Emma CooperEmma Cooper has two degrees – a BSc (Hons) in Physics with Astrophysics and an MSc in Ethnobotany, the study of the ways in which people interact with plants. She makes her way as a freelance writer  and lives with over 600 books, but as she’s a keen gardener, you’re most likely to find her outside with her plants.

When I was at school, there was no plant science on the curriculum. When it came to making my GCSE choices, I dropped biology because it would be Human Biology and I didn’t want to be a doctor. We were strongly discouraged from taking three sciences unless we wanted to become a doctor, which led to a strange situation in which I had to drop Domestic Science (a poor name for a practical course in cooking and sewing as far removed from science as it’s possible to get) in favour of History. I wanted to be a scientist, but apparently you don’t need three different sciences for that.

On paper I had the best education the State could provide. I went to an all girl’s grammar school, and was encouraged to believe I could become a doctor, or a lawyer. What I wasn’t encouraged to do was to think outside the box. I thought I knew what I wanted, but I wasn’t seeing all of the options, and there was no one to ensure that I did.

It has been obvious that I’m smart since I was a young girl. To begin with, it was a blessing. My parents could be proud of my accomplishments, show off as I reached each development milestone ahead of my peers. I don’t remember when that changed exactly, but I was only 11 when my mother told me off for being a bluestocking [1]. Even then I knew exactly what she meant – it’s a Victorian insult aimed at women with too much education. She was telling me that I was too smart to find a husband. That I was doomed to a life in which I could be no more than the modern equivalent of a governess.

And so I developed an understanding that there is a socially-acceptable level of smart for a woman. Since then I have been trying to walk that line – obviously an outlier in the intelligence stakes, but never too much. Never out shining anyone. Never ‘bragging’. Never achieving anything of note. Realizing that at work, just like at school, the only real reward for doing good work is to be given more of it. Nothing new, nothing challenging, nothing exciting, just more of the same stuff. There is no motivation there to excel.

Sometimes I wonder what I might have achieved in my life had I not been surrounded by subliminal messages not to achieve anything outstanding. But I have always been an avid reader, and books opened doors for me that the role models in my life couldn’t. I learned how to learn, and I have always been naturally curious. And so a few years ago I took a Masters degree in a scientific discipline I didn’t know existed until I was in my mid-thirties. Ethnobotany is the meeting point between anthropology and botany, and studies the way people make use of plants. My particular area of interest and expertise is edible plants, and my passion for them stemmed from learning to grow them myself, something that I had no opportunity to do until I was an adult with my own garden.

My new mission is to save the world, one plant at a time. By which I don’t mean via conservation, but by bringing the virtues of plants to people’s attention. The world suffers woefully from plant blindness. We don’t see the intricate green tapestry around us as anything other than window dressing, but in fact we’re entirely dependent on plants for everything from oxygen and clean water to the clothes we’re wearing and the food we’ve just eaten.

Our use of plants has changed the world. If you don’t believe me then think about the slave trade – our desire for sugar [2] was the driving force that displaced millions of people across the Atlantic Ocean. The global trade in tea [3] caused the Opium Wars and it was tea being thrown into Boston Harbor that was the inciting event for the American Civil War. Our discovery of Chinchona in South America provided the quinine that allowed us to side-step malaria and form the British Empire in India.

When people migrate across the planet, they take their plants with them, as far as the climate allows. A few plants have conquered the agricultural world and are grown almost everywhere, and we are dependent on them for the majority of our food. Rice, wheat, maize [4] and potatoes have become favourite staples, bearing little resemblance to their wild ancestors, and we have come to the point where we have put all of our agricultural eggs in one basket. Environmental changes, such as the ones climate change is already causing [5], are jeopardizing our food security. The key to solving the problem lies in going back to the plants. In using the genetic resources locked up in wild plants to breed new varieties that thrive in our changing conditions. But also to look at the edible plants we have so far overlooked, and see whether any of them have the potential to feed the world.

We need to overcome our plant blindness and develop a new generation of plant-savvy scientists, and here – as with the other sciences – we need to unpack and remove the roadblocks to young women [6] choosing science as a career, and to them sticking with it. We need to foster dangerous women, capable of thinking outside the box and escaping from the subliminal messages that still prevail in our society, encouraging them not to try.

Outside of the developed world, too, there is a need to empower dangerous women. Although women [7] in developing countries are the backbone of the rural economy, and tend to be the most knowledgeable about the crop varieties that grow well in their climate, it is usually men who control crop production and marketing, and the household finances. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, women in these countries could increase agricultural yields by 20-30% if they had the same access to resources as men. These women could lift up to 150 million more people out of hunger.

Resistance is fertile. Plants can change the world, they just need a little help from dangerous women.



[1] http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century

[2] http://www.livescience.com/4949-sugar-changed-world.html

[3] http://www.mnn.com/food/beverages/stories/how-tea-changed-the-world

[4] https://www.idrc.ca/en/article/facts-figures-food-and-biodiversity

[5] https://www.wfp.org/climate-change/climate-impacts

[6] http://www.diamond.ac.uk/Home/News/LatestFeatures/26-08-16.html

[7] http://www.farmingfirst.org/women_infographic/



4 thoughts on “Dangerously in love with plants

  1. Hi Emma, I enjoyed your article and was fascinated to hear about ethnobotany – wasn’t aware of this discipline. I don’t know if you like comics but the paragraph on migrating plants reminded me of a beautiful chapter in my favourite graphic novel, Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks, about this phenomenon – you might enjoy it (it’s not all about plants though!) https://www.drawnandquarterly.com/hicksville

  2. wow – im 47 and didn’t know about Ethnobotany and im a mad gardener. Im not so good at feeding humans though with my edibles, just animals and insects. I was brainy and encouraged continually at school to do well as it was the only way to get a good job. But university was too expensive. I then remember after all this pressure to do well at school, my dad saying that women shouldn’t get good jobs because it took them away from the men who needed to provide for their families. That statement floored me and i realised that all the pressure to do well was more about my being able to fend for myself and not be a monetary burden to my dad. I have also found the same – that the award for women who work hard is more work. It happened all the time to my mum and has happened to me too. If you are ever in Scotland theres a garden here you are welcome to potter around 😀

  3. Emma – what a fascinating read….I am only just waking up (at 52 yrs of age!) to the power and importance of plant life – we have so much to learn from them. Your article was utterly inspiring and your knowledge something I aspire to – I’m getting there, albeit a little late in the game but I have a newfound enthusiasm for learning and using the very plants we have ‘beneath our feet’, mostly called ‘weeds’ but they have much to teach us. Thank you for so eloquently describing what many of us women know in our hearts but are not always brave enough to embrace. ?❤️?

  4. Growing up, I loved plants, gardening, and the woods. It was a huge part of my childhood. I had no idea anyone could go to school for anything plant related until recent years actually. As girls, if we were smart, we were of course taught to go to school to teach, nothing more really, and I went to college to be an art teacher. I held on to my love of plants through it all, and when I got my home, the first thing I did, besides get a dog, was plant a garden. I taught myself a lot over the years by growing and reading. I often joke about how the way I pronounce the Latin names of certain plants may be off since I memorized them from the things I read, but a kind old lady once told me not to worry about it since the people that actually spoke the language are all long dead, lol. My passion for growing from seed expanded over the years, and thanks to the internet, I now own a seed company (since 2009.) I often say, I wish I had done this years ago, but as you said there was whole world out there I had no idea existed.

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