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7 Plants That Changed Your Life

BBC Radio 4 has a new podcast available worldwide, Plants: From Roots to Riches. Professor Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, will be looking at how different plants underpin our lives. Even plants on the other side of the world can have a profound effect on your life. Here’s seven.

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1. Rice

Sharada Prasad CS / Via Flickr: sharadaprasad

Rice is the one of oldest domesticated cereal crops. Once humans started planting rice they started to settle in places. This wasn’t always for the best. Disease became more of an issue as people couldn’t wander off from sickness.

Throughout south-east Asia, people re-shaped the landscape to improve rice production. For some people this was the start of the Anthropocene. The controversial Ruddiman Hypothesis states that it was methane emitted from early paddy fields that started man-made climate change. A small boost in temperatures at the right time might explain why the Earth hasn’t slipped back into another Ice Age. However it is possible that estimates of methane emission from paddy fields are too high.

Rice might also be the plant of the future. Currently the Golden Rice project is testing a new variety of rice with added beta carotene, a source of vitamin A. If it works it could prevent millions of children going blind. However some organisations are opposed to releasing a genetically-modified crop, and fear a successful release might open the door to other genetically-modified crops.

2. Wine Grape

Spencer Graham / Via Flickr: rocklin

They didn’t grow rice in ancient Greece. Instead the key crops were wheat, for bread, olives, for oil and grapes for wine. The earliest grapes were domesticated in the Middle East, but the Greeks played an important role because of all the extra cultural baggage they put around it. It was Greece where wine was a key part of the Symposium, part philosophical / political debate, part lads’ night in. When the Greeks took wine to trade in the Western Mediterranean, they also took specialist vessels for drinking with it, exporting not just alcohol, but their culture with it.

Ancient wines were different to modern wines, with drinkers watering down the wine before drinking it. Drinking unmixed wine was the mark of a barbarian. However to our tastes the wines of the future might be barbaric.

The problem is climate change. Currently warmer summers seem to be improving yields, but if they get much hotter and drier, then the wines grapes produce might well change. For example the Champagne region might be too warm to make champagne. There is plenty of research into how to protect grapevines. For example, you could shade them but this cuts down on light for photosynthesis. Not only did grapes help lay the foundations of modern civilisation, work to protect them might also shape your future.

3. Oak

Marilyn Peddle / Via Flickr: marilynjane

The trade ships that carried wine around the Mediterranean may have been mainly pine, but for war a stronger wood was needed; oak. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic, he did it in oak ships. When the British Empire ruled a quarter of the world’s population, it was an oak-built navy that gave it power, but it supported the Crown well before then.

During the English Civil War, after the Royalists lost the Battle of Worcester, it is said Charles II fled to evade capture, at one point hiding from Parliamentarians in an oak tree. Had the future king been captured due to a less hospitable tree, it might have led to a radically different course of history.

Oak was an important factor in the industrial revolution too. Oak was coppiced, to provide charcoal for the furnaces of the industrial revolution. This means cutting the tree to a stump, to produce multiple shoots that can be harvested for use. Oak coppicing was a major source of fuel for the mills that refined cotton brought in by the oak ships.

4. Cotton

Mike Beauregard / Via Flickr: 31856336@N03

Cotton is the most used natural fibre for clothes. It was domesticated on both sides of the Atlantic in ancient times, but mechanisation made it a hugely important material during the Industrial Revolution. The British demand for cotton helped drive the occupation of India but, as demand grew, there was an even bigger catastrophe happening in the West.

The demand for labour for cotton, and other crops like tobacco and sugar, created a shortage of workers. The answer for American plantation owners was to import slaves. Slavery for farming was nothing new, but the scale of exports, maybe more than eleven million, and a similar number departing the east coast for the Arab world, depopulated Africa and created a massive diaspora in chains.

Cotton is another plant that may have a genetically-modified future. Bollworms attack the plant. One popular defence is to douse the plants with Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that produces a toxin harmful to bollworms. Bt cotton produces the toxin itself, directly, meaning less insecticide is needed. However there may be problems with evolved resistance or growth of previously minor pests that the Bt toxin doesn’t kill.

5. Potato

jamonation / Via Flickr: jamonation

It wasn't just oak that fuelled the mills. Some historians say the potato was a major factor in the industrial revolution. The higher calorific content meant it fuelled the workers. The potato was not popular to begin with. People were used to plants that grew from seed. Potatoes grew from tubers and weren't like popular foods of the time. It wasn't fashionable trend-setters that adopted it at first, but Irish peasants.

Ireland suffered when potato blight hit the crop in the 1840s. By itself this could have been a disaster, but demands from the London government for Ireland to keep shipping grain out made it catastrophic. A million died, and another million emigrated.

There is research into producing a blight-resistant potato in Ireland, but another line of research is producing a less poisonous potato. It’s easy to forget that potato is a relative of nightshade and sometimes, with new potato breeds, this can have unexpected consequences.

6. Opium Poppy

Alastair Rae / Via Flickr: merula

The opium poppy is another example of unexpected consequences. It has been known since ancient times, when it was used both as a medicine and for recreation. It was particularly associated with Demeter, goddess of fertility.

One of the first examples of a War on Drugs, involved opium. China was reluctant to trade with the west in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The solution, for western traders was opium. Grown by the East India Company, defended by the British Navy and smuggled into Chinese ports, it ravaged Chinese society until the state started to fall apart. China’s rulers appealed to the west for help to fight the insurgents, and nations including the UK and USA agreed, on the condition the opium trade was legalised.

The opium poppy continues to be important in medicine. The painkiller morphine is derived from the poppy and cannot be chemically synthesized. Other painkillers from the plant are codeine and thebaine.

7. Arabidopsis thalania

Daniel Ocampo Daza / Via Flickr: egosumdaniel

The non-scientific name is Thale cress, but usually it’s just called arabidopsis. It’s a weed related to mustard and cabbage. It’s not a plant you’re likely to notice if you’re not a plant scientist. but it’s one of the most influential plants on the planet.

It has become a model organism because it responds to stresses and diseases in a similar way to many crops plants.. When botanists want to see what a plant does under test conditions, they use arabidopsis. For example, recently scientists have been X-raying soil to see how plants can find water by their roots.

It’s also useful because it has a small genome and just five pairs of chromosomes, making it a popular choice for genetic experiments. The first glow in the dark plants are modified forms of arabidopsis. It’s also easy to produce mutants from it, and the short generation time makes it easy to track what effects the changes have, a bit like how other scientists might use the fruit fly Drosophilia melanogaster.

Each of these seven plants has influenced your life, even if you don't use them yourself or live where they grow. But have I missed one with a bigger effect on your life? Add your suggestions to the comment box below. You can catch Plants: From Roots to Riches as a podcast from the BBC.

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