, very much) I’ve been thinking frustratedly about the title. Does anyone think of plants as just decoration? Perhaps they do, especially in cities where they rarely appear as more than floral displays but it seems like a weak retreat from the essential work of the Herbarium. Plants are not a pretty, harmless study anymore; they are something for the hard right-wing survivalists to get shitting themselves about. A health check for plants, passive but responsible for maintaining animal life (which is also responsible, through pollination, for their maintenance in return) is a health check for the future of a non-acrid-gas-based world, with breathable air and land to stand on, even before food or shelter and the results have not come back good. Better diet, more exercise, less destruction of the rainforest and we’ll probably be fine but unless the skinny, inarticulate botanists start being taken seriously we are all fucking doomed.

Plants are beautiful: they are why we survive.

(I apologise for any major spelling errors in this, the story was embargoed until 0:01 on the morning of writing and so I hamfistedly typed this out whilst at best half awake; I have subsequently tried to correct all the errors I could find but there are no doubt some more I am mentally glossing over)

(Errata: I originally said that the percentage of plants threatened was 23%; it is actually 22%, I also listed the Welwitschia Mirabilis as ‘one of the most threatened; it is technically rated as ‘Near Threatened’ so does not fall into the 22% of plants considered vulnerable or endangered, also for clarification purposes I should point out that the photos do not depict plants mentioned in the article, they are just some of the nicer ones I’ve taken at Kew)

*A random sample of 7000 of the plant species on earth was selected for the study, 4000 actually studied because our knowledge of the world’s plantlife is so poor we had insufficient data for the other 3000. Statistically, that means we know virtually nothing about just under a half of plantlife on earth; we have no samples, no knowledge of species’ interactions with their environment or humanity. This is an astonishing, terrifying knowledge gap. Recently the Guardian published another article about a different (although semi-connected) plant list, where botanists had sought to establish which scientific names for plants were synonymous. Scandalised comment-box contributors asked what botanists had been doing that they hadn’t noticed the names referred to the same plants before; it is possible that they may have been studying plants, rather than performing data entry exercises.
**That said, one of the endangered plants on the list is Welwitschia Mirabilis, a lumpy sort of primeval grass-ish thing which lives in the Namib desert. It is under severe threat due to a parasite that infects female seeds and makes them unviable, which it seems likely will impact severely on the incredibly slow-growing species; it takes decades for plants to reach reproductive maturity and centuries to reach full size, eventually living around a millenium. Due to this slow growth, plant collectors prefer to gather full-grown Welwitschia from the wild, rather than wait 700 years to see their (realistically, slightly hideous and malformed) plant grow to its full 1.4m of piled height, which also impacts dramatically on the population since Welwitschia grows in an economically unstable region and collectors will pay dearly for large specimens. It is with some hideous, tragic semi-irony that the only Welwitschia populations safe are those in an area of Angola so heavily landmined that hunters don’t dare go there and the plants live on, surrounded by deadly explosives. This doesn’t help the propagation of new ones, though…