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The best plant stories of 2016

By now, you’ve probably heard: 2016 is getting some pretty bad reviews.

If you’re at all botanically-inclined, however, 2016 was something of a banner year. Matt Damon won the Golden Globe for playing not just a botanist, but a heroic space botanist. Botanists noticed. Almost immediately there was a new species of nightshade named after him. We had the first space plants (to be clear: space plants, not space pants). In a bit of a first, there was big lichen news in 2016 (more below), and even a book about forestry that hit the bestseller list.

Zinnia in space
The first flower to bloom in space: a Zinnia aboard the International Space Station. Photo: NASA.

Good for plants, but count me unsurprised that the year came to a close without a single best stories of 2016 retrospective with a botanical bent.

There are roundups of animal storiestravel storiescrime storiesscience storiessports storiesdata storiesfood storiesstories that made other writers jealous, even spectroscopy stories and software as a service stories. Plants got ignored once again.

As someone who will gleefully recite the Latin names of the plants in your lunch salad, I never quite understand why plants are overlooked. You can probably see a plant right now wherever you are, you’re breathing the oxygen they provide, and chances are there’s plant fiber in the clothing you’re wearing. That coffee or tea you’re sipping while studiously not thinking about plants? Also made of plants. And yet plants remain underdogs — in fact plants are often literally under dogs.

It’s okay — it’s part of their charm.

Find a niche and fill it, as they say — so here I am, tending an untended garden, curating a collection of botanical curiosities and great writing from the past year about plants and their kin. You don’t have to be a gardener, leaf-peeper, herbalist, botanist, pteridologist, mycologist, bryologist, lichenologist, phycologist or even a vegan to enjoy a good plant story. A good story is a good story, and a good plant story is often, at its root, a story about us.

1. The Wood Wide Web

“In writing about science, I like to start with things that people are familiar with,” Carl Zimmer said in a keynote address at the Botany 2016 conference in Savannah. “I don’t need to tell someone what a tree is. That’s nice.”

Yes, that is nice. But it’s also not quite true: You do need to tell people what a tree is. In fact, you need to tell me what a tree is, because I thought I knew, and it turns out I was wrong.

There’s much more to being a tree than most people know, and a forest isn’t just a bunch of trees growing in a group — it’s an arboreal cocktail party, civil society, or perhaps even an anarcho-syndicalist farming collective. If I can’t quite nail the metaphor, it’s because we’re just starting to realize how little we know about forests.

We’ve spent so long looking up in forests, we’ve ignored what goes on below ground. Photo: Andy Murdock.

Trees share resources, and not just within the same species. They communicate. They warn each other of dangers. And they do it all with the help of, or perhaps at the direction of, a network of fungi in the soil connecting members of forests via what researchers are charmingly calling the “Wood Wide Web.”

Are the fungi and trees a mutually-beneficial partnership, or are fungi clandestine tree farmers, silently managing forests for their own benefit? The economy of the forest is still poorly understood, but the more we know the more it looks, well, intelligent on some level.

Everyone loves a good “rewrite the textbook” story, and there were at least three great takes on this topic in 2016:

The Secrets of the Wood Wide Web — Robert Macfarlane, The New Yorker. Macfarlane’s approach to a big, paradigm smashing discovery, is to take a walk in the woods with a young forest researcher who plays accordion in a “myco-klezmer-hip-hop-electro-burlesque” band. If you’ve read Macfarlane before, you’ll know that this will be an illuminating walk.

From Tree to Shining Tree — Radiolab (with Annie McEwen, Brenna Farrell, and Robert Krulwich). A podcast, not a written article, but what a story. My vote of Radiolab’s very best episode of 2016. As with all of the great episodes of Radiolab, the hosts’ excitement of learning something new and surprising is infectious.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World, the recently released sub-sub-titled book by German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben tackles this same topic at length, and has been a surprise international best-seller.

