Suggestions needed for the ten best of everything: plants for botanists

Three plant species for my ten best of everything: wheat, pine and arabidopsis

Three plant spe­cies for my ten best of everything: wheat, pine and arabidopsis

Some time ago, I star­ted on an AoBBlog post (or maybe posts) on ten plants that all bot­an­ists should know quite a lot about. Criteria for inclu­sion on my list include, at the least, import­ance in the envir­on­ment, import­ance to people as food or cul­tur­ally, sci­entific interest, global nature, and evol­u­tion­ary pos­i­tion. Together, the spe­cies (gen­era? even fam­il­ies?) chosen should illus­trate a wide range of bot­any and com­ple­ment each other. So, here I give my cur­rent list of starters; the order is computer-sorted random.

Wheat (or rice)


Drosera (or Pinguicula)

A legume — but which one? Acacia? Arachis? Trifolium? Pisum? Glycine?

Physcomitrella (or Sphagnum or another non-vascular plant)

Wollemi pine (Ponderosa pine?)





I’m delib­er­ately not includ­ing reas­ons for my choices here — they will be included in the final posts — but sug­ges­tions of what I have missed would be wel­come — along with those spe­cies that should not make the cut and should be replaced. I sup­pose I could stretch to a dozen spe­cies if needs be.

Comments below please!

Carving in Perugia: the cultural importance of three families of my top ten species

Carving in Perugia: the cul­tural import­ance of three fam­il­ies of my top ten species

Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison. ORCID 0000-0002-3105-2167

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.

14 Responses

  1. Rachel Carol says:

    Bad news for build­ers and biod­iversity — the invas­ive spe­cies Japanese knot­weed. It is in the Polygonaceae fam­ily but has had a few dif­fer­ent spe­cies names over the years. It is very easy to recog­nise so you can cut it back and send it off to be incinerated!

  2. An excel­lent sug­ges­tion — I was look­ing at Japanese Knotweed tak­ing over a nature reserve (and break­ing the banks of ponds) in Herefordshire, on the bor­ders between England and Wales, last week­end. And my list cer­tainly needs an example of an invas­ive alien, given their dev­ast­at­ing effect on biod­iversity through­out the world.

  3. Not a thrill­ing list, very tem­per­ate, very, well, ordin­ary sound­ing. Bamboo? Cecropia? Piper nigrum? Tea? No night­shade! Figs? Cycads. Equisetum. Magnolias, it must have them, but for phylogeny’s sake, water­lilies. Cannabis? Our list over­lap would be almost non-existent.

  4. Leonor Morais says:

    My sug­ges­tion is Petunia for its import­ance in the dis­cov­ery of RNAi mech­an­ism, and there­fore in crop genetic improvement

  5. Alun Salt says:

    I won­der about the potato, which argu­ably fuelled the Industrial Revolution. From the cul­tural side, it’s an inter­est­ing example of how long it took for some food­stuffs to become adop­ted in Europe. And sadly they’re a very good example of how dis­astrous dis­ease can be in a crop. I hope banana doesn’t become a very sim­ilar case to that and in some sense the banana is a com­ple­ment to the potato as we only eat a very lim­ited range of Musa in Europe.

    Apples have deep cul­tural sig­ni­fic­ance, and are still the most cul­tiv­ated fruit in the world aren’t they? The fact that you can’t grow a Granny Smith apple tree from a Granny Smith apple seed fas­cin­ates me and this may be use­ful for dis­cuss­ing plant cul­tiv­a­tion. There’s also the mat­ter of con­ser­va­tion of the wild trees.

    For some­thing less obvi­ously prac­tical, Zostera is still eco­lo­gic­ally very import­ant. Some people have eaten it as food, and its occa­sion­ally build­ing mater­ial, but it has a much more power­ful influ­ence at a slight remove, play­ing a major role in shap­ing the envir­on­ment for long mar­ine food chains. Biologically, the mar­ine envir­on­ment itself presents dif­fer­ent chal­lenges to those tackled by ter­restrial plants. I’ve also just dis­covered the blog for the Zostera Experimental Network: http://​zenscience​.org/​b​l​og/

  6. Alun Salt says:

    I like the Phytophactor’s sug­ges­tion for can­nabis. I thought about can­nabis. I’d give tobacco the slight edge, but maybe can­nabis com­bines the eco­nomic import­ance of tobacco, with import­ance of hemp as a tool, and the effects of the war on drugs that you’d get from coca leaf or the opium poppy.

  7. Tina Barsby says:

    Definitely potato, for all the reas­ons Alun suggests.

    Wheat rather than rice.

  8. I’m really happy that I asked for sug­ges­tions and cer­tainly am going to re-write the list. I was con­cious of the temperate-bias and had tried to avoid an angio­sperm dom­in­a­tion (as my plant mor­pho­logy pro­fessor, David Bierhorst at University of Massachusetts http://​tiny​url​.com/​B​m​o​r​p​hol mem­or­ably told me, ‘vari­ations on a theme’). I thought about Equisetum rather than Lycopodium, or indeed a true fern rather than fern-ally — phylo­geny, coal meas­ures, repro­duct­ive strategy all import­ant to know about!
    What would be an iconic spe­cies for the rain­forests? — like oak for tem­per­ate forests.
    Potato is cer­tainly in! I’d wanted two mono­cots, hence banana (not to say, also a spe­cies I work on), also rep­res­ent­ing the trop­ics; the basal angio­sperms I con­cluded prob­ably make a ‘nearly’/proxime acces­sit list for me.
    How about Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia) rather than Japanese Knotweed, to rep­res­ent another water plant and nasty invas­ive, also trop­ical?
    A medi­cinal plant — Cannabis, tobacco — is also import­ant. Both these have inter­est­ing sci­ence, Cannabis with short-day flower­ing response and a fibre (pine, oak and banana also allow dis­cus­sion of fibres), tobacco has tis­sue cul­ture, as well as both giv­ing the chance to write about sec­ond­ary products. Quinine is often noted to have had major effects in the topics.

