BBC One January
HOUSEPLANTS are the new pets. According to the US National Gardening Association, sales rose by nearly 50 per cent in the three years up to 2019. Then, through the pandemic, they rose even further as we sought to bring nature indoors.
Yet as our homes become greener than ever, plant growth is in decline across the globe. The latest documentary series from the BBC seeks to join those dots and spur us into action.
Presented by David Attenborough, The Green Planet reveals the secret lives of plants in the same way The Blue Planet opened our eyes to the oceans. As a spectacle, it is a world away from The Private Life of Plants, the BBC’s last in-depth look at plants from 25 years ago. It is even a step up from last year’s incredible A Perfect Planet.
Through advances in filming techniques and scientific understanding, The Green Planet shows plants not only as we have never seen them before, but as we struggle to even imagine them: locked in vicious competition for resources, strategising to gain the upper hand, helping each other and even communicating.
The footage of these battles, shot using time-lapse cameras to put the viewer on “plant time”, is surprisingly dramatic. A sequence in episode one that focuses on tropical rainforests captures the race for sunlight fought from the forest floor. A Monstera that is making a dash for the canopy is lassoed by a vine seeking to hitch a ride, before both are overtaken by a fast-growing balsa. Shot over a year and distilled into just a few minutes of screen time, it speaks to both the ambition and the practical challenges of the project.
As regular viewers of the BBC’s natural history output will no doubt expect, The Green Planet makes a feature of these challenges and the groundbreaking technology that was employed to overcome them. A computer-controlled robotic camera, developed over a decade by a US ex-military engineer in his garage and dubbed The Triffid, is one example. When mounted on a sliding ladder, it was able to capture a multi-angle tree’s eye view of leafcutter ants from 7000 different points on the insects’ trail, tracking them as they harvested leaves high in the canopy and carried them deep into their underground nest.
Getting a smooth shot was no mean feat – one knock or a raindrop on the lens would mean restarting the whole process. The result is an astonishing view of an ecosystem in which fungus, ants and trees are locked in a game of “strike and counter-strike”, says Attenborough.
We see more of Attenborough on location than we have in recent documentaries and, as ever, he is the perfect guide to this hidden world, sharing the experience of someone who has been to many of these places before but is still just as enthralled by them.
His enthusiasm is key to making species such as the carnivorous “corpse flower” seem as charismatic as any mammal, and the synchronised descent of thousands of seedlings in the dipterocarp forests of Borneo as moving and urgent as a newly hatched turtle’s sprint to the sea.
As is the way with nature documentaries these days, there is a serious message at the heart of all of this. With few habitats on Earth unmarked by human activity, Attenborough points out that the connections between species of plants and animals, whether competitive or collaborative, “are now becoming increasingly fragile”. In showing us the drama and intrigue that is right under our noses, the series urges us to not only marvel at this strange new world, but also to look after wild plants just as carefully as our pampered houseplants.
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