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Why are plants smelly?

Ever trod on a plant, caught a whiff of its smell and wondered: why do plants smell? Well, wonder no more, Dr M has just the thing for you: the University of Reading “Why are plants smelly” outreach project – part of University of Reading’s (UoR) contribution to British Science Week (March 2019) and 5th International “Fascination of Plants Day” (May 2019).

These events also contribute to Reading Botany 2019  the 50th anniversary celebrations of Masters botany at Reading showcasing 50 years training, inspiring and enthusing new botanists. Members of the general public and schools get total immersion in smelly plants, scratching and sniffing, discussing the phytochemical basis of different plant aromas, both sweet and stinky, their ecological roles in plant defence and pollination, and human dimensions: food, medicines, health and therapy!

We invite families and schools to the University’s biology labs and prize-winning green campus to get seriously curious about stinky plants! We challenge participants by asking how many smelly plants there are and how many different smells? What makes plants smell and what do the smells do for the plant? Why do some plants smell nice while others stink and can we eat both kinds? And can plants smell each other?

Investigations include lab and field activities for all the family:

(1) Smelly Families with Alex Dean: Participants are presented with a range of material including photographs of plants, living plant material and plant extracts and challenged to match the aromas with the plant. We then ask which plant families include aromatic, are there family-specific smells and associated chemicals, what is their ecological function, and are there culinary and medical properties?

(2) Scratch and sniff with Oliver Wilson: Participants use hand lenses and microscopes to get up close and intimate with smelly plants, discussing the responsible phytochemicals and trying to understand how plants use smells for defence, and the role of convergent evolution in designing their defences.

(3) Smelly plant walk with Dr M: Participants take a walk on the wild and smelly side through the University of Reading’s hidden green gem, the Harris Garden, seeking out  smelly plants and comparing and contrasting the pleasantly aromatic with the more grossly stinky plants and discussing the different smells plants produce, the animal pollinators etc. that receive them and whether these are ‘come hither’ or ‘naff off’ signals – or something else entirely!

Dr M says: Our British Science Week family event (10 March 2019) is now sold out but we will be contacting local schools to get involved in the second smelly plant event on 15th May for Fascination of Plants day where we will be using digital technology to create a “why are plants smelly” video, keep your eyes (and noses!) on this fascinatingly aromatic botanical space!


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