The Plant Family Tree

In class this morning I showed the video, The Plant Family Tree, that was created at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 2014. It’s a lovely eight-minute film that focus on Kew’s herbarium and on how it documents plant diversity and phylogeny. I use it to introduce students to the work of a herbarium and as a review of the history of taxonomy and evolution. It covers the place of Linnaeus and Darwin in this history as well as the new work on DNA sequencing that has led to a revision of the plant family tree. This is not an information-heavy presentation, but it does show how these subjects relate to each other. Also, it’s such a beautifully produced work that it holds the students’ attention, and I like to think that this reinforces what they have already learned.
What makes the film so attractive is the clarity of the narration, the wit of the staging, the background music, and the way all of these are integrated. The feature I like best is the hardest to describe. Through the second half of the presentation, as the cabinets in the herbarium are panned over, herbarium sheets seem to leap from them. However, the sheets are transparent, with the specimen and its information in white. Toward the end, when the tree of plant phylogeny is constructed before your eyes, it is decorated with many of these transparent sheets. They are not really legible, but the technique does get the point of relatedness and diversity across. The novelty of this presentation adds to the video’s appeal.

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