When plants and fungi get the Attenborough treatment, we know we'll see them as we've never seen them before. He explains that some plants are as fierce, active and territorial as animals. Some are adventurous travellers, hunters, lurking predators and kidnappers. Others form close relationships with animals, fungi and different plant species. Only we never see any of this because plants live at a different speed to us. Even the fastest growing plants move too slowly for us to detect without the help of clever modern technology: time-lapse photography. And here's the amazing film evidence that plants are busy, bustling and fighting for survival - just like us. There are 6 episodes of about 50 minutes each. They are:
1) "Travelling" which looks at plants that have some remarkable ways of getting their seeds and even themselves dispersed over great distances, in time as well as space. We see plants that quest forward, searching for things to grip or invade, plants that pull up their roots and tumble, plants that explode in order to spray their seeds as far as possible and plants that float or fly their seeds away. The plant that most impressed me was the magnolia seed discovered in a 2,000 year old burial, that germinated into a tree that produced flowers different to all magnolia flowers in existence today.
2) "Growing" shows how plants use the materials around them, such as water, air, sunlight and minerals and change them into plant material. They are very efficient at building themselves out of these simple ingredients. Even in places where there are hardly any resources they often manage to cling to life and grab what little rain and nourishment becomes available from time to time. David shows us a fascinating range of plant life, from the smallest algae living inside rocks in dry and freezing conditions to giant redwood trees, the biggest living things on earth.
3) "Flowering" is about how plants get themselves pollinated. There are many ways, both simple and devious. The simplest is to produce a great cloud of tiny pollen particles that can blow about in the wind and a small but adequate proportion will chance to fall on a suitable recipient. A lot of plants work harder to make sure they get a good postal service. Flowers have evolved to be irresistible to the plants' chosen animal partners. They tempt birds, bats, insects, etc by giving off visual and scent signals and offering nectar, spare pollen (which bees are fond of) and even sex. Some flowers open and close in such a way that they can trap their pollinators for a few hours then ensure that they avoid being pollinated with their own pollen by losing their attractive look and smell.
4) "The Social Struggle" shows the life and death struggle as plants compete for space and resources. There are plants that are able to grow slowly, biding their time while they wait for a stoke of bad luck to eliminate their rivals and there are others that aggressively take the fight to the enemy by starving or strangling them. There's no blood but it's still a grim battle where only the fittest can survive.
5) "Living Together" focuses on the relationships that form between plants and other organisms. There are symbiotic relationships and parasitic relationships. There are trees that have formed close alliances with ants. They provide the ants with a home - special chambers that exactly suit the ants' needs - and special foods for both the adults and the ant larvae, and in return the ants protect the trees from browsers, insect pests and even keep the ground clear of any potential competitors for yards around. There's a great variety of lichens and every one is a fungus (different types) that grow in a symbiotic association with an alga or cyanobacteria - the mycobiont and the photobiont. Then there are the parasites like mistletoe, fig vines and so on. There's a very extravagant and horrible smelling flower that grows out of its poor host tree and the flower itself is the only visible sign of the parasite. Flies are attracted to it and it takes them prisoner. It's an absolute bounder!
6) "Surviving" examines some of the plants that live in extremely harsh conditions, where it can be very hot or cold or conditions change between those extremes during the course of a day. Also there are areas of very high rain fall where nutrients are being constantly washed out of the sparse soil. Plants have adapted to all these conditions with some extraordinary strategies. Some can soak up vast stores of water when it rains, to take them through months or years of drought. Others hide below the surface of the soil or sand. There are algae that live in the microscopically tiny gaps in the structure of rocks.
This is one of my favourite Attenborough series. The picture quality is better than earlier work and the methods of photography are more sophisticated. Filming plants in this way really had to wait for this technology and it's fortunate for us that it was David Attenborough who took on the task. The special features are a couple of brief snatches of interview: one with David and one with a time-lapse photographer - both short but interesting.
Wonderful series. Highly recommended.