The best plant stories of 2017
Great botanical writing that helped distract us from the past year
I’m going to start with a guess: If you’re reading this, you’re looking for interesting things to read that have absolutely no connection with the daily news — a respite from the whirlwind of 2017.
If you read last year’s The best plant stories of 2016, you can guess where I tend to look for such escapes. Judging by the well over 100 plant-related stories I’ve bookmarked over the year, I’ve been doing a fair bit of escaping.
When I’m really looking for a mental reset, a way to get a quick infusion of creativity, I head to the woods, seaside bluffs, old fire roads in the hills — anywhere outside among nature, even for a short time. It’s the the strongest remedy I know. (And look: a 2017 study found that living near a forest is linked to better brain health.)
Stories about nature don’t come with the scent of conifers and wet dirt, or the pleasing crunch of a crispy leaf underfoot, but a great one can get close. An engrossing story can make you forget where you are, letting the endlessly streaming chyrons and tweets fizzle away into background haze.
It’s not a bulletproof solution; even our botanical friends got dragged into 2017 swamp occasionally.
There was the memorable moment where White House staffers were observed huddled “near a clump of bushes and then behind a tall hedge” according to the Washington Post, while some would argue they were simply bush-adjacent. While one wall was being devised along the U.S.–Mexico border, another one — made of plants — was under attack by 1.2 million wasps raining from the sky, which must be some sort of metaphor. Even plants couldn’t escape sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein. It was that kind of year.
But enough of that — we’re here for a break from all of that. Here you’ll find the stories that remind you that the world is bigger than the daily buffoonery of humanity, that perception of time can work on vastly different scales, that there are things right under our noses that are still waiting to be discovered, that the entirety of human knowledge is just a shallow thumbprint in the vast garden of the universe.
So grab a mug of your favorite plant-based beverage and put on your tree pants — here are the top 10 stories of 2017:
1. Misty mountain hop
A forest hidden by fog — Erik Vance, bioGraphic
Here’s a good place to start: in a mist-shrouded cloud forest in Chiapas.
Before the trip described in this story, cloud forests had already taken on a life of their own in the imagination of author Erik Vance. From photographs, he pictured them as “Places where, if you allowed your mind to drift, you could easily imagine trolls and forest sprites wandering under primordial boughs.”
He’s not wrong. They feel ancient, they smell ancient. The ever-present haze isolates you from the rest of the world. What’s hiding in that haze, you’ll never know.
Cloud forests only occur in a narrow range of climatic conditions where low, wet clouds gather and basically never leave.
(The persistent clouds that define a cloud forest even have a name, according to the International Cloud Atlas: silvagenitus. Add it to your favorite genus of clouds, perhaps Stratus silvagenitus, and impress your friends at the next nephelococcygia club meeting.)
These ancient forests have weathered shifts in the climate over millennia, but today is different. What happens if the clouds clear?
bioGraphic continued to produce thought-provoking and gorgeously photographed stories in 2017, including several more with a botanical focus:
- The lungs of the forest—Daniel Glick, bioGraphic
- Conservation meets corrections—Katie Jewett, bioGraphic
2. A California nut job
The curious case of the disappearing nuts — Peter Vigneron, Outside
In August of 2017, a strange crime took place in Stamford, Connecticut. Without any explanation, a zucchini was stolen from a garden and replaced with two cucumbers. (Few people have read about this case, so I suppose we can call it “The case of the little-read courgette.”)
Not all botanical crimes are quite so innocent.
Big business attracts big crimes, and, in California, nuts are big business. The Golden State grows over 80 percent of the world’s almonds. It’s such a big business that California declared not one but four official state nuts in 2017: almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pecans. (Not a one of them is native to California, nor are any truly a nut in the strict botanical sense of the word — they’re all seeds of drupes — but being a nut pedant wins you no friends, so let’s move along.)
In this cracking story from Outside, we meet agricultural crimes detectives, nut brokers, unwitting nut truck drivers and a network of Armenian mobsters. It’s a world full of nuts you never knew existed.
