Why Plants Are Awesome to Study: A Love Song From a Scientist

— by Jessica B. Turner, PhD candidate at West Virginia University

I haven’t always studied plants. When I was a kid, I thought I’d become a marine biologist or a zoologist. This led to great experiences doing reef surveys in Hawaii, and studying the stress level of endangered wild asses (no joke). It wasn’t long, however, that the siren song of plants called me into the shore.

Today, I am an outdoor enthusiast, amateur baker, and PhD student focused on conservation biology (how humans impact the environment and what we can do about it) and ethnobotany (the relationship humans have with plants).

This is a small 'juvenile' ginseng plant, and it has two leaves (or two prongs) with eight leaflets. (Jessica T.)
This small ‘juvenile’ ginseng plant has two leaves (or two prongs) with eight leaflets—along with healing properties that make it a hot global commodity.

For my day job, I get to study what I consider to be the most interesting plant in the world: American ginseng, a seemingly humble little plant that’s the star of a multimillion-dollar international industry.

People harvest the root of ginseng in the eastern U.S., and sell the roots for hundreds of dollars a pound for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hong Kong.


Confessions of a Plant Lover

While I’m clearly a ginseng gal, basically all plants have their own super-cool story to tell—they just need some better PR. So today, I’m going to run through the top six reasons why studying plants is awesome:

1.) Plants don’t move

This sounds silly, but this may be the number one reason to study plants. When I leave my study sites in the fall, I know that in the spring I can come right back to the same plant.

Ginseng can live as long as 50-75 years, and can even be older than the trees that surround it. We tag each ginseng by placing a small nail with an ID number on it at the base of the plant in the soil, and we’re therefore able to visit the same plants year after year. As a recommendation for a young, budding (get it?) scientist, plants are worthy subject areas because you can really get to know ’em over time.

2.) Less red tape than other disciplines

As a scientist, the amount of protocol required for working with human and animal subjects is astounding. There are countless applications, documents, waivers, etc. when you’re studying people and animals, which need to be treated with a different level of respect and sensitivity to avoid causing psychological or physical damage. With plants, unless it’s a very rare species, you really don’t have to worry about this.

3.) Diversity rocks

There is an estimated number of 298,000 plant species in this world. From showy beautiful flowers, plants that look like stones, and plants that live for millennia, to carnivorous plants, and  jaw-droppingly large trees, there’s a ton of fabulous variation and differences in plant species.

You can find ’em on every continent of the world (yes, even Antarctica has two plant species). Check out some other cool plants on Buzzfeed.

4.) Plants make you happy

Spending time outside or around green and flowering things makes you happy, helps you heal faster, improves relationships, increases energy, improves your memory and your ability to concentrate, etc. The list goes on… You can’t help but be happy around a bunch of plants.

5.) Stage versus age

So, my lab works with plant population dynamics. This is a fancy way of saying we study how the populations of plants can change over time, with seeds germinating, plants growing, and plants dying. We’re able to ask a lot of great questions just by looking at the population as a whole, or comparing it to how other populations of plants are doing.

A big difference between studying animals and studying plants is that age works really well in determining if an animal is going to be having babies, if they are going to die, what have you.

With plants, it doesn’t work like that. If a plant is in a great area, it will grow in size and reproduce rather rapidly. If a plant is in a poor area with not enough nutrients or sunlight, then the plant will likely shrink in size or die. A five-year-old ginseng plant in a great environment can be larger and reproduce more than a 20-year-old ginseng plant at a lower quality site. It can be really hard to age an animal, but it is extremely easy to measure a plant!

6.) Plants do amazing things for us

When you think about plants abstractly, they appear to be a panacea to all human problems. Here’s a brief drum roll of plantkind’s gifts to humankind:

  • Oxygen: Pretty important, right?
  • Shelter: Wood homes and bamboo floors come to mind…
  • Clothing: Cotton, linen, and flax, oh my!
  • Food: Directly, in the form of salad, or indirectly (yes, that steak ate plants at one point)
  • Medicine: From minor pains to major diseases, plants have long been a source of healing-stay tuned for a deep dive EcoMyth on this topic, coming soon!
  • Inspiration: Think Monet’s lily pads, O’Keeffe’s poppies, Walt Whitman’s poems
  • Ritual: Incense and lotus flowers, to name a few
  • Oh, and survival: Plants made it so humans could live on Earth by regulating important cycles

Moral of the story: Plants are wonderful, fascinating organisms that are great to research. Even if you don’t study them, go outside and enjoy them already!