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Plants have charisma too

US President Barack Obama has it. Frank Sinatra had it. Oprah has built a fortune on it.

Charisma. It’s a quality that’s difficult to define but easy to spot.

It’s when someone makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room, or when they put you at ease with their genuine ease. People are drawn to charismatic people, seek them out, feel comfortable in their glow.

So, you might be surprised to hear that pandas, polar bears and koalas have charisma too, although not in the same way. Charismatic animals are the animals we line up for at the zoo, earn our affection and we are most likely to conserve. These are the animals that appear attractive and appealing in a way that hyenas or horse flies don’t.

It was only a matter of time before plants earned the charismatic tag too.

Think about the plants in your garden or in the bush that people are drawn to, prize or want to conserve.

Orchids, roses and the Wollemi pine. I’m sure you can name many more.

These are the ones with their own societies, make news headlines and become tourist destinations. People, over the years, have come to favour them over plants without quite the same appeal – say paper daisies, agapanthus or a box hedge.

So, what is it about some plants that make them more charismatic than others? Is it because they’re rare? Their size? Or is there an indefinable ‘something’ that some plants just have and others don’t?

It’s a topic that Emily Hounslow looked into for her master’s thesis at the University of Sheffield . Full text is available here.

She quotes researchers who say that charismatic plants are:

“distinguished by their beauty, size, age, rareness and/or weirdness”

Hounslow looked at which plants were featured on the front covers of magazines – a sign that these plants could grab a reader’s attention and be seen as attractive enough to trigger a sale.

The Wollemi pine, with its irresistible back story, shows the role of charisma in plant conservation (Image: John Dalton/Wikimedia Commons

The Wollemi pine, with its irresistable back story, shows the role of charisma in plant conservation (Image: John Dalton/Wikimedia Commons)

Try flicking through back copies of your own favourite gardening magazines to see if you can spot a trend. Roses, camellias and geraniums tend to get a run in my small, very unscientific sample.

Hounslow also looked at which plants were seen as tourist attractions and were sought after on botanical tours. Joe Meisel, vice-president and founder of the Ceiba Foundation for Tropical Conservation, was quoted as saying:

“People like ‘pretty’ things, particularly in this age of digital cameras, people like things that they can photograph.”

Hounslow then looked at which plants people were willing to pay to conserve. Orchids came top of the list, with one woman donating $10,000 to sponsor a single species.

In the end, Hounslow concluded that no one factor guaranteed a type of plant to be any more charismatic than another. Although larger, showier plants that looked stunning in photography and had an interesting back story seemed to be interesting trends, her sample sizes weren’t large enough to say for sure.

The garden connection
Why are we interested in all of this? Well, we might be better informed about the types of plants that be used to promote conservation programs, she says. And it may alert us to our own biases in the types of plants we earmark for conservation, and I guess, by extension, which ones we end up growing in our gardens.

Take Australia’s Wollemi Pine, as an example. Who could resist its powerful story. This ‘living fossil’, billed as coming from the time of the dinosaurs, was found in the bush just to the west of Sydney, triggering conservation and propagation on an unprecedented scale. To this day, we can buy descendants of those ancient pine trees in garden centres around the world.

Which other plants, without such an interesting story or perhaps smaller and less dramatic, have escaped our conservation efforts because they lack charisma? The sad trutth is that we’ll never know.

If you liked this article, you might also like:
Going native
Thinking about plants … yes, really
Top 10 facts to share about … tulips

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