BTG Brown Bag to Argue Plants Are Cool, Too

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Biodiversity scientist Chris Martine will speak at 12:15 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall to make the case for why plants are just as fascinating as the animals usually targeted by nature documentaries and conservation work.

Outside his work as the David Burpee Chair in Plant Genetics and Research at Bucknell University, Martine evangelizes plants through his web series, “Plants are Cool, Too!” — also the name of today’s lecture. Each episode makes the case for peculiar plants, from an episode on skunk flowers that smell like rotting flesh to another featuring the “extreme weeds of parking lots.”

The show is decidedly quirky, taking the conversational tone of an Animal Planet series and using plenty of light-hearted wordplay. Yet it remains educational, with Martine as host and a revolving cast of experts providing additional expertise. Although the focus shifts from episode to episode, the series’ theme song makes a sustained argument at the beginning of each video.

“Animals are cuddly,” the song goes. “Animals are cute. You can put a kitten in a three-piece suit. But can an animal make its own food? Can an animal feed the whole world? Can an animal help you get a girl?”

The series’ name answers those questions upfront, and Martine spends his time finding more examples of cool plants. In 2009, Martine discovered a new species of wild eggplant in Australia that he said “gender bends” to trick pollinators such as bees into gathering fake pollen. That process is the subject of further research, but just discovering a new species was cool in and of itself.

“For a plant geek like me, this is like winning a conference championship,” Martine said in a 2013 Bucknell press release. “We biodiversity scientists have been at this for centuries, so it’s awfully cool to feel like a part of the grand endeavor of describing life on Earth — and to know that there is still more to find.”

The fact there is so much left to explore is one of his key messages, and he’s relentless about the relevance of flora. Even in a place as pedestrian as his email signature, Martine links to a video titled “Knowing plants means feeling at home in the world.” It’s an argument, in plain terms, for engaging with the details of nature to understand where humans fit into the world.

“Once we begin to learn the things around us, maybe even learn a few names of things, everything begins to become more clear,” Martine said in the video. “We start to see things around us in a different way and it starts to feel like a place where we belong a little bit more.”

Morgan Kinney

The author Morgan Kinney

Morgan Kinney is a Northwestern University journalism student who likes to explain things, particularly science. Read his Twitter thoughts @morgan_kinney.