Interview: botanist Peter Crane on conservation and 'committing ourselves to do the work'

The renowned palaeobotanist is set to discuss his book Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot at the Shanghai International Literary Festival

Image: courtesy Yale University Press; artwork: Tana
A botanical researcher and evolutionary plant scientist, Sir Peter Crane’s career has traversed some of the biggest names in the world of plant biology. To give you an idea, currently the first president of educational research centre Oak Spring Garden Foundation in the US, Crane also spent seven years as the director of London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and was Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Photograph: Matthew Garrett

Crane was first drawn to the ginkgo tree during his tenure at Kew as his ‘longstanding history in studying the evolution of plants’ came together with one of the oldest ginkgo trees in Europe. Today, his most well-known work Ginkgo: The Tree That Time Forgot is something of an ode to the well-known living fossil’s ‘fascinating evolutionary and cultural biography,’ as he puts it.

A ‘botanical oddity’, once found all over the world, wild ginkgo now only exists in China and has a great story of drastic decline and a fantastic comeback after it 'insinuated itself into our lives in many different ways,' explains Crane. As he prepares to shed light on that story at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, he talks to us about the of importance of public engagement, the challenges of climate change and the fascinating histories of plants.

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A lot of your work is engaging with the public on the importance – both culturally and environmentally – of plants. Why is this such an important element of what you do?

All scientists are supported one way or another by the public – through their taxes or through personal donations – and I think scientists have a responsibility to engage with the public about what they've learned. I see it as a kind of a responsibility of all researchers to reach out to the publics who support them. That's one motivation.

But, the other side of it is that plants are a really important part of our lives, we can't survive without them, and I think a lot of people take that for granted. They are absolutely fundamental to our individual survival; the process of photosynthesis is a biomolecular miracle in a way and it provides the energy that sustains all of us and the world around us. So it's my job as a plant biologist is to continually remind people about how important they are.

Like you just said, plants are such a huge part of the future of this planet, but they’re not necessarily treated as such. Given deforestation and climate change, how can we help to conserve and protect their future?

There are many different ways... one way is to get involved in conservation through the many NGOs that are working hard around the world on conservation. Another is to get involved at home [by] planting a garden that features native plants or trying to create an environment that's full of plants… One way that's a bit more controversial is to eat less meat, because agriculture is one of the main drivers of habitat loss.

Another important aspect is to use a variety of plants. There's a lot of interest now, for example, in heritage crops, and that's definitely worth supporting because in general with our most important plant species we tended to put all of our eggs in one basket, focusing on a few commonly grown varieties that are especially productive. But all crops will face the challenges of climate change [and] all crops are in an arms race with pathogens and pests, and the genetic diversity of crop plants is really vital to ensuring that we have the variability that's going to be needed to meet those challenges in the future.

Expanding on that, do you feel quite positive for for the future of, well, Earth? That’s a big question… But do you see change happening?

I think there is more [public] awareness, but at the same time the forces – for example climate change – are something that's very difficult for us to control, so the challenges are there. But I think you have to be optimistic. I mean what are you going to do? You can’t just go bury your head in the sand. Even if you know that the chances of a complete turnaround are low, we should all do what we can to accelerate that process and do individually what what we can. In other words we may not be able to finish the job, but we should certainly commit ourselves to continuing to do the work. You have to stay positive. [We] have to do something rather than sit there wringing our hands.


You dedicated a whole book to the ginkgo tree. If you could pick one other plant to write a book about, what would it be and why?

I think one of the things about ginkgo is that it has a very interesting story, with a very strong evolutionary and cultural component – but a lot of other plants have equally interesting stories. One is the Venus flytrap.

Why do I say Venus Flytrap? First of all, it's also a bit like ginkgo as one of these plants that's very restrictive in terms of where its natural habitat is – and that habitat is under threat. It's restricted to the coastal plain of North Carolina and a little bit of South Carolina; it requires very special habitat conditions and it's an endangered plant.

It's also a special plant that's been studied by some of the most famous botanists of all time; the Bartrams and many others in the 18th century, then Darwin in the 19th century and there's a lot of modern studies on it. The other thing that's fun about the Venus flytrap is how it's made its way in popular culture with the likes of Little Shop of Horrors or The Day of the Triffids – all these people eating plants.

So I think that would be a good story to tell; it has some of the components that ginkgo has: a cultural history, a conservation component and it's an eminently fascinating plant.

Botanist Peter Crane will be discussing his book Gingko: The Tree That Time Forgot at the Shanghai International Literary Festival on Thursday 21 Mar at midday. Buy tickets online.