Why Scientists Know More About Sexy Plants

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Look, we all got into some weird, random stuff during quarantine. I developed so many hobbies I started ranking them based on how difficult they were and how rewarding they were. Sourdough? Way too difficult for me, sorry. You gotta spend a full 48 hours and 15 pounds of flour on an experiment that will either be “almost as good as the shit at Safeway” or “this is what a bread abortion would look like.”

On the other end, much to my surprise, was houseplants. Yes, houseplants are a hobby. Pets are the new babies, plants are the new pets.

The houseplant thing surprised me for a few reasons: one, I always assumed I had the opposite of a green thumb. In college I killed a cactus from lack of watering and after that I decided that plants simply were not for me. But once quarantine rolled around I decided screw it, it’s been 25 years, maybe I’ve changed. And I guess I have, because I got a pothos which is now a monster and has given birth to several baby pothoses. Like, did you know you can just cut off some plant and put it in water and now you have two plants? Please don’t try this with your children, formerly known as your pets.

And the pothos lived so I went to a nursery (for plants, not OG babies) and looked around. I could have picked one based on my relative newness to the houseplant world, or on my south-facing window, or whatever, but instead I picked on based on how cool I thought it looked. Behold, my calathea makoyana, which I knew nothing about but apparently they are extremely annoying to keep alive. But I did manage to keep her alive and happy, and I learned something really cool: I noticed that she seemed like she was wiggling around A LOT over the course of a day, so I set up a timelapse and found that her leaves went from horizontal flat during the day to completely straight up at night, in a phenomenon called “photonasty.” You might be aware that many plants will bend and grow toward light, which is called phototropism (or heliotropism), but photonasty isn’t about which way the plant is growing and it’s not directional. It’s just evolved to move around as the sun moves in order to (most likely) conserve water while maximizing sunlight exposure. Cool! Creepy!

There’s one main reason I was able to learn about this plant and its traits: because it’s sexy. There, I said it! That’s a sexy plant! And it turns out that the scientists who study plants are just like me, because a brief in the most recent issue of Nature asserts that botanists are more likely to study plants they find aesthetically pleasing. I.e., sexy. Are there furries for plants? Leafies? I just spoke it into existence, didn’t I. Well. Comment like and subscribe, my new leafy friends.

Anyway. It’s nice to think of science as this uber-rational process that rises above petty human biases, but for a long while now scientists and philosophers have known that’s not true. One easy way to see that it’s not true is to wonder why certain people choose certain subjects to specialize in. “Charismatic megafauna” like elephants and tigers tend to get more attention, not just from the general public but from scientists, too. When I was in 5th grade (about 10 years old), me and all my girlfriends wanted to be marine biologists. Why? Because we grew up watching the Little Mermaid and Free Willy, and we wanted to study whales and dolphins and mermaids. I had one friend who even made it to college with the intent to study marine biology, at which point she got bored learning about plankton and switched over to CSI and now she solves murders for a living. Quite the swap.

But we were just doing what even adults do: we wanted to focus on the fun species. Here’s a fun fact: in 2018 researchers developed a ranking of the most charismatic animals. Congrats to tigers! Sorry, whales, maybe work on your conversational skills.

So while I already knew that charismatic megafauna (big animals) tend to get more funding and attention and conservation efforts, it was news to me (though obvious in retrospect) that society does the same thing with plants. In fact, data shows that animal conservation already gets an unfair amount of attention compared to plant conservation, maybe because we think that plants just, well, aren’t as charismatic as animals.

So these researchers decided to look at the history of research done on plants to find out what kind of plants tend to attract the attention of scientists. What they found surprised them — there was no correlation between the number of papers published and things like rarity or scientific interest like plants that might be under more pressure to quickly adapt to new environments.

What they did find was that sexier plants get more attention: blue flowers were by far the sexiest, followed by white, red, and then yellow. The baseline was brown/green because they didn’t stand out from the background at all, which reminds me of when I was in the 2nd grade and Mrs. McKelvey gave us all colored construction paper to make into tulips to hand in the window and I got green. Green! I was so upset but Mrs. McKelvey insisted that flowers could be green. Like, okay but it’s obviously the worst color for a flower to be AND have you ever even seen a green tulip? No? Well I just looked it up and there IS one but it sucks. It’s mostly white. So screw you, Mrs. McKelvey.

Anyway, the researchers also found that taller flowers got more scientific attention than short flowers, which is funny because the same is true of animals.

It wasn’t all aesthetics — they also found a positive correlation with the number of papers about a species and that species’ range size, which they suspect is due to that species just being more accessible. Makes sense! If more people grow up around a plant, see a plant a lot, or have easy access to study the plant, they will be more likely to study that plant — even though there’s probably more scientific interest in rare plants.

So while you might want to think that our scientific understanding of plants, species that are crucial to the survival of humans and every other species on the planet, is based on what’s most important or interesting or educational, it’s actually based on scientists finding tall blue flowers sexy and so that’s why we know more about the gorgeous Gentiana ligustica (loads of papers published) than, say, Fritillaria involucrata, an absolutely hideous trash plant that looks like it died two days ago and has no scientific papers written about it at all.

On a side note I decided to look up endangered plant species to identify the least charismatic among them and I think the loser is enrubio, a native bush in Puerto Rico that is apparently going extinct because it has super sharp thorns that prevent grazing animals from wanting to eat it. Congrats, you played yourself enrubio.

Anyway, is this the most important science news happening right now? No. But frankly I’m sick of talking about COVID-19 and herd immunity and clowns threatening to sue me so I wanted to spend some time talking about plants. Go learn something new about an ugly plant. Adopt an ugly plant. Look, I took this spider plant from a friend who was moving and couldn’t take it with her and frankly I think it’s the least charismatic of all my plants but after researching this video I’ve decided to give her a little more respect. I’ve decided to give her a name, because names increase charisma. Her name is now…Natasha. A respectable name for a spider.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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