Three plant species for my ten best of everything: wheat, pine and arabidopsis

Suggestions needed for the ten best of everything: plants for botanists

I’m writing an AoBBlog post (or maybe posts) on ten plants that all botanists should know quite a lot about. Criteria for inclusion include importance in the environment, importance to people as food or culturally, scientific interest, global nature, and evolutionary position. What are your suggestions?

Three plant species for my ten best of everything: wheat, pine and arabidopsis
Three plant species for my ten best of everything: wheat, pine and arabidopsis

Some time ago, I started on an AoBBlog post (or maybe posts) on ten plants that all botanists should know quite a lot about. Criteria for inclusion on my list include, at the least, importance in the environment, importance to people as food or culturally, scientific interest, global nature, and evolutionary position. Together, the species (genera? even families?) chosen should illustrate a wide range of botany and complement each other. So, here I give my current list of starters; the order is computer-sorted random.

Wheat (or rice)


Drosera (or Pinguicula)

A legume – but which one? Acacia? Arachis? Trifolium? Pisum? Glycine?

Physcomitrella (or Sphagnum or another non-vascular plant)

Wollemi pine (Ponderosa pine?)





I’m deliberately not including reasons for my choices here – they will be included in the final posts – but suggestions of what I have missed would be welcome – along with those species that should not make the cut and should be replaced. I suppose I could stretch to a dozen species if needs be.

Comments below please!

Carving in Perugia: the cultural importance of three families of my top ten species
Carving in Perugia: the cultural importance of three families of my top ten species

Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison

Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.


  • Bad news for builders and biodiversity – the invasive species Japanese knotweed. It is in the Polygonaceae family but has had a few different species names over the years. It is very easy to recognise so you can cut it back and send it off to be incinerated!

  • An excellent suggestion – I was looking at Japanese Knotweed taking over a nature reserve (and breaking the banks of ponds) in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales, last weekend. And my list certainly needs an example of an invasive alien, given their devastating effect on biodiversity throughout the world.

  • Not a thrilling list, very temperate, very, well, ordinary sounding. Bamboo? Cecropia? Piper nigrum? Tea? No nightshade! Figs? Cycads. Equisetum. Magnolias, it must have them, but for phylogeny’s sake, waterlilies. Cannabis? Our list overlap would be almost non-existent.

  • My suggestion is Petunia for its importance in the discovery of RNAi mechanism, and therefore in crop genetic improvement

  • I wonder about the potato, which arguably fuelled the Industrial Revolution. From the cultural side, it’s an interesting example of how long it took for some foodstuffs to become adopted in Europe. And sadly they’re a very good example of how disastrous disease can be in a crop. I hope banana doesn’t become a very similar case to that and in some sense the banana is a complement to the potato as we only eat a very limited range of Musa in Europe.

    Apples have deep cultural significance, and are still the most cultivated fruit in the world aren’t they? The fact that you can’t grow a Granny Smith apple tree from a Granny Smith apple seed fascinates me and this may be useful for discussing plant cultivation. There’s also the matter of conservation of the wild trees.

    For something less obviously practical, Zostera is still ecologically very important. Some people have eaten it as food, and its occasionally building material, but it has a much more powerful influence at a slight remove, playing a major role in shaping the environment for long marine food chains. Biologically, the marine environment itself presents different challenges to those tackled by terrestrial plants. I’ve also just discovered the blog for the Zostera Experimental Network:

  • I like the Phytophactor’s suggestion for cannabis. I thought about cannabis. I’d give tobacco the slight edge, but maybe cannabis combines the economic importance of tobacco, with importance of hemp as a tool, and the effects of the war on drugs that you’d get from coca leaf or the opium poppy.

