Our Burning Planet


Sir David Attenborough explores the roots of all life in new BBC series, The Green Planet

Sir David Attenborough explores the roots of all life in new BBC series, The Green Planet
Stills from the BBC's 'The Green Planet'. (Photos: Supplied)

A new BBC series takes viewers into the remarkable world of plants and shows that they too are living beings.

‘Plants flourish in the most remarkable of ways. Yet, for the most part, the secrets of their world have been hidden from us – until now. Now we have new groundbreaking technology that enables us to enter their world and see life from their perspective,” says Sir David Attenborough in the opening remarks of a new BBC series, The Green Planet

The series, narrated by the 95-year-old broadcaster, natural historian and author, takes viewers through the life and struggles of a range of plants across the globe.

The series kicks off by exploring the Costa Rican rainforest and the plants and animals that survive there – from ants cutting through the leaves of a tree to feed underground fungi and how that tree declares chemical warfare on the fungi, to bats and raccoons pollinating plants across the forest. 

Also seen in the first episode is how trees on the forest floor struggle to access light for survival and how plants try to kill each other to reach the sunlight that is taken up by larger trees. 

Each episode takes the viewer through different conditions in which plants survive: deserts, freezing temperatures and even large fires which cause plants to bloom. 

Speaking about the series in an online Q&A session hosted by Miss Earth South Africa 2021 Nompumelelo Maduna, the series’ producer, Rupert Barrington, said the rise in awareness of plants and the climate crisis were factors that had contributed to creating the series. He added that introducing time-lapse technology had enhanced the series. 

“What we really wanted to get at with the series is that plants face all the same problems in their lives that animals do. An individual tree wants space, it wants food, it wants to find a mate to reproduce, to protect its young – all these things that animals do. 

“When you can speed up their action, you see that they’re incredibly dynamic, inventive. They do extraordinary things to solve the challenges of life that animals also face. So there’s a whole world around us which we don’t see, which is really dynamic and exciting,” Barrington said. 

South Africa appears in the third episode, Seasonal Worlds, featuring the fynbos of the Cape Floral Kingdom, which contains more plant species than anywhere in the world. 

Some fynbos relies on fire to regenerate. Smoke is the cue for the fire lily to flower, and after a fire in the filmed region the plants come to life for the first time in 15 years. However, they disappear and remain an underground bulb once surrounding and competing plants reappear. 

“If you disturb the soil in a fynbos system, you’re going to lose a lot of species. Bigger, hotter fires can burn the soil and burn out all the seeds. And for the species that have these really intricate strategies, like the fire lily, that really is a difficult game,” says global change ecologist Jasper Slingsby in the episode. 

“Every year is getting hotter and potentially drier. So it’s kind of becoming Russian roulette for a lot of the species here.”

Attenborough, in the same episode, describes how plants have had to adjust to the conditions of different seasons, and to survive they have to get the timing of their flowering just right. However, with the climate crisis threatening the ecological system and balance, plants have had to adapt to new cues nature is giving them. 

Episode producer Rosie Thomas told Daily Maverick that once when she and the team went out to film, for the sixth time in a row the season hadn’t performed as it should have. In some instances, there was meant to be lots of snow but it had melted due to a warmer winter, and then later the region experienced its heaviest snowfalls in 38 years. 

“It was sort of like this real juxtaposition of things that were meant to happen and the things that were actually happening and everything was out of kilter. And we found that across the board. But I think in the making of the section about the Seasonal Worlds film, where we did delve much more into the fires in the fynbos in South Africa, that definitely felt like it was a result of climate change,” Thomas said. 

Fire protection officer Reinard Geldenhuys, who was part of the team containing the fire that followed the flowering of the fire lily, said he was aware that there is some debate about the reality of the climate crisis. 

“We experience [the climate crisis] in the fires. It’s more intense, burns easier and for longer. In the past we used to have one big fire per season… now we have five to six big ones per season. If we don’t change our ways, we are going to reach a point where the fire burns with such ferocity that it will destroy the landscape,” Geldenhuys said.

The series brings to life the world of plants and reminds us that they too are living and share many qualities with animals and humans. Green Planet is a stark reminder that humans, animals and plants are dependent on the climate and that a changing climate can be harmful to the lives of all. 

As Attenborough says in the series, the biggest living thing that exists on this planet is a plant and they are the basis of all life, including ourselves. 

The Green Planet premieres on Sunday, 13 February at 4pm CAT on BBC Earth, DStv channel 184. DM/OBP


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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Change is Good says:

    Cant wait to see this show. David Attenborough has contributed so much to our view of the planet that we share with other beings.
    What a legacy.

  • Alan Paterson says:

    If there is any justice in this world then Sir Richard will be on the podium this year to receive his (long overdue) Nobel Peace Prize. I can but hope.

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