Human Flower Project

The Plants of Avatar

Following through on a filmmaker’s vision, a botanist hypothesizes plants with darts of poison and roots that grow upward—the flora of Pandora.


Exploring the plant and animal and ?? life on Pandora, in James Cameron’s movie Avatar

Image: via Scifi Scoop

By James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary

EarthScholars™ Research Group

Avatar, the current 3-D blockbuster film written and directed by James Cameron, is the first movie ever to gross $2 billion globally. You’ve probably seen it, or at least talked to someone who has. Considered a rare breakthrough in cinematic technology for its advances in 3-D viewing and stereoscopic filmmaking, Avatar was made with cameras specially designed for the film’s production.

This science fiction film takes place in the year 2154, on Pandora, a moon of Polyphemus, a giant gas planet orbiting a star beyond Earth’s neighborhood, Alpha Centauri. Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, a ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned species of wise humanoids, who are linked in equilibrium with all of the moon’s nature, worshiping an ecological goddess called Eywa—the tree-nexus of the moon’s wireless “biological internet.” The film’s title points to the genetically engineered Na’vi bodies used by several of the story’s human characters to interact with the natives of Pandora. In Cameron’s future vision, technology can inject human intelligence into a remote biological body and activate it.


Earth heroes study how to “upload” themselves onto an alien moon’s “biological wireless” system

Photo: Twentieth Century Fox

Plant lovers who see the movie are sure to thrill to the strange, dynamic, and beautiful flora revealed on Pandora. Perhaps, like us, they will also be curious about the back-story of this cleverly invented plantscape. Here’s what we have learned.

As the film advanced from conception to fruition, its producers consulted Jodie Holt a botanist at University of California—Riverside. As chair of the Department of Botany and Plant Sciences, and an active weed science researcher, Professor Holt was asked to help Avatar actress Sigourney Weaver understand how her character, a field botanist, would dress and act while doing plant research.

The producers were impressed by Dr. Holt’s expertise and soon asked her to help James Cameron and his writing team create a scientifically plausible array of Pandoran plant species for the film’s companion guide, Avatar: An Activist Survival Manual, based on Cameron’s description of the fictional moon’s environment. Dr. Holt wrote the chapter on Pandora’s flora in field guide format. Her knowledge and experiences as a weed scientist inspired her floral inventions.


A glimpse into the Pandoran plantscape

Photo: Hawtmag

Holt proposed, among other things, that Pandora’s plants could—

survive even without oxygen

shoot poisonous darts

grow to gigantic proportions

respond rapidly to stimuli

appear fluorescent

thrive even when inverted

communicate by signal transduction

have unusual and deadly defense mechanisms

possess roots that grow up as well as down

imageAvatar plant science consultant, Professor Jodie Holt, UC-Riverside

Photo: UCR Strategic Communications

Back on Earth, Holt is recognized at the UC-Riverside campus as an inspiring botany teacher. “I love teaching people why they should care about plants,” said Holt. “In one of my classes at the university, about 90% of the students want to be medical professionals. I tell them that they have ‘plant blindness’ because they think plants only belong as a green background” (Sprout, 2009).

We applaud Professor Holt’s work in improving public awareness and understanding of plants via her influence upon popular media—this film, its companion book, and video game.

We were happy to learn that she uses our theory of plant blindness in educating her botany students. Thanks to her scientific and creative efforts, plants now have a co-starring role in the film industry’s biggest box office success.

In Avatar, her plants evoke the moviegoer’s sense of wonder.  We think she would agree that, with sufficient attention and observation, Earth’s plants, although less dramatic, are capable of doing the same!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 02/23 at 03:55 PM


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