(This is the online version of the paper booklet available at the ticket offices)
Please note: many plants on this trail are annuals and may not be visible; these are noted on the individual plant pages.
To be able to survive wind, rain, extreme temperatures and high, low or changing light levels, plants need to protect themselves, as (unlike animals) they cannot simply move to shelter. Developing a protective outer layer was key to the early evolution of land plants.
Over time, this protective outer layer has been modified in a wide variety of ways, to help different plants survive in challenging environments. The process of evolution has developed some surprising solutions to complex problems, some of which have already inspired innovations such as Velcro. Researchers are investigating plant surfaces as inspiration for new materials.
Download the Plants Inspiring Design and Technology trail booklet or map.
This trail was made possible by funding from the BBSRC and from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 722842.
Taking a closer look
At first glance the surface of a plant leaf, stem or petal may look flat but, under a microscope, a surprisingly intricate landscape is revealed. Cells making up the surface can be pointed, ridged, jigsaw-like, or a variety of other shapes, and hairs or outgrowths can form delicate structures.
Solving nature's problems
Plants have had millions of years to evolve solutions to the problems they face on a day-to-day basis. Amongst others, these problems involve leaves getting too wet or not getting wet enough, harvesting enough light for photosynthesis, not being damaged by too much light, attracting pollinators and distributing seed. This evolution happens incrementally over very long periods of time: random changes to a plant’s genetic code which give it even a tiny advantage over other plants will help contribute to its survival. Plants which survive pass their genes on to future generations and, very gradually, astonishingly complicated structures can emerge.
Harnessing the power of plants
The field of science devoted to artificially replicating effects from the natural world is called ‘biomimetics’. Historically, most research has focused on animals – for example, looking at gecko feet to see how they walk up vertical surfaces, or termite mounds to investigate their air conditioning. But plants are also giving us ideas for new materials and surfaces, and many are now entering commercial production. These are relatively early days, though: there are certainly many other innovative solutions waiting to be discovered. Conserving the world’s plant biodiversity is critically important if we are to maintain this natural library of surfaces which have the potential to inspire new materials.