"How to Grow a Planet" on the BBC

Geologist Iain Stewart will demonstrate how plants are the “silent power” that has shaped the Earth, in a new three-part series for BBC2 starting this week.

How to Grow a Planet will offer a totally new perspective on the world’s history, and will document the crucial role that plants have played in its evolution.

The programme, which starts on Wednesday 7 February, will reveal how they harnessed light from the sun and created our life-giving atmosphere; formed the fertile soil allowing life to come ashore; created the planet’s colour; sculpted the planet itself, carving it’s very surface; drove the evolution of every single animal in the world; and even shaped the destiny of our ancient ancestors.

Iain, a Professor of Geoscience Communication, in Plymouth University’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, journeyed to some of the most remote and striking locations on Earth as part of his filming for the series.

He said: “I had always thought of plants as being rather boring – less dramatic than the earthquakes and volcanoes I had been studying. But when you realise what plants do at the planet scale, and when you discover just how fundamental they are to life on Earth, they take your breath away.”

The series features Iain carrying out a number of experiments to demonstrate the power of plants to transform their surroundings. He even staked his health on their oxygenating properties when he sealed himself in an air-tight chamber, with hundreds of plants for company, at the Eden Project in Cornwall.

Iain added: “I think it was being stuck in a transparent air-tight container for 48 hours with 274 of them that really made me appreciate plants. Locked in there, with half the oxygen removed, I suddenly realised how much I needed plants to keep me alive. It is a hell of a way to highlight something we so take for granted: photosynthesis!”


In the first episode (7th February), Iain reveals how plants took a barren and poisonous rock and created a world full of life. He goes to the salt lakes of East Africa to show how rather than appearing blue - our planet could nearly have been purple. He visits the site of the some of the earliest plants ever to come ashore – in Scotland! In Cambodia’s Angkor Wat he sees the power of some of the most powerful roots in the world and shows how some of the first animal life came ashore 500 million years ago. And by climbing the tallest species of tree on Earth he uncovers the epic battle between dinosaurs and the plants.

In episode one there are a number of ground-breaking firsts:

  • Iain carries out an extraordinary experiment in which he enters a specially sealed chamber at the Eden Project full of hundreds of plants. He is kept alive for 48 hours purely by the oxygen they create.
  • In a South African iron mine Iain liberates oxygen from the rock that is three billion years old. It’s some of the earliest oxygen ever to be created on Earth and the oldest oxygen ever to be breathed by a human being.
  • In remarkable imagery, recorded for the first time, he enters a normally invisible “inner world” of plant life. In stunning microscopic detail he reveals the stomata of a leaf actually breathing. In another sequence he images a maize plant as it photosynthesises and we see the sugar it has created coursing through its leaves, stem and roots.

In episode two (14th February) Iain discovers how flowers took over the world. He travels to the remote South Pacific Island of New Caledonia to see the earliest species of flower on the planet. In South Africa’s Karoo Desert he sees flowers that can survive and thrive using stunning their stunning colours. He fires the seeds of a flowering plant from a shotgun to learn how they were used as pellets by soldiers during the Indian mutiny and discovers how they’re so tough they germinate afterwards!. In South Africa he marvels at a fossilised bee, which fifty million years ago was frozen in a block of translucent amber. He discovers a flower whose pollen is unlocked by the single note emitted by the wings of the female of one particular bee species. And in Vietnam he becomes one of the few people to climb into the largest cave complex in the world and marvel at an extraordinary rainforest that has grown underground. Finally he sees how the huge asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago nearly did the same to flowers – and how they bounced back.

In the third episode (21st February) Iain tells the story of just one type of plant - the most underrated but perhaps the most important of all: grass. In the cloud forests of Kenya he discovers how dinosaur poo has shown scientists the moment at which grass first appeared. He tells how - thirty million years ago - grasses unleashed a firestorm on their great rivals the trees by inciting huge blazes across the planet. Iain shows how cutting your finger on a blade of grass reveals how the plant transformed life in the oceans – and triggered the generation of huge new amounts of oxygen. Iain finds out how grass drove the evolution of our ancient ancestors by visiting the cleverest chimps in the world. These are primates which live in grasslands rather than trees and have a dark secret. And finally, on an extraordinary hill in Southern Turkey, Iain discovers the most surprising revelation of all: grass triggered human civilization.