Sir David Attenborough films squirting cucumbers at Cambridge University Botanic Garden for BBC One’s The Green Planet
As the new series of The Green Planet airs on BBC One, staff at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (CUBG) have spoken about the day Sir David Attenborough came to film – and had fun with squirting cucumbers.
The series of five episodes, which began on January 9, reveals fascinating insights of plants from cross the globe – from the USA to Costa Rica, Croatia to northern Europe, covering a range of habitats from deserts to water worlds, and tropical forests to the frozen north.
Episode three, titled ‘Seasonal World’, will show how plants contend with the top-to-bottom seasonal changes from ‘a frozen hell to a green heaven’ in just a few weeks. It is this episode which features plants from the University Botanic Garden’s collection.
CUBG’s curator Dr Sam Brockington oversees the garden’s plant collection and in 2019 launched the its first collection strategy (bit.ly/3fcavgT). He says: “It was a privilege to welcome Sir David and The Green Planet’s crew to the garden.
“Our plant collection of over 8,000 species from around the globe supports world-class plant science research, and it’s very exciting to have some of our collection featured in this landmark series.
“Watching Sir David wander through our systematic beds explaining some of the processes and mechanisms plants use to disperse their seeds was an absolute joy for us but something we have had to keep a secret until now.”
Sam continues: “Plants are crucial to the existence of all life on earth and so many of the answers to today’s world challenges lie within the plant kingdom.
“Plants are also fascinating as they have to do everything – finding food, protecting themselves from the extremes of weather, defending themselves from predators and diseases as well as making offspring, while rooted to the same spot.
“I can’t wait to see how the series will take us on a magical journey into the world of plants and reveal their reality to us – the way they behave and the challenges they face.”
He adds: “There’s also an important message underlying the series. Forty per cent of the world’s plants are threatened with extinction and plants are definitely our ally when it comes to climate change and ensuring that we have enough food to eat. So our role as a botanic garden is more crucial now than ever.
“We are the custodians of carefully curated, and strategically-planned, collections of rare, wild and diverse plant material, that assist plant scientists’ understanding of plants and the mechanisms they use to thrive and survive.
“And by addressing these mysteries we help solve some of the human societies’ greatest challenges. Our role is also vital for education and conservation purposes. We hope this series will connect people with plants, show how vital they are in supporting all life on earth and help people understand the role of botanic gardens play in conserving these wild and enigmatic plants.
“We hope it will inspire people to visit botanic gardens to see some of these rare and unusual plants for themselves.”
Sir David chuckled with delight when the squirting cucumbers (Ecballium elaterium) did their thing and the Himalayan balsam popped. While snippets of these scenes have featured in The Green Planet trailer and in the introduction to the first episode of the series, it is in Sunday’s episode that viewers will get to see the full slow-motion imagery captured by the crew and hear the mechanisms the plants use to disperse their seeds, explained by the world’s most famous naturalist.
Filming for the Seasonal World episode took place in August 2020, after the first lockdown. However, background work in the garden began much earlier in the year. Working with The Green Planet’s production team and their brief, a small team of CUBG staff started to select plants which did ‘cool’ things and were likely to be in season on the filming day to fit in with the tight filming schedule and the series brief.
Once the plants had been chosen, staff at the garden worked hard to keep the selected plants in top condition, ready for their screen debut. But this was no mean feat as piercing August temperatures along with torrential rain meant they could have been ruined at any point and it was important they didn’t peak too soon or until the cameras were rolling and Sir David was on set.
Also, Covid-safe filming logistics had to be set in place, all whilst keeping the garden open to the public. Sam says: “While it was a privilege to have Sir David and the team film with our plants, we had just come out of lockdown and didn’t want to close the garden again to our visitors, especially as it has become an important local resource for wellbeing.
“So staff cordoned off areas of the garden where filming was to take place. We also set aside our Schools’ Garden exclusively for the crew and Sir David to have as their base.” Sir David arrived before the garden opened to the public and was able to walk through the garden to the systematic Beds where some of the filming took place.
A former student at the University of Cambridge, the famed naturalist said he hadn’t visited the garden “for a very long time” and loved hearing how Darwin and Henslow had walked in the garden together discussing the evolution of plants.
The weather, in true British style, was unsettled with huge storm clouds but as filming began, the clouds broke and the sun burst through. Executive producer Mike Gunton remarked afterwards how, wherever the team are, the sun always seems to come out when Sir David walks ‘on set’.
The Seasonal World episode of The Green Planet will be shown this Sunday (January 23) on BBC One at 7pm. It will also be available afterwards, along with the rest of the series – after broadcast – on BBC iPlayer. For more on CUBG, visit botanic.cam.ac.uk.