What have plants ever done for us? by Timothy Walker

On 14th April 2021 Grayshott Gardeners gave a virtual welcome to Timothy Walker who gave us a Zoom lecture exploring “What have plants ever done for us?”.  Timothy is a botanist, gardener, lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford, presenter and author, and gave us plenty of reasons to look at plants in a new light.

Timothy started by answering the question his lecture posed.

Q: What have plants ever done for us?


And he then went on to explain why.

Plants are unique in their ability to harness energy from the sun.  Their ability to photosynthesise is something science has not been able to replicate.  All the energy we use has been created by plants – either today, or over many millions of years.  A sobering thought.

Plants created soil, by their decay over millenia.  Plants are the green glue that ensures that the soil stays on the land.  The ability to cultivate plants played a key role in human evolution.  Civilisations were built around areas of cultivation, and plants gave us food, fibres for cloth, many medicines …… not to mention coffee and chocolate.

But 2 in 5 plants are currently threatened with extinction.  Given our complete dependence on them, this is a scary statistic.  So is it time that we turn the question on its head, and ask “What can we do for plants?”

Timothy believes there are three key principles:

  1. There is no technical obstacle to the conservation of any and every plant species
  2. Habitats can be restored and rehabilitated
  3. Gardeners and horticulturalists have a pivotal role to play

To illustrate how gardeners can put back things that have been destroyed, Timothy showed us the progress of projects in Oxford that have turned arable land back into flower rich meadows.  He also referenced National Plant Collections, that can preserve plants whose populations are in vulnerable areas, by propagating and distributing samples all around the world.  Gardens, with plants and ponds, bird boxes and hedges can support many mammals and invertebrates that would otherwise be threatened.

Gardeners have the skills to recognise what the problems are, and the knowledge to be able to make a difference.  So maybe the biggest question of the evening was “Will we gardeners rise to the challenge?”