For fans of the underappreciated “true plant crimes” genre, also check out:
- Chasing the illegal loggers looting the Amazon forest — Richard Conniff, Wired
- Mexico’s avocado army: how one city stood up to the drug cartels — Nathaniel Parish Flannery, The Guardian
3. High-rise greens
The vertical farm — Ian Frazier, The New Yorker
By 2050, could New York City feed its population entirely on crops grown within the city limits? There’s not enough land or roof space, but New York City solved a similar space problem before by looking upwards. Could vertical farming make it possible?
The arguments for vertical farming are compelling: grow crops where they’re needed, reduce water and pesticide use, eliminate fertilizer runoff, restore croplands, optimize plant nutrients, improve farm labor conditions. On the other hand, the hurdles are huge, the technology untested.
Not convinced that a skyscraper filled with microgreens will save humanity? Neither am I, but a story with a cast of odd characters — including the inventor of the cow ankle bracelet and a woman whose real name is “Catkin Flowers” — in pursuit of crazy-seeming passion projects? Count me in.
4. A secret history
Rice reveals African slaves’ agricultural heritage — Virginia Gewin, Sapiens
Did African slaves bring rice and farming techniques that helped rice plantations in North America become successful? This is what Judith Rice’s 2002 book Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas argued, based in part on similarities between the way rice was raised in West Africa and the practices that took root in America.
The case wasn’t closed: there was no smoking gun, no direct account or other evidence to silence the critics of this theory. If African rice was ever cultivated in the Americas, it has long since been completely replaced by Asian rice varieties, destroying any evidence of African rice in the Americas.
That story, it turns out, isn’t completely true.
5. Watching grass grow
Searching for Mr. Grass — Bradford Pearson, Southwest Magazine
All it takes is one click to prove that watching-grass-grow.com is a real website. On it, you can watch a suburban lawn while a synth version of the Rocky theme song plays, and then—well, you get to do it all over again. The webcam has been trained on the same lawn since 2005, and — unaccountably — people from around the world watch.
What are they watching and why? What are people finding in this patch of grass? In this marvel of a story, Bradford Pearson goes to the man behind the world’s most perplexing webcam to find out.
It’s not exactly a plant story, nor is it a travel story you’d ever expect to find in an in-flight magazine. It’s a wonderful read, even if you can’t find a category to squeeze it into.
“I still can’t believe they let me write this,” Pearson recently tweeted about this story. I’m glad they did.
6. Plants are people, too
The hidden memories of plants — Sarah Laskow, Atlas Obscura
There seems to be a growing understanding that we’ve been vastly underestimating plants.
Plants can “smell” predators and defend against them — but is it really smell? Plants can “communicate” thanks to the help of fungi or parasites — but is it really communication? In this story from Atlas Obscura, frequently a good source of entertaining botanical oddities, Sarah Laskow explores the controversial idea of plant memory (or memory-like behaviors).
Communication, sensing the environment and responding, adaptive memory — in even the simplest animal, we’d call this intelligence. Maybe plants are just like relatives: it’s difficult to understand how they could possibly be related, but they’re frighteningly just like you.
Here are a few more stories from 2017 that show that plants are more like us than most people know, and they might even teach us a few things about being human:
- We can make plants pass out — with the same drugs that mysteriously knock us out — Beth Mole, Ars Technica
- Trees have their own songs — Ed Yong, The Atlantic
- Understanding what makes plants happy — Margaret Roach, The New York Times
- Stopping to smell the roses? You’re inhaling flower farts. — Abrahim El Gamal, Massive
7. Once upon a time in Iceland
Vikings razed the forests. Can Iceland regrow them? — Henry Fountain, The New York Times
Iceland is having a moment, or so travel headlines have told us for the better part of a decade. These headlines have followed a well-worn path: “Iceland is the next big travel destination” was followed by “Iceland is the hottest destination today,” which was quickly followed by “Holy smoked mackerel, there are so many tourists in Iceland that you can’t even see the waterfalls” and various predictions on what will become the next Iceland.
