Issue 24 | May 2016

Close up of a leaf

Plants

The plant kingdom is full of fascinating organisms that are responsible for much of what keeps life going. Join us to find out just what’s going on under the surface of the weird and wonderful world of plants. Quick confession: we couldn’t possibly hope to cover the entire plant kingdom in a single issue, so we’ve focused mostly on flowering plants.

Meet the plants

How plants make a living

A plant’s worldview is different from an animal’s

The secrets of plant cell structure

Chloroplasts and a cellulose cell wall are unique to plants – but plant cells have much in common with fungi, bacteria and animal cells too

Growth factors

All sorts of chemicals play a role in plant development 

Nine fine plants infographic

From food and drink to medicines and experiments, here are nine products and the plants that made them possible

Plant parts up close images

Browse these images to get a microscopic view of the plants that surround us

Keeping the world running

Hydroponics and the future of farming

How can we produce enough food to sustain an increasing population? Growing plants without soil could be the answer

Dwarf breeds of plants

Much of the wheat you eat comes from dwarf breeds. Find out how these are developed, what other foods they provide, and the pros and cons of growing them

The evidence on plant-based diets

Many believe that eating a plant-based diet is healthier and better for the environment

The pollen detectives

Tiny pollen grains can help solve crimes

A recipe for self-sufficiency

Plants use photosynthesis to harness energy from the sun

Photosynthesis poster

Order or download a copy of our classroom poster detailing photosynthesis and its many processes and parts. It complements our respiration poster nicely as well (if we do say so ourselves...)

Transgenic crops

Modifying the genetic make-up of a plant can improve crop yields or resistance to pests

Factor farming

Scientists and farmers can make the most of plant growth factors (hormones) to improve our food supply

Fuel the world

Harnessing plant energy reduces our reliance on fossil fuel

The flowers and the bees

Farmers rely on many plants being pollinated

The great RuBisCO and its amazing carbon fixation

Thanks to its role in photosynthesis, ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase oxidase (RuBisCO) is perhaps the most abundant enzyme in the world

Plant defence

Reaction times

Plants can respond slowly or quickly, depending on the stimulus

Electrical signalling

Plants, like animals, use action potentials to respond to stimuli

Hardcore plants

Plants are incredibly resilient organisms, surviving fire, ice and even nuclear disasters, finds Ellie Pinney

Carnivorous plants

The Venus flytrap is only one among hundreds of flesh-eating plant species. Find out about the many ways they catch and eat their prey

Keeping in contact

Plant cells can communicate chemically

Plant epigenetics

Plants pass along traits they acquire during their lifetime

Plant disease images

Browse these images to uncover some of the pathogens that affect plants

Plants that changed the world

Video: Award-winning plants

Our plant awards, filmed at the Eden Project, showcase the glamorous flowers, clever communicators, ultimate achievers and vile villains of the plant kingdom

Plants that changed the world: rice

Everything we’ve ever needed to know about rice, a staple food source in many countries

Plants that changed the world: soybean

War hero, global industrialist, maybe even supervillain – there are many faces to this versatile bean, finds Rob Reddick

Plants that changed the world: olive tree

Take a look at a tree that has been a long-standing source of sustenance

Plants that changed the world: coffee

Find out how a legendary goatherd, Pope Clement VIII and an unfaithful wife made coffee the world’s second most popular drink

Plants that changed the world: pine tree

This adaptable tree supplies much of the world’s furniture, paper and Christmas decoration

Plants that changed the world: chrysanthemum

This small white flower is responsible for the widely used natural insect repellent pyrethrum

Plants that changed the world: cinchona

This Peruvian tree that gave us the first effective treatment for malaria – as well as a refreshing drink

Historical aspects

The plants rooted in science fiction

Discover the best plants invented by writers for books and film and the real-life species that inspired them

Plant hormones animation: How IAA, the most common form of auxin, works

Explore the action of indole-3-acetic acid (IAA) and see how scientists used experimental evidence to explain the role of auxins in a phototrophic response

Plants case study: Muriel Wheldale Onslow and the snapdragon

This plant biochemist worked with botanists, geneticists and biochemists to research patterns of inheritance and plant pigmentation

Plants case study: Barbara McClintock and maize

Much of our understanding of how chromosomes work is due to one researcher’s life’s work into the secrets of maize

Healing powers

Harvesting vaccines

Vaccines can prevent many illnesses, but first they must be grown

Fighting disease with pharming

Scientists grow antibodies in plant cells to combat Ebola and HIV

Sweet wormwood and artemisinin

The plant origins – and future – of malaria treatment

Community medicine chests

Traditional treatments often come from a community’s local habitat. How can these influence global modern medicine?

Keeping the doctor away

Many phytochemicals have a health benefit for humans

Do plants make us feel better?

Scientists think being near greenery could improve our health

Plants that changed the world: cinchona

This Peruvian tree that gave us the first effective treatment for malaria – as well as a refreshing drink

Medicinal plants images

Explore images of plants that have been used to treat human ailments

Real Voices interviews

Real Voices: Martin Cheek

Meet Martin, a researcher looking for new plant species

Real Voices: Pippa Greenwood

Meet Pippa, a horticultural broadcaster and writer

Real Voices: Patricia Wiltshire

Meet Patricia, a forensic botanist

Thorny issues

The big banana question

The Cavendish banana is under threat – how can we save it? Or should we look for alternatives?

Sustainable production

How can we increase production of nutritious food while still conserving the environment?

The cocoa tree and the threats it faces

An introduction to Theobroma cacao and its biggest enemy: black pod disease

Activities and lesson ideas

Happy Cells card game with plant, animal, bacterial and fungal cells

Play our downloadable activity to check your knowledge of what organelles are in these different types of cell

Plant hormones animation: How IAA, the most common form of auxin, works

Explore the action of indole-3-acetic acid (IAA) and see how scientists used experimental evidence to explain the role of auxins in a phototrophic response

Further resources and activities on plants

As well as our ‘Big Picture’ content, the Wellcome Trust funds other organisations and initiatives to produce the following related activities and resources

Fast Facts

Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.

Browse through all of our Fast Facts indexed by topic