Nina Seale interviews Dr Richard Milne, beloved lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and plant biologist.
Where have you done your most interesting research?
North-east Turkey, in the Artvin area totally off the tourist trail. I was out there briefly in 1994 for my PhD, collecting material of rhododendrons, and became interested in how the different species there seemed to hybridise (interbreed) with one another. For those who don’t know, hybridisation is when two species form an inter-species cross, like a mule, except plant hybrids are very often fertile. I came across populations of thousands of hybrid plants which I felt required further investigation, and remarkably convinced a grant-giving body that I was right! That led to me spending 8 days living in a ramshackle shepherd’s hut (that would make a Scottish bothy look like a 5 star hotel) on a mountainside at 2100m above sea level, (not designed for the faint-hearted!) with me sleeping under two Turkish blankets and working 14 hour days gathering plant samples and performing cross-pollination experiments. I had to return that autumn to gather seeds, and the autumn colours were incredible, accompanied by literally millions upon millions of white crocus flowers, you could barely walk for treading on crocuses.
So, why did you pick Turkey?
It kind of picked itself. The PhD on rhododendrons, Richard Abbotts from St Andrews had come up with, and he knew me from field research the year before when he had needed someone to go and make collections on a shoestring, and I was a recent graduate so I was therefore good at travelling on not very much money. So I said “Yep, £600 and I’ll get you samples from these four countries!” So I went through Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Italy hunting these plants down and had a few interesting adventures… I did get rather stupidly drunk at one point, its very, very rare, but this was the worst I’ve ever been drunk- Transylvanian champagne, don’t do it. It was, I emphasize was, a pound a bottle, in communist Romania, and I probably made the mistake of thinking that alcohol content was in some way related to price. It wasn’t. I think I got chased by angry farmers at one point.
Because of that trip, despite the whole champagne incident, it was very successful and impressed them enough to give me my PhD place on rhododendrons. Part of that was to find out where the Rhododendron ponticom comes from, so I had to visit the native locations in Spain and Portugal and Turkey. My stay in Portugal was much less eventful, although there was a rather misguided male chef who, having seen me once for about five minutes, decided that I was the love of his life and had to be persuaded otherwise. I had a bit of bad luck with young men falling in love with me at one point in my life… Happened to me twice within a couple of years of me travelling. I have no idea what I did to provoke it…
Okay, back to your research, what is your favourite plant?
It won’t surprise biology students to learn that it’s the Bee Orchid, a plant that imitates a female solitary bee in order to be pollinated by randy males. But that’s not quite why I love it; I love it because as a child I’d been obsessed by orchids long before I ever saw one, and finding my first bee orchid on the south downs near my grandparents’ house is a shining memory from my childhood. I was spellbound.
What do you think is most essential plant to life on this planet?
You could remove any one species and most life would go on. For human life, it’s rice, because so many of us depend on it, but there’s no plant species that everything depends on; evolution doesn’t work that way. Life depends on functioning ecosystems, and while some ecosystems depend on one keystone species (for example pines in native Scottish pine forests) what that species is varies from place to place. One candidate for most essential plant is sphagnum moss, which locks up massive amounts of carbon in peat bogs, so without it the climate would be utterly different.
You do a lot of communicating the science of climate change. Why is this so important to you?
Opponents of action on climate change like to portray the issue as being about trees and polar bears. That’s nonsense! It’s about people, and what sort of lives we want our children and grandchildren to have. I became a father for the first time in May, so this is more personal now than it used to be, but anyone who cares about people should care about climate change.
What role do plant biologists have in trying to save humanity from itself?
Far more than you’d think given how few of us there are relative to other biologists. Humanity faces two massive crises: overpopulation and climate change, both of which will create many problems of which avoiding mass starvation is just one. Basically we are needing to feed more and more people from what will soon be a steadily diminishing land area as deserts advance and oceans. The only way to do that is to develop crops – or ways of growing crops – that maximise productivity from existing land. We also need biofuels that are far more efficient than existing ones, and which ideally can grow on land not perfect for crops. We will need plants that can lock up CO2 quickly but not release it again. We’ll need forestry that’s resistant to wildfires. None of these are beyond human ingenuity, but we need good people coming into plant science, and the funding to match, to achieve them.
For students who care about humanity, and saving lives, there is no better place to be than in plant science!