As the new and much anticipated BBC series ‘The Green Planet’ airs on BBC One, we are excited to share some of our recollections of the magical day Sir David Attenborough came to the Garden.
The series of five episodes reveals plants from around the world in a way that they’ve never been seen before. Using novel and pioneering filming techniques, plants are seen from their own perspectives and timescales, showing that they are just as aggressive, competitive and dramatic as animals in the fight for survival. The first episode aired on 9 January and is now available on BBC iPlayer.
The new series reveals these fascinating insights of plants from cross the globe – from the USA to Costa Rica, Croatia to northern Europe, covering a range of habitats from deserts to water worlds, tropical forests to the frozen north.
Episode 3 ‘Seasonal Worlds’ (airing this Sunday, 23 January), will show how plants contend with the top-to-bottom seasonal changes from ‘a frozen hell to a green heaven’ in just a few weeks. It is this episode which features plants from the Garden’s collection.
CUBG’s Curator, Dr Sam Brockington oversees the Garden’s plant collection and in 2019 launched the Garden’s first Collection Strategy. He says: “It was a privilege to welcome Sir David and The Green Planet’s crew to the Garden. Our plant collection of over 8,000 species from around the globe supports world class plant science research, and it’s very exciting to have some of our collection featured in this landmark series. Watching Sir David wander through our Systematic Beds explaining some of the processes and mechanisms plants use to disperse their seeds was an absolute joy for us but something we have had to keep a secret until now!”
“Plants are crucial to the existence of all life on Earth and so many of the answers to today’s world challenges lie within the plant kingdom. Plants are also fascinating as they have to do everything – finding food, protecting themselves from the extremes of weather, defending themselves from predators and diseases as well as making offspring – while rooted to the same spot. I can’t wait to see how the series will take us on a magical journey into the world of plants and reveal their reality to us – the way they behave and the challenges they face.”
Sam continues: “There’s also an important message underlying the series. 40% of the world’s plants are threatened with extinction and plants are definitely our ally when it comes to climate change and ensuring that we have enough food to eat. So our role as a botanic garden is more crucial now than ever. We are the custodians of carefully curated, and strategically-planned, collections of rare, wild and diverse plant material, that assist plant scientists’ understanding of plants and the mechanisms they use to thrive and survive. And by addressing these mysteries we help solve some of human’s greatest challenges. Our role is also vital for education and conservation purposes. We hope this series will connect people with plants, show how vital they are in supporting all life on earth and help people understand the role botanic gardens play in conserving these wild and enigmatic plants. We hope it will inspire people to visit botanic gardens to see some of these rare and unusual plants for themselves.”
It was a privilege to welcome Sir David and The Green Planet’s crew to the Garden. Our plant collection of over 8,000 species from around the globe supports world class plant science research, and it’s very exciting to have some of our collection featured in this landmark series. Watching Sir David wander through our Systematic Beds explaining some of the processes and mechanisms plants use to disperse their seeds was an absolute joy …
Filming the ‘Seasonal World’ episode took place in August 2020 – just after the first lockdown. However, background work in the Garden began much earlier in the year. Working with The Green Planet’s production team and their brief, a small team of CUBG staff started to select plants which did ‘cool’ things and were likely to be in season on the filming day to fit in with the tight filming schedule and the series brief.
Once the plants had been chosen, we worked hard to keep the selected plants in tip top condition, ready for their screen debut! But this was no mean feat as piercing August temperatures along with torrential rain meant they could have been ruined at any point and it was important they didn’t peak too soon or until the cameras were rolling and Sir David was on set. Also, COVID-safe filming logistics had to be set in place, all whilst keeping the Garden open to the public.
Sam continues: “While it was a privilege to have Sir David and the team film with our plants, we had just come out of lockdown and didn’t want to close the Garden again to our visitors, especially as it has become an important local resource for wellbeing. So staff cordoned off areas of the Garden where filming was to take place. We also set aside our Schools’ Garden exclusively for the crew and Sir David to have as their base.”
Sir David arrived before the Garden opened to the public and was able to walk through the Garden to the Systematic Beds where some of the filming took place. He stopped and stood with his hands behind his back looking up at one of the giant cedars and marveling at the Main Walk. A former student of Cambridge University, David said he hadn’t visited the Garden ‘for a very long time’ and loved hearing how Darwin and Henslow had walked in the Garden together discussing the evolution of plants.
The weather, in true British style, was unsettled with huge storm clouds but as filming began, the clouds broke and the sun burst through. Executive Producer Mike Gunton remarked afterwards how, wherever the team are, the sun always seems to come out when Sir David walks ‘on set’.
We loved that Sir David chuckled with delight when our squirting cucumbers squirted and the Himalayan balsam popped. Snippets of these scenes have already been featured in the Green Planet trailer and in the introduction to the first episode of the series. However, look out for their proper debut in Episode 3 – we can’t wait to see the slow-motion imagery captured by the crew and hear the mechanisms they use to disperse their seeds explained by the world’s most famous naturalist, as he shares with millions how truly amazing plants are.
The Seasonal World episode will be aired Sunday 23 January on BBC One, 7pm and will be available (along with the rest of the series) after broadcast on iplayer.
Read about the series – interviews with Sir David Attenborough and Executive Producer Mike Gunton; key stories and about the technology used in the filming.
Read behind the scenes stories – the technology that captured The Green Planet and On the Road with David Attenborough.
Watch live plant themed lessons for 7-11 year olds and download resources from the BBC.
CUBG also has free resources for schools for both classroom based learning and to support a visit to the Garden. Plus you can download CUBG’s Super seed dispersal fact sheet, quiz and activity sheet.
Find out more about some of the plants featured in the series that you can see in the Botanic Garden.