  9. Paul Gepts says:

    I would be remiss if I did not sug­gest (per­haps pre­dict­ably) Phaseolus beans. They are the most import­ant grain legumes for dir­ect human con­sump­tion , espe­cially in Latin America and East Africa. In com­bin­a­tion with sources of car­bo­hydrates, such as maize (Mesoamerica first and later South America) and root crops (South America), they have sup­por­ted the devel­op­ment of pre-hispanic civil­iz­a­tions. They provide a rich source of pro­teins, min­er­als, and vit­am­ins. They ameli­or­ate the soil (N fix­a­tion). The five domest­ic­ated spe­cies can be grown in a wide range of envir­on­ments from arid to humid, cooler to hot.

  10. Jim Croft says:

    Coffee. I recall read­ing some­where it is the second most traded com­mod­ity on the planet.
    And chocol­ate, for obvi­ous reas­ons.
    Not strictly plants, but rhizobac­teria and mycor­rhizae prob­ably deserve an hon­our­able men­tion. And yeast, because beer, bread and sin­glemalt whisky.

  11. Susie Lydon says:

    If Wollemia is there as a poster child for the “liv­ing fossils”, how about Ginkgo biloba instead? Loads of fossil Ginkgoes with a global dis­tri­bu­tion in the Mesozoic, but also import­ant to humans in urban plant­ing due to its pol­lu­tion tol­er­ance, and of cultural/aesthetic import­ance too.

  12. Jim Croft says:

    Salix, poster child for the phar­ma­ceut­ical industry?

  13. Pat says:

    Most of the ones I would sug­gest (cof­fee, tea, chocol­ate, Cannabis, Ginkgo, more trop­ic­als) have been men­tioned but also:

    Ephedra, has made a massive con­tri­bu­tion to medi­cine, evil drug lords and bril­liant TV (Breaking Bad).

    Sweet potato, mine is grow­ing at an inch a day at the moment, what a mar­vel­lous plant. So import­ant that it was car­ried in canoes over vast dis­tances by the Pacific island navigators.

    Brazil nut would be a good rep­res­ent­at­ive of a rain­forest and plants that can’t be cul­tiv­ated, only encouraged.

    The ideal legume for me is the chick pea — where would we be without falafels, hum­mus, bha­jis, gar­b­an­zos con espin­acas, etc?

    I am not a fan of gin myself but a few juni­per ber­ries make my pea pâté delight­ful. As a con­ifer it would be an excel­lent example that not all con­ifers have cones. The wood and leaf essen­tial oil are also use­ful. Yew is also eco­nom­ic­ally very import­ant and fas­cin­at­ing. Useful wood, medi­cine and the ber­ries taste lovely, too, though vir­tu­ally no-one dares them.

    Ginkgo also has very tasty nuts for which they are prized not just in China — as well as leaves used in mod­ern medicine.

    Surely a sea­weed rather than a moss? Nori, wakame, sugar kelp, dulse and laver being some of the nicer ones. I sup­pose with the sushi craze nori is the most wide­spread. The Welsh should make more effort to spread their cuisine. Yo Taffy?

  14. Dio Luria says:

    There are so many pos­sible choices, many of which have already been men­tioned. Here’s a few I favor, (lean­ing heav­ily toward genus over spe­cies) choos­ing with a human­istic bot­any bias:

    Papaver som­ni­ferum — while the med­ical attrib­utes are obvi­ous, opium pro­duc­tion has had an indelible effect on human history.

    Cocos nuci­fera — enorm­ously import­ant eco­nom­ic­ally, also instru­mental to human col­on­iz­a­tion of the tropics.

    Manihot escu­lenta — cas­sava is still one of the most com­monly con­sumed sources of car­bo­hydrates in the world.

    Sphagnum spp. — dom­in­ant spe­cies in peat bogs.

    Citrus spp. — a use­ful study in cul­tiv­a­tion effect, the fruit has an inter­est­ing mor­pho­logy, and has broad eco­nomic importance.

    Brassica (I’ll leave the spe­cies argu­ment to spe­cial­ist on this one) — European his­tory was fed largely on cru­ci­fer­ous veget­ables. Another inter­est­ing study in cul­tiv­a­tion selection.

    Cupressaceae — the most cos­mo­pol­itan by far of all the Pinales, the whole fam­ily is damn inter­est­ing. Just pick your favor­ite and go with it.

    Laminariales — any­thing here would be a good choice, although I have a per­sonal bias towards Nereocystis spp. — while not the most import­ant eco­nom­ic­ally, their mor­pho­logy and growth habit makes them a win­ner when you are teach­ing the K-8 age groups.

    Amaranthus spp. — eco­nom­ic­ally import­ant pseudo­grains with a nicely com­plic­ated taxonomy.

    Amborella tricho­podea — a great place to start dis­cuss­ing sys­tem­at­ics AND island endemics.