Movies that made me a botanist: An inspirational story

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

by Dr. Lizz Waring


This story is the written form of Lizz's wonderful, engaging talk in the Plant Love Stories session at the 2019 Ecological Society of America annual meeting in Louisville, Kentucky earlier this month.


I’m Lizz Waring, and I am a botanist. Seriously, it’s my job to look at and teach others about plants. It’s amazing. And this may come as a shock to you, as I wasn’t always a botanist. 


I started out as a child who had no idea what they wanted to be when they grew up. When I was a kid all the way through graduate school, my fellow nature junkies would tell me about how much they loved nature documentaries, especially those narrated by that guy, Sir David Attenborough. 


Sir David Attenborough has written and hosted many nature documentaries. Image: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-45631267

But you see I was not. I have tried to love the nature documentary genre, but they were never my cup of tea. No, I am a pop culture junkie and have been since I was in grade school. But that doesn’t mean movies haven’t influenced my career. In fact, there are a number of movies that I can positively say made me the botanist I am today. Also, here is the spoiler alert: If you are mad about it, fight me about it on twitter later (@LizzWaring). 


First and foremost, picture it. The year: 1993. The season: Sometime in the summer. I was in elementary school. That was the summer maybe the most important movie of all time came out. No not Groundhog Day or Judge Dredd, although those are both good ones. I am talking about the greatest... 


The one and only: Jurassic Park


Dinosaurs! 


Mr DNA! 


Drama! 


Cool dinosaur puppets! 


You probably know this, but the gist of the movie is dinosaurs are cloned for an amusement park, dinosaurs get loose, chaos ensues. 


During her ESA talk, Lizz shared a photo from Jurassic Park, featuring the inspirational paleobotanist character, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) on the right. Photo by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie.

To this day, this is one of my all-time favorites, and this is in no small part due to Laura Dern’s character, Ellie Sattler. You see, Dr. Ellie Sattler was the first time I was aware that you could study plants as a JOB. Like an honest-to-God job. She was invited to Jurassic Park as a paleobotanist, and she used her botanical knowledge to figure out why the Triceratops was sick! She knew about the toxic effects of the West Indian Lilac (Tetrazygia bicolor). 


In addition to being the world’s foremost dinosaur-poison-berry expert, Ellie Sattler was a total badass. She inserted feminism into Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory, then saved him from a charging T-Rex. Oh and later she saved everyone by turning the power back on on the island by dropping into a Velociraptor pit. Lesson learned from Jurassic Park: Botanists are amazing and are constantly saving other scientists in one way or another.


Another movie from my youth that had an impact was FernGully, which is a film about deforestation in the Australian rainforest. Told through a fairy, Crysta, who shrinks a lumberjack, Zak, together they fight a pollution-eating, forest-destroying, evil spirit named Hexxus--voiced by the great Tim Curry. Also, a genetically modified bat made kids aware of testing on animals. At the end of the film, Zak, the human, goes back to his lumberjack buddies with a single seed, and takes them on a walk to discuss changing their point of view on cutting down these trees. While this conclusion oversimplifies a very complex global issue, FernGully taught me that:1) plants are important, and 2) we need to talk about the importance of plants and global pollution with one another. 


Then I got older as we all do. At this point I knew getting a job was important. But that was it. I took a turn that many of us do and became invested in camp. Not the activity, the art form. The campier the movie the better. I want your John Waters, your bad musicals, and much like FernGully, literally anything starring Tim Curry. 


Actually, my love of camp probably started a bit before FernGully. Does anyone remember the movie, or the cartoon show, or the video game, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? Anyone? The short version is tomatoes become sentient and rise up against humanity. I watched the cartoon as a kid, so the idea of plants attacking humans was in my head when I fell in love with the next movie, Little Shop of Horrors. A rocking musical about an alien plant that comes to earth, manipulates a simple flower shop worker into feeding him people and the love that flower shop worker has for a woman named Audrey. The murderous plant is Audrey II, named for our leading lady by Seymour. An orphan who wants love, but ends up a murderer--just a typical love story.


Audrey vs. Audrey (Ellen Greene) from Little Shop of Horrors (Warner Bros.) Image: https://www.nytimes.com/watching/titles/little-shop-of-horrors

It may sound silly, but Little Shop of Horrors truly has influenced me as a botanist. In the same way that Attack of the Killer Tomatoes influenced me. We need to respect our plants. You never know what may try to eat you or take over the planet. 


The film, Adaptation (Sony Pictures). If you haven't seen this, and you're reading this blog, there's a 99% chance you'll love this movie. Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptation_(film)#/media/File:Adaptation._film.jpg

I finished high school. (I still love campy movies, and if anyone wants to talk more about that find me or send me a tweet!) While in college I saw Adaptation, which is a movie about a writer writing a movie about a book about orchid thievery. Great movie. I’m actually not going to talk about the orchid thieving but rather the idea of writers’ block. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter of the film, and the main character, played by Nicholas Cage, is suffering from extreme writers’ block. Why? Writing is hard! It’s hard for everyone! It was certainly hard for me in college, and it’s still a struggle. While scientific and screenplay writing tackle different topics, the struggle is the same. 

The last movie I want to discuss came out more recently, The Martian. Matt Damon is a botanist astronaut! Which is cool. Who is accidentally left on Mars during a freak accident. Which is not cool. The movie portrays his struggle to stay alive. While living alone on a planet. Eating nothing but potatoes and having nothing but ABBA to listen to. I was well into my PhD studies when this movie came out. But it was still inspiring to have a botanist as the movie’s hero. More than 20 years after I was first enamored with the idea of studying plants as a job--thanks to Laura Dern as Dr Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park--here I was a professional botanist getting excited in the movie theater all over again about being a cool, hero botanist. 


In The Martian (20th Century Fox), astronaut Mark Whitney (Matt Damon) has few options to survive, and realizes he's "going to have to science the sh-- out of this." So he grows potatoes and uses his "night soil" as fertilizer. Image: https://www.businessinsider.com/potatoes-mars-growth-cubesat-experiment-2017-3

To conclude, I would like to point out something else. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in these botanist characters. Part of the mission of Plant Love Stories is to inspire plant appreciation in all people. On the off chance that anyone here is ever asked to consult on a movie or book or you write your own, please encourage diversity within the characters. Because we all have a plant love story to tell and representation matters.


Lizz Waring (@LizzWaring) is an assistant professor at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. Carex is her favorite genus of plants.