Jane Goodall Reveals Her Lifelong Fascination With…Plants?

After studying chimpanzees for decades, the celebrated scientist turns her penetrating gaze on another life-form

Goodall’s travels have often brought her face to face with exotic plants. In Cambodia, she was “awestruck” by the giant roots of an ancient strangler fig she found embracing the Ta Prohm temple at Angkor Wat. (Ignacio Ayestaran / Flickr / Getty Images)
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Editor's Note: There have been allegations of plagiarism in the book Seeds of Hope, from which this excerpt was drawn. Smithsonian has checked this material independently and ascertained to the best of our ability that everything published in the magazine and in this post is original.

From my window, as I write in my house in Bournemouth, England, I can see the trees I used to climb as a child. Up in the branches of one of them, a beech tree, I would read about Doctor Dolittle and Tarzan, and dream about the time when I, too, would live in the forest. I spent hours in that tree, perched in my special place. I had a little basket on the end of a long piece of string that was tied to my branch: I would load it before I climbed, then haul up the contents—a book, a saved piece of cake, sometimes my homework. I talked to “Beech,” telling him my secrets. I often placed my hands or my cheek against the slightly rough texture of his bark. And how I loved the sound of his leaves in summertime: the gentle whispering as the breeze played with them, the joyous abandoned dancing and rustling as the breeze quickened, and the wild tossing and swishing sounds, for which I have no words, when the wind was strong and the branches swayed. And I was part of it all.

Growing up in this idyllic home and landscape of England was the foundation of my lifelong love of the plant kingdom and the natural world. The other day, when I was looking through a box of childhood treasures that had been lovingly preserved by my mother, I came across a “Nature Notebook,” in which the 12-year-old Jane, with great attention to detail, had sketched and painted a number of local plants and flowers. Beside each drawing or watercolor I had handwritten a detailed description of the plant, based on my careful observations and probably a bit of book research. This was not a schoolbook. This wasn’t done for an assignment. I just loved to draw and paint and write about the plant world.

I used to read, curled up in front of the fire, on winter evenings. Then I traveled in my imagination to The Secret Garden with Mary and Colin and Dickon. I was entranced by C.S. Lewis’ Voyage to Venus, in which he describes, so brilliantly, flowers and fruits, tastes and colors and scents unknown on planet Earth. I raced through the skies with little Diamond, who was curled up in the flowing hair of the Lady North Wind, as she showed him what was going on in the world, the beauty and the sadness and the joy (At the Back of the North Wind). And, of course, I was utterly in love with Mole and Ratty and Mr. Badger in The Wind in the Willows. If The Lord of the Rings had been written when I was a child, there is no doubt I would have been entranced by Treebeard and the ancient forest of Fangorn, and Lothlórien, the enchanted forest of the elves.

And so I write now to acknowledge the enormous debt we owe to the plants and to celebrate the beauty, mystery and complexity of their world. That we may save this world before it is too late.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we had eyes that could see underground? So that we could observe everything down there in the same way we can look up through the skies to the stars. When I look at a giant tree I marvel at the gnarled trunk, the spreading branches, the multitude of leaves. Yet that is only half of the tree being—the rest is far, far down, penetrating deep beneath the ground.

There are so many kinds of roots. Aerial roots grow above the ground, such as those on epiphytes—which are plants growing on trees or sometimes buildings, taking water and nutrients from the air and rain—including many orchids, ferns, mosses and so on. Aerial roots are almost always adventitious, roots that can grow from branches, especially where they have been wounded, or from the tips of stems. Taproots, like those of carrots, act as storage organs. The small, tough adventitious roots of some climbing plants, such as ivy and Virginia creeper, enable the stems to cling to tree trunks—or the walls of our houses—with a viselike grip.

In the coastal mangrove swamps in Africa and Asia, I have seen how the trees live with their roots totally submerged in water. Because these roots are able to exclude salt, they can survive in brackish water, even that which is twice as saline as the ocean. Some mangrove trees send down “stilt roots” from their lowest branches; others have roots that send tubelike structures upward through the mud and water and into the air, for breathing.

Then there are those plants, such as the well-known mistletoe, beloved by young lovers at Christmastime but hated by foresters, that are parasitic, sending roots deep into the host tree to steal its sap. The most advanced of the parasitic plants have long ago given up any attempt at working for their own food—their leaves have become like scales, or are missing altogether.


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