2. Who doesn’t like a stinky corpse?

Eight Days of the Corpse Flower: A Diary — Elif Batuman, The New Yorker

To say that animals receive more conservation attention than plants is true, but really it’s the big, flashy animals, the “charismatic megafauna,” that get, if you’ll pardon the pun, the lion’s share of our attention. Gnus before shrews, apparently.

So when it comes to plants, it’s no surprise that people are totally taken by a plant with an enormous penis-shaped inflorescence that very rarely blooms and smells like warm death. How could we not be? Everybody loves charisma.

The corpse flower in bloom, complete with flies. Photo: Keoki Seu (CC-BY-NC-SA).

I don’t just toss in “penis-shaped” lightly, the plant in question is the titan arum, the corpse flower, Amorphophallus titanum. Taking the Latin literally, it’s an enormous misshapen penis. The corpse flower really caught our attention in 2016, in part because so many are inexplicably blooming at once, and perhaps because 2016 was simply an enormous misshapen penis of a year.

Elif Batuman’s diary in The New Yorker is a hilarious read, one of the few weird-plant-stalking via webcam diaries you’re likely to encounter. And you might just end up being able to tell your spathe from your spadix by the end of it.

If you still haven’t gotten enough corpse flower, also see It Stinks by Kent Russell (The Paris Review), and Why Are So Many Corpse Flowers Blooming at Once? by Jessie Guy-Ryan (Atlas Obscura).

3. Organ trans-plants

Growing Organs on Apples— Jessa Gamble, The Atlantic

“I am looking at an ear made of cervix, held together by apple.”

Ear, cervix, apple — say what now?

The fusion of plant and animal cells is a promising area of investigation for regenerative medicine research, which was just as surprising to me as the ear-cervix-apple. Asparagus stalks are perfect for growing nerve cells for spinal cord repair. Rose petals are a good natural scaffolding for skin grafts. How do you like them ear-cervix-apples?

4. Changing spaces

A Forest Built by Hand — Carson Vaughan, Roads & Kingdoms

Jim Harrison once compared Nebraska’s Sand Hills to the Pacific Ocean. “The vastness and waving of the hilly grasslands in the wind make you smell salt,” he wrote.

The Sand Hills are one of the largest intact grasslands in the US, and also, incongruously, home to the largest hand-planted forest in the Western hemisphere. When Teddy Roosevelt created the Nebraska National Forest, it was the first US National Forest with no forest in it. Over the past 100 years, human hands have sought to change that. Vaughan’s article is a hybrid of history and botany, a tale of westward expansion, hubris, scientific accident and the human power to wholly remake a landscape in our own vision.

Nebraska’s Sand Hills in their normal tree-free state. Photo: Ammodramus.

5. Two’s company, three’s a lichen

How a Guy from a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology — Ed Yong, The Atlantic

When I was about 10 years old, a Yosemite ranger helped me to understand what a lichen was by telling me the story of the happy marriage of Alice Algae and Freddy Fungus.

Their romance started when they met and took a lichen to each other.

There’s nothing quite as effective as a terrible nerdy pun to etch something into my brain for all time. I’ll be on my deathbed, and I won’t know who you are, but I’ll still know that a lichen is a fungus plus algae.

And I’ll be wrong. Neither I nor the ranger knew at the time, but Freddy and Alice were a tad more polyamorous than they appeared.

In 2016, researchers discovered that the fungus-algae symbiosis in lichens is not quite so simple: there’s a third organism in the mix that we’ve simply overlooked, even with advanced microscopes and DNA sequencing.

Wolf lichen (Letharia vulpina). Photo: Ken-ichi Ueda (CC BY-NC).

Ed Yong had a prolific 2016, with the publication of I Contain Multitudes (certain to be on all of the Best Microbiome Stories of 2016 lists), and his alarmingly frequent columns for The Atlantic. He also wrote my pick for the best coverage of the surprising lichen three-way, an effortless weaving of personal story, history, and biology.

Coming at it from a different angle, I also highly recommend Jennifer Frazer’s 2 Lichen Mysteries Solved Reveal a Greater Hidden Truth from Scientific American.