Iceland’s appeal has been fueled by a wave of photographs and videos of its dramatic treeless landscape with massive waterfalls, steaming azure hot springs and active volcanoes. The long-haired pretty ponies haven’t hurt, either.
That famous treeless landscape hasn’t always been this way. Roughly a quarter of the land was forested until the Vikings came along and lopped them down. Humans destroyed the forests of Iceland, and now humans are trying to bring them back, but the soils and the sheep aren’t always cooperating.
8. New Year’s resolution: listen to plants
Hope springs early, but not eternal, for the deadnettle — or for us — Hope Jahren, The New York Times
By the time Punxsutawney Phil makes his famous proclamation about the coming of spring, he’s already late to the game. If you really want to know about the changing of the seasons, ask a plant. Specifically, ask the deadnettle.
The deadnettle, Lamium album, is neither dead nor a nettle, but it puts out its first flowers as soon as winter shows signs of ending. It has long been the marker of warmer days to come, and those days are coming earlier and earlier. In the 1950s, the deadnettle never bloomed before March. Now its first blooms appear in January.
The culprit? Climate change, of course — that is to say, us. We don’t need to look to the plight of polar bears in the Arctic. If we were listening, we’d hear the alarm bells going off in our own yards.
Some plant stories serve as a mental holiday, others remind us that we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.
9. Make like a tree and migrate
American trees are moving west, and no one knows why — Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic
With rising temperatures around the globe, we should expect to see species moving toward the poles and upslope to find new suitable habitat. We’re seeing just that, but there’s another stronger pattern emerging in American trees: they’re moving west. Roughly three-quarters of eastern U.S. tree species are showing this pattern. Climate change can’t explain this, and presumably they’re not moving to join a Silicon Valley startup, so what’s happening?
It’s easy to think of native plant communities today as ideal states; left to their own devices, this is the way plants would and should organize themselves today and forever. Really what we’re seeing is just a brief snapshot in time: Plants are always migrating, fighting for resources, winning and losing territory. Their ranges are as much about history and luck as they are about biology.
Today, American trees are on the move, and even if the reason remains a mystery, changes are coming. With plant species moving in different directions, and some staying put, you end up with new plant communities. Will a tree from the east be welcomed in a new neighborhood?
10. Magic melons
Why should a melon cost as much as a car? — Bianca Bosker, Roads & Kingdoms
Does a $2700 mango taste 2700 times better than an average mango? (I’m willing to test this for science. Email me if you want to send me a mango.)
Roads & Kingdoms was filled with noteworthy plant-related stories in 2017 (see below for several more choice picks), but this story stood out by pulling off a rare feat in travel and food writing: writing about an aspect of another culture, one that seems completely weird from your perspective, and doing it without being condescending. Bianca Bosker digs into the fascinating world of boutique Japanese fruit with pure joy and curiosity (much as I will dig into that $2700 mango when you send it to me).
Why are there melons in Japan that cost as much as a car?
“It’s like asking in America, ‘Why do you high-five?’” a Japanese friend of the author replies.
The CRISPR drawer
It would be wrong to leave 2017 behind without talking about CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. The groundbreaking technique went from promising to actively transforming nearly every corner of biology and medicine in a remarkably short time. Plants are no exception. Here are just a few of the plant-related CRISPR stories from 2017 worth reading:
- These are not your father’s GMOs — Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review
- Fattened, Genetically Engineered Algae Might Fuel the Future — Nick Stockton, Wired
- Fixing the tomato: CRISPR edits correct plant-breeding snafu — Heidi Ledford, Nature
- Scientists use CRISPR technology to change flower color — David Nield, Science Alert
- Now chocolate could go extinct, fabulous — Whitney Kimball, Jezebel
Bonus good things for plant lovers
- If you’re not addicted to the podcast of In Defense of Plants or following their social feeds, get on it. As an intro, Matt, the host and brains behind In Defense of Plants, graciously provided his favorite plant story of 2017: The first trees ripped themselves apart to grow.
- “My life is now just trees. Trees and champagne.” — Judi Dench, with perhaps the quote of the year. Don’t miss her paean to her arboreal friends, My Passion for Trees on BBC.