  • I’m really happy that I asked for suggestions and certainly am going to re-write the list. I was concious of the temperate-bias and had tried to avoid an angiosperm domination (as my plant morphology professor, David Bierhorst at University of Massachusetts memorably told me, ‘variations on a theme’). I thought about Equisetum rather than Lycopodium, or indeed a true fern rather than fern-ally – phylogeny, coal measures, reproductive strategy all important to know about!
    What would be an iconic species for the rainforests? – like oak for temperate forests.
    Potato is certainly in! I’d wanted two monocots, hence banana (not to say, also a species I work on), also representing the tropics; the basal angiosperms I concluded probably make a ‘nearly’/proxime accessit list for me.
    How about Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia) rather than Japanese Knotweed, to represent another water plant and nasty invasive, also tropical?
    A medicinal plant – Cannabis, tobacco – is also important. Both these have interesting science, Cannabis with short-day flowering response and a fibre (pine, oak and banana also allow discussion of fibres), tobacco has tissue culture, as well as both giving the chance to write about secondary products. Quinine is often noted to have had major effects in the topics.

  • I would be remiss if I did not suggest (perhaps predictably) Phaseolus beans. They are the most important grain legumes for direct human consumption , especially in Latin America and East Africa. In combination with sources of carbohydrates, such as maize (Mesoamerica first and later South America) and root crops (South America), they have supported the development of pre-hispanic civilizations. They provide a rich source of proteins, minerals, and vitamins. They ameliorate the soil (N fixation). The five domesticated species can be grown in a wide range of environments from arid to humid, cooler to hot.

  • Coffee. I recall reading somewhere it is the second most traded commodity on the planet.
    And chocolate, for obvious reasons.
    Not strictly plants, but rhizobacteria and mycorrhizae probably deserve an honourable mention. And yeast, because beer, bread and singlemalt whisky.

  • If Wollemia is there as a poster child for the “living fossils”, how about Ginkgo biloba instead? Loads of fossil Ginkgoes with a global distribution in the Mesozoic, but also important to humans in urban planting due to its pollution tolerance, and of cultural/aesthetic importance too.

  • Most of the ones I would suggest (coffee, tea, chocolate, Cannabis, Ginkgo, more tropicals) have been mentioned but also:

    Ephedra, has made a massive contribution to medicine, evil drug lords and brilliant TV (Breaking Bad).

    Sweet potato, mine is growing at an inch a day at the moment, what a marvellous plant. So important that it was carried in canoes over vast distances by the Pacific island navigators.

    Brazil nut would be a good representative of a rainforest and plants that can’t be cultivated, only encouraged.

    The ideal legume for me is the chick pea – where would we be without falafels, hummus, bhajis, garbanzos con espinacas, etc?

    I am not a fan of gin myself but a few juniper berries make my pea pΓ’tΓ© delightful. As a conifer it would be an excellent example that not all conifers have cones. The wood and leaf essential oil are also useful. Yew is also economically very important and fascinating. Useful wood, medicine and the berries taste lovely, too, though virtually no-one dares them.

    Ginkgo also has very tasty nuts for which they are prized not just in China – as well as leaves used in modern medicine.

    Surely a seaweed rather than a moss? Nori, wakame, sugar kelp, dulse and laver being some of the nicer ones. I suppose with the sushi craze nori is the most widespread. The Welsh should make more effort to spread their cuisine. Yo Taffy?

  • There are so many possible choices, many of which have already been mentioned. Here’s a few I favor, (leaning heavily toward genus over species) choosing with a humanistic botany bias:

    Papaver somniferum — while the medical attributes are obvious, opium production has had an indelible effect on human history.

    Cocos nucifera — enormously important economically, also instrumental to human colonization of the tropics.

    Manihot esculenta — cassava is still one of the most commonly consumed sources of carbohydrates in the world.

    Sphagnum spp. — dominant species in peat bogs.

    Citrus spp. — a useful study in cultivation effect, the fruit has an interesting morphology, and has broad economic importance.

    Brassica (I’ll leave the species argument to specialist on this one) — European history was fed largely on cruciferous vegetables. Another interesting study in cultivation selection.

    Cupressaceae — the most cosmopolitan by far of all the Pinales, the whole family is damn interesting. Just pick your favorite and go with it.

    Laminariales — anything here would be a good choice, although I have a personal bias towards Nereocystis spp. — while not the most important economically, their morphology and growth habit makes them a winner when you are teaching the K-8 age groups.

    Amaranthus spp. — economically important pseudograins with a nicely complicated taxonomy.

    Amborella trichopodea — a great place to start discussing systematics AND island endemics.

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