6. A botanical foodie mystery

The Most Exclusive Restaurant in America — Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker

“By watching deer in the woods, he had discovered that the inner barks of certain trees have a salty taste. While chopping wood, he found that a particular lichen takes on an oniony flavor for three weeks a year.”

Huh. I’ve watched deer and chopped wood, but learned nothing of the sort. Am I simply not as observant, or is something else going on here?

I don’t want to give too much away. It’s a foodie story, it’s a botanical story, it’s a fascinating character study, and it’s a very, very engrossing mystery.

If you’ve worked up an appetite for more foodie stories featuring obscure edible plants, I’d recommend pairing this story with The Noma Way by Tienlon Ho (California Sunday Magazine).

7. A lost crop and a reclaimed way of life

Southern Sugarcane Revival — Jill Neimark, Hakai Magazine

The community of Hog Hammock, on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, is home to the Geechee, descendants of slaves taken from West Africa in the 1800s. Only a small number of residents remain on the island to keep up the old cultural traditions, and they are pinning their hopes on a long-lost heirloom variety of sugarcane, “purple ribbon,” — a crop formerly raised by their ancestors as slaves — as a way of revitalizing the community and saving the culture.

“Nobody knows what led to [purple ribbon’s] final disappearance from Sapelo Island, but like many heirloom cultivars today, it is poised to rise again.”

Hakai Magazine was full of beautiful writing this year, including several plant-related stories like this one. If Hakai is a new name to you, like it was to me this past year, be sure to take a browse through their own 16 Best of 2016 list.

8. Lawnless in California

Land of Sod — Carolyn Kormann, Harper’s

“The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day? That’s going to be a thing of the past,” said California Governor Jerry Brown, announcing water use restrictions in the face of California’s historic drought.

To grass-obsessed southern Californians, lawnlessness was not an option. Some ignored the new water restrictions and were publicly “drought-shamed” in the local media. Others got creative, and found ways to have their turf and mow it too — while still doing the right thing for the state.

How did we get obsessed with perfect green rectangles of grass in the first place? When did we collectively forget about native plants that thrive without mass-irrigation? And what will it take to bring on a post-grass way of life?

9. How long can the everlasting last?

A Flower and a Way of Life in Peril — Brendan Borrell, Sapiens

The Brazilian Serra do Espinhaço mountain range is the only place on earth where you can find the everlasting, or sempre-vivas, prized for its star-like flowers that retain their beauty for years once dried. You may have even bought some yourself in a decorative bouquet.

Local residents depend on the annual harvest and sale of dried flowers to scrape by, but the flowers are getting scarce, and, at the same time, the restrictions on where and what people can collect are getting tighter. We’ve seen previous tales of local economies at odds with conservationists, but this is a particularly unusual story, rich with nuance and peculiar characters, where the commodity in question is both valuable and useless at the same time, and where there is no clear villain or simple solution.

10. Big trees under big stress

Last Tree Standing — Thayer Walker, Biographic

Don’t get distracted by the drone footage. Okay, get distracted for a while, because holy wow — but come back to the article once you’ve collected your jaw from the floor.

I visited the giant sequoias at Calaveras Big Trees State Park a few months ago, and, with the mass tree die-off evident everywhere you go in the Sierra Nevada, I had to wonder: What will be the fate of the few remaining groves of giant sequoias?

Looking up a giant sequoia at Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Photo: Andy Murdock.

“There is absolutely no limit to its existence,” John Muir wrote of the giant sequoia. “Nothing hurts the big tree.”

Can we really be so confident today? This is a wonderful read, with extraordinarily beautiful video and photography.

Bonus story:

Attachment Planting Your Succulent — Joe Wadlington, The New Yorker

“I knew my life needed changing. So I started ‘attachment planting.’ It’s the perfect next step for people like me, who aren’t responsible enough to have kids, a dog, or an uncracked iPhone, but who want to give everything they’ve got to some lucky Ikea houseplant.”

Other notable plant stories from 2016:

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