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The Incredible Journey of Plants

A fascinating account of natural history

By Stefano Mancuso
12-minute read
Audio available
The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso

The Incredible Journey of Plants (2020) tells the fascinating story of how plants came to inhabit every corner of the globe. Pairing natural history with the latest insights from the life sciences, this biological biography shows how plants are much more dynamic than they seem.

  • Plant-lovers eager to learn more about their gardens
  • Herbivores curious about the history of their food 
  • Anyone interested in deeper insights into the natural world

Stefano Mancuso is a professor of botany at the University of Florence and the world’s leading expert in plant neurobiology. He has published more than 250 scientific papers and popular titles such as Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence and The Revolutionary Genius of Plants: A New Understanding of Plant Intelligence and Behavior.

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The Incredible Journey of Plants

A fascinating account of natural history

By Stefano Mancuso
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
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The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso
Synopsis

The Incredible Journey of Plants (2020) tells the fascinating story of how plants came to inhabit every corner of the globe. Pairing natural history with the latest insights from the life sciences, this biological biography shows how plants are much more dynamic than they seem.

Key idea 1 of 7

Plants and vegetables have evolved to survive in almost every environment.

November 1963. Sixty miles south of Iceland, the earth is rumbling. Deep at the bottom of the Atlantic, a volcano erupts. The mounting magma reaches the surface, and suddenly, Iceland has a new island. It’s named Surtsey, and it’s completely barren – but not for long. 

Within weeks, there is life. Pale green sprouts of Cakile, an arctic flower genus, emerge from the soil. These pioneering plants arrive on the island thanks to their specialized seeds, which have evolved to float on ocean currents. 

Cakile isn’t the only vegetation, either. Black sedge starts growing, too. Its seeds are carried in the stomachs of migrating sea birds. Soon, the entire island is lush with green life. It just goes to show how plants are able to colonize even the remotest patches of the globe.

The key message here is: Plants and vegetables have evolved to survive in almost every environment. 

“Plants and vegetables" is shorthand for all photosynthesizing organisms that belong to the kingdom Plantae. You might not know it, but these are some of the most successful species on Earth. Plants can be found thriving in almost every ecological niche on the planet – from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans and the driest deserts.

This is partly thanks to the incredible range of adaptations found within the group. Millions of years of evolution have equipped each species with just the right abilities to survive in their given environment, no matter how harsh. The Cakile, for example, is a halophyte, which means it’s particularly robust and has developed to thrive on saltwater. 

Plants can even survive the ravages of radiation. Consider the Zone of Alienation, the vast swath of Europe evacuated in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. While the initial catastrophe killed almost everything in the area, plant life has since returned and even flourished. Scientists attribute this remarkable comeback to phytoremediation, a special process some plants use to absorb dangerous particles called radionuclides.

An equally impressive act of survival is seen in Japan’s Hibakujumoku. This is a term given to the trees that withstood the nuclear detonations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of these Hibakujumoku is a weeping willow that still grows just 1,200 feet from where the bomb landed in Hiroshima. The roots of this tree were so robust that they lived to produce a new trunk even after the bomb blasted the entire area with temperatures of more than 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 

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