From murder to magic mushrooms, Kew Gardens’ new podcast, Unearthed, challenges us all to learn to love plants as much animals – and discover how they could save life on Earth
26 August 2020
Kew’s 2020 orchid festival showed species from Indonesias
Jeff Eden © RBG Kew
Unearthed: Mysteries from an unseen world
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
MY FIRST trip to London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was spectacular. I set out on an unusually mild February day to visit this year’s annual orchid festival, which was celebrating the 4000-plus specimens that grow in Indonesia.
Aside from the delightful orchids, Kew and its out of London home, Wakehurst in West Sussex, together have more than 27,000 taxa of living plants, around 8.3 million specimens in its herbarium and fungarium, and more than 40,000 species in its seed bank. Unsurprisingly, this sheer diversity ranks Kew’s collection top in the world. I left with a sense of amazement and fresh appreciation for plants.
In its new podcast, Unearthed: Mysteries from an unseen world, Kew builds on this awe, using real stories to show why the plants and fungi it houses are far more than beautiful distractions. Hosted by botanist and New Scientist columnist James Wong, each episode delves into the events that have been shaped by botanical or mycological discoveries and the species at the heart of them.
It does something more, too. The four episodes I listened to (there are six in the first series) make a powerful argument that the future of plants and fungi is made more uncertain by a kind of “plant blindness”, which derives from a human tendency to feel more connected to animals than to plants.
Wong works to overcome this problem, ranging far and wide, examining everything from the workings of fungi to miracle plant cures to the illegal trade in endangered plants. He tells some compelling tales. In one episode, there is a “true crime” feel as it sets out to explore the high-profile death of Lakhvinder Cheema after eating a curry in 2009, where the cause of death – a poisonous plant called aconite, or wolfsbane – was confirmed by Kew scientists.
Wong’s rapport with scientists, horticulturalists and assorted other guests also makes entertaining listening as they “geek out”, as he puts it, about the details of the species they discuss. It is hard not to get caught up in their enthusiasm and passion as they show us the big picture and importance of such organisms – and help us overcome a little of our plant blindness.
The challenge, though, is to shift the mainstream, where the blindness shows up everywhere, from the limited prosecution of plant thieves versus those who steal animals to the recent discovery that psilocybin – the hallucinogenic chemical found inside magic mushrooms – can treat depression where other treatments have failed.
Kew and other global gardens do their bit by preserving plant and fungi biodiversity, helping species to thrive and publicising the important work that goes on there. But without people engaging with the collections for themselves, all that wonderful research, as well as Kew’s huge archives, may go largely unnoticed.
“We need to really open the door for visitors so they can get a glimpse into the story of any plant and why it is interesting and important,” says Richard Barley, Kew’s director of horticulture, learning and operations, in one episode.
“Perhaps when we have a culture where people are educated on the crucial role plants play, we’ll be able to better protect life on Earth,” says Wong. This is Unearthed‘s big shtick. If you have never really appreciated the importance to our world of plants and fungi before, this podcast is here to convince you why you should.
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