How academic’s book planted seeds for BBC’s latest epic

Iain Stewart.  Photo: Fraser Rice/BBC
Iain Stewart. Photo: Fraser Rice/BBC
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When David Beerling was putting the finishing touches to his science book The Emerald Planet it never crossed his mind that a few years later it would inspire a new television series.

Having grown up in the Kent countryside, plants have held a fascination for as long as he can remember, so much so he’s made a career out of botany.

Now a professor in Sheffield University’s animal and plant sciences department, his 2007 book, a 312-page study on the part plants have played in the Earth’s history, won rave reviews, with the Observer’s Oliver Sacks naming it as his favourite non-fiction book of the year.

However, while readers of the Emerald Planet weren’t confined to academic circles, it was only when the BBC contacted Prof Beerling that he began to realise its mainstream appeal.

“The BBC were keen to make a high profile botany series, but were unsure what the common theme might be,” he says. “I know they rang a lot of botany professors around the country, but ultimately settled on using The Emerald Planet as inspiration. It takes a long time for a project of this kind to come to fruition, but the pitch was successful and it’s really grown quite organically from there.”

The result is How To Grow a Planet, presented by Professor Iain Stewart, who hopes to do for plants what David Attenborough has done for animals. The aim of the three-part series is to explain how plants turned the Earth from a barren, hostile rock surrounded by toxic gases into the planet we know today.

It’s filmed in glorious HD and with the help of some impressive experiments, including extracting pre-historic oxygen from a lump of three billion-year-old rock, footage of plants not just breathing but talking to each other and a few computer generated giant ants, the show looks set to join the ever growing schedule of science programmes watched by millions.

“The argument we are making is a refreshing take on our understanding of how the planet evolved,” says Prof Beerling, who acted as a series consultant.

“People know about dinosaurs, they know about prehistoric creatures, but plants are often overlooked. We are showcasing how plants sculpted the planet and why plant life should be regarded as a geological force of nature. In my book I focused on one particular element of the story in each chapter.

“Clearly for television, some of those arguments had to be compressed into an hour-long episode, but when I saw a preview of the first programme I was really impressed.

“I hope it proves eye-opening for the viewers.”

The first episode began with photosynthesis and how by harnessing light from the sun plants created the Earth’s life-giving atmosphere and the series will also tackle the power of flowers and how grasses present the greatest challenge to the plant kingdom. The series meant filming as far away as Vietnam, California and South Africa.

“Programmes like this play a very important role in disseminating new scientific ideas and research findings to a broad audience,” says Prof Beerling. “By recreating the giant insects we have found in fossils or taking viewers to the Joggins cliffs in Nova Scotia, which contain the fossils of giant trees, you can bring them up close to the natural world which existed thousands of years ago.”

During the course of the programmes Prof Stewart spends two days at the Eden Project locked in a box full of hundreds of plants to demonstrate the rate photosynthesis produces oxygen, climbs the tallest species of tree on Earth and demonstrates how some of the first animal life came ashore 500 million years ago.

“I had always thought of plants as being rather boring – less dramatic than the earthquakes and volcanoes I had been studying,” says Stewart, a professor in geoscience communication at Plymouth University’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences department.

“But when you realise what plants do at the planet scale, and when you discover how fundamental they are to life on Earth, they can take your breath away.

“I think it was being stuck in a transparent air-tight container for 28 hours with 274 of them that really made me appreciate plants. Locked in there, with half the oxygen removed, I suddenly realised how much I needed plants to keep me alive. It is a hell of a way to highlight something we all take for granted.”

How to Grow a Planet, BBC 2, Tuesdays, 9pm.