Sir David Attenborough discovered the hard way that plants can be just as vicious as animals.
Filming in a desert in the US for new BBC1 series The Green Planet, his crew encouraged him to touch a cholla cactus with viciously sharp spines.
Executive producer Mike Gunton laughs: “One of the joys of going on location is thinking up horrible things to get David to do.
“We got a Kevlar under-glove, and then a welding glove.
“So, David bravely put his hand inside this cholla cactus, as requested. And half way through it these spikes still managed to get through those two bits of protection. And it’s quite painful, isn’t it?”
Nodding grimly, Sir David, 95, says: “Yes! The cholla really is a physical danger.
“It has very dense spines in rosettes, so they point in all directions. And if you just brush against it, the spines are like spicules of glass, I mean they are that sharp and they go into you and you really have trouble getting them out.”
Sir David hopes to convince viewers that plants can be every bit as aggressive and dramatic as animals – they just do things on a different timescale.
A quarter of a century on from his The Private Life of Plants, advanced technology allows The Green Planet to show their daily struggle for food and light as they battle for territory while trying to reproduce and scatter their young.
Sir David says: “In Private Life of Plants we were stuck with all this very heavy, primitive equipment, but now we can take the cameras anywhere we like.
“So you now have the ability to go into a real forest, you can see a plant growing with its neighbours, fighting or moving with its neighbours, or dying.
“And that, in my view, is what brings the thing to life and which should make people say, ‘Good lord, these extraordinary organisms are just like us’.
“In the sense that they live and die, that they fight, they have to learn to reproduce and all those sorts of things. But just that
they do them so slowly, so we have never seen that before.”
Viewers will see how plants count, hunt, deceive, communicate and protect their relatives – and that when plants and animals interact, the plant is usually in charge.
Sir David believes now is the right time for this series.
BBC Studios/Paul Williams)
He says: “The world has suddenly become plant conscious. There’s an awareness that we’d starve without plants, wouldn’t be able to breathe without plants.
“And yet people’s understanding about plants, except in a very kind of narrow way, has not kept up with that. I think this will bring it home.
“This is not about gardening, this is about a parallel world which exists alongside us, and which is the basis for our own lives, and to which we’ve paid scant attention over the years.”
The series, which starts on Sunday, is split into five episodes which cover tropical forests, deserts, fresh water, the seasons and the human world.
The first episode, Tropical Worlds, shows some astonishing plants including the rafflesia, better known as the parasitic corpse flower, which is found only in the rain forest of Borneo.
This plant plugs into a vine and spends several years growing a huge bud which, when it opens into the world’s biggest flower, lasts for just one night. Its texture and colour mimics an animal carcass and it smells like one too.
The flies it lures get a dollop of pollen stuck on their backs, which they carry to another flower, so pollinating it.
Series producer Rupert Barrington says: “We decided to focus on finding situations where a plant could demonstrate that it has a strategy, or it’s in control of a relationship. For example, showing the audience how a plant entices animals into doing something for them, or how a plant can protect itself against being eaten.”
BBC Studios/Paul Williams)
The Green Planet was four years in the making and shot in 27 countries using time-lapse, ultra-high-speed and thermal cameras, motion-control robotics systems, macro frame-stacking and the latest developments in microscopy.
Filming plants proved to be far harder than filming animals.
Rupert says: “This is partly because they don’t move on our timescale, so they’re much more complicated.
“Any piece of behaviour which might last five minutes for an animal could last three months with plants.”
Because of this, a much bigger production team was required.
Rupert explains: “We needed a time-lapse expert, a standard camera, a drone operator, someone who can operate a crane, and someone who is able to put cables and tracks through the forest.
“You often had several different cameras and a whole suite of lenses. We had lenses which could film the surface of a single leaf hair in a wide angle so you see the landscape of the leaf. On some shoots we had more than 50 cases of kit, compared to 15 to 20 cases for filming animals.”
Mike says the kit brings a whole new perspective, adding: “When you use this technology, it’s like parting a curtain to go into a parallel universe.”
- The Green Planet, BBC1, Sunday, January 9, 7pm