- Need a dose of something funny, weird, and/or that takes nerdy to new levels? Looking for internet memes that almost no one else will understand? Follow the botanical shenanigans of Phytometrics and Photosynthetic Memes for Botanical Teens on Facebook.
- Sure, why not. Twin plants named after Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito.
Other notable plant stories from 2017 (by publication):
- Timberline — Ian Vorster, American Forests
- The parasite that wires plants together — Ed Yong, The Atlantic
- Flowers have secret blue halos that bumblebees can see — Ed Yong, The Atlantic
- Growing mutant peanuts with the radioactive gardening society — Natalie Zarrelli, Atlas Obscura
- The massively friendly world of competitive giant pumpkin growing — Paula Mejia, Atlas Obscura
- A year gardening the grave of a stranger — Syndey Schaedel, Atlas Obscura
- The 18th-century spy who gave us big strawberries — Mike Allen, Atlas Obscura
- The conqueror who longed for melons — Mark Hay, Atlas Obscura
- The hunt for a missing Canadian lily — Cara Giaimo, Atlas Obscura
- Germans do not have a word for cilantro because they hate it — Rebecca Schuman, The Awl
- Setting fire in the rain — Christopher Pollon, Hakai Magazine
- In the land of lost gardens — Heather Pringle, Hakai Magazine
- Bringing in the beans — Ted Genoways, Harper’s Magazine
- How an ancient potato helped people survive climate shifts — Maya L. Kapoor, High Country News
- Threatened plants on state lands have few protections — Cally Carswell, High Country News
- The marriage of vanilla — Sarah Lohman, Lapham’s Quarterly
- Late in life, Thoreau became a serious Darwinist — Randall Fuller, Longreads
- Mysterious island experiment could help us colonize other planets — Clare Fieseler, National Geographic
- How Driscoll’s reinvented the strawberry — Dana Goodyear, The New Yorker
- D.I.Y. artificial intelligence comes to a Japanese family farm — Amos Zeeberg, The New Yorker
- The strange wonders of the cactus, the plant of our times — Carolyn Kormann, The New Yorker
- Learning to love dill, Russia’s ubiquitous herb — Talia Lavin, The New Yorker
- In Mexico, weavers embrace natural alternatives to toxic dyes — Erica Goode, The New York Times
- A botanist in Swedish Lapland — James Prosek, The New York Times
- Meet the overcompensators, plants that get tougher and meaner when attacked — Joanna Klein, The New York Times
- How a wild berry Is helping to protect China’s giant pandas and its countryside — Kristina Johnson, NPR and the Food & Environment Reporting Network
- After oranges — Wyatt Williams, Oxford American
- The great nutrient collapse — Helena Bottemiller Evich, Politico
- The botanists’ last stand: The daring work of saving the last samples of dying species — Zoë Schlanger, Quartz
- Drones hunt down rare plants in Hawaii by going where people can’t — Alessandra Potenza, The Verge
- The scientists saving Hawaii’s rarest plants need to be saved — Alessandra Potenza, The Verge
- The dark state of British rhubarb — Craig Ballinger, Roads & Kingdoms
- Can Mexican corn be saved? — Jackie Bryant, Roads & Kingdoms
- Where the peppers grow — Taylor Holliday, Roads & Kingdoms
- Inside the world’s largest walnut forest — Peter Ford, Roads & Kingdoms
- The perils and privileges of an Amazonian hallucinogen — Barbara Fraser, Sapiens
- The struggle to protect a tree at the heart of Hopi culture — Stewart B. Koyiyumptewa & Chip Colwell, Sapiens
- The bloody San Antonio origins of chili con carne — John Nova Lomax, Texas Monthly
- Saving America’s broken prairie — David J. Unger, Undark
- Learning to love the Great Black Swamp — Sharon Levy, Undark
- Taking the pulse of the planet — Meera Subramanian, Undark
- Millennials are filling their homes — and the void in their hearts — with houseplants — Lavanya Ramanathan, The Washington Post
Special thanks to Ali Budner, David Lytle, Matt Candeias and many others for sharing stories with me this year.