Attack of the Duplicitous Blackberry Nature's Aggressors Exposed in Sir David Attenborough's `the Private Life of Plants'

By William Allen Post-Dispatch Science | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), October 9, 1995 | Go to article overview

Attack of the Duplicitous Blackberry Nature's Aggressors Exposed in Sir David Attenborough's `the Private Life of Plants'


William Allen Post-Dispatch Science, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


THE LONG, thin arm squirms methodically along the ground, searching for a victim. Once found, the aggressor grabs its unsuspecting target, wraps around it and digs in with hook-like spines.

Is this the arm of some strange creature in an outer-space horror movie?

No, it's the stem of a common blackberry plant. And like silverweed, fescue grass and countless other kinds of plants, blackberry constantly scrambles to acquire new territory and perpetuate itself with pure, unadulterated aggression.

The invasive nature of these traveling veggies is one of the many intriguing vignettes out of the world of plants in a new book and TV documentary by British naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

The six-part documentary, "The Private Life of Plants," begins tonight on the TBS cable channel. It was co-produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. and Turner Original Productions.

The book, by the same name, was published in September (Princeton University Press, $26.95).

The film is loaded with time-lapse sequences speeding up or slowing down plants as they crawl, fly, explode and make war.

"Just like any other organism, plants need to find mates and territory to live in," Attenborough said in an interview at the Missouri Botanical Garden during a recent visit to St. Louis to promote the film and book.

"They need to get on with one another," he said. "Sometimes they fight one another. But we forget about them because we don't see this."

That's largely because plants live on a different time scale. And to anyone but the botanically inclined, the life of plants may seem as boring as watching grass grow. A New View Of Plants

Enter the BBC natural history unit and its innovative techniques for making time stretch and bend like so many rubber bands.

The result: dozens of dramatic images in the film (and to a lesser extent in some of the 300 color photographs in the book) that show plants as the churning, yearning, pervasive life force that they are. The images tell a story that's a blend of Johnny Appleseed and "Little Shop of Horrors." For instance:

Over two years of time-lapse filming, the dodder is seen waving frantically, seeking nutritious shoots of plants it preys on in the seemingly staid world of British hedgerows. Finding a plump nettle, it coils around the stem, stabs it with small threads and sucks out enough sap to produce flowers.

A large pitcher plant on a Borneo mountaintop holds three pints of a liquid that kills insects and small rodents that drop into the plant's "jug." Time-lapse shows the plant's leaf inflating with gas, pulsing with colors and turning into a jug.

Time-lapse slows down the quick action of squirting cucumbers. They pump up with liquid, burst and shoot their seeds up to 30 feet away in a jet of slimy juice.

Rafflesia, another plant found in Borneo, rarely blooms. But it's the biggest single flower in the world. Attenborough's team trained four cameras on it to capture its 3-foot-diameter bloom in the midst of a remote jungle.

Audiences in England and Australia, where the film has already shown, reacted enthusiastically to such images, Attenborough said.

"They come away saying, `I'll never look at another plant the same way again,' " he said.

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