TV Review: The Kingdom of Plants

TV: The Kingdom of Plants

David Attenborough explores the vast beauty of our natural world

By Mark HadleyWednesday 7 Nov 2012TV and StreamingReading Time: 3 minutes

A plant-lovers delight, Mark Hadley reviews 'The Kingdom of Plants'.

RELEASE DATE: Sundays, 7:30 PM

Kingdom Of Plants
is another breath-taking series by that master investigator of the natural world David Attenborough. It’s impressive as much for its incredible photography as for its insistence that the most effective designs are more chance than plan.

Kingdom Of Plants is a three-part series shot almost exclusively within Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew on the outskirts of London. It might sound like a cheap way of executing a series until you learn a little bit about this amazing exhibition. The gardens house a collection that has been steadily growing over the past three two centuries so that it now includes representatives of 90% of all known plant species. Central to its success has been a glasshouse the size and shape of an upturned ship. Attenborough presents it as the brain-child of those stuffy Victorians and an ‘engineering wonder of the age’:
“The Palm House was constructed in 1844 from over two hundred tones of iron and sixteen thousand pains of glass … Its purpose was to provide a home for the tropical plants that Victorian explorers brought back from their adventures in the tropics.”
And in one short piece to camera Attenborough brings together what appear to be his two chief loves: the marvels of the natural world, and the cleverness of the humans who observe it. On the one hand we’re treated to rare insights into the lives of plants, the ‘foundation of all terrestrial life.’ Clever time-lapse photography exchanges our timescale for theirs. Plants we would normally consider to be passive become creatures that compete for resources in the most amazing ways. Each one provides another reason to celebrate the creativity and ingenuity of our great God, but to see that you’ll need eyes other than David Attenborough’s.
Kingdom Of Plants makes several references to the intimately entwined ecosystems plants create, and wonders that they’ve come to exist comfortably in the most hostile environments. There’s even some questions raised about the highly unusual profusion of flower-bearing plants. But Attenborough’s dogged determination to stick to straight evolution sees him take refuge in increasingly long time frames and, as he puts it, a series of ‘happy coincidences’. If there’s a brilliant mind involved then it has to belong to one of the people who’ve puzzled out how plants work.
In the first episode, The Wet Zone, Attenborough draws the viewer’s attention to the tiny Rwandan Water Lily that has become extinct in the wild due to urban development. However a horticulturalist nick-named ‘The Plant Messiah’, Carlos Magdalena, has recently managed to reproduce their environment so that they’re now making a comeback. “If this works, and it’s clearly going to,” David observes, “You have in fact yourself saved a species.” And it’s true, Carlos has done a brilliant job.

But is he really the plant’s saviour? What Carlos has in fact achieved is the recreation of a much bigger mind’s work, reinstating the process our sinfulness interrupted. But so long as the world is seen as nothing more than a lucky integration of the most fortunate events, humanity will have no room for any brilliance but its own.