A Champion of Plants – An interview with Matt Candeias, Botanist and Creator of the ‘In Defense of Plants’ Podcast
“Plants are these primary producers that can take energy from the stars and turn it into food, and when you’re considering things from a conservation perspective I think it just makes sense to make them the centre point.”
Within conservation, plants are a vital but often overlooked component and the hugely energetic Matt Candeias is on a mission to change that.
Currently working on a PhD in Community Ecology from the University of Illinois, he is the creator of the enormously successful In Defense of Plants podcast, a producer of botanical documentaries and a co-author of the book Flora: Inside the secret world of plants, created in collaboration with Kew Gardens and Dorling Kindersley; in short, he is a man with many strings to his botanical bow.
A self-described ‘plant nut’, he is passionate about enthusing people about plants and their conservation, helping us to understand their vital place within ecosystems and opening our eyes to the fascinating stories of the green world we inhabit.
In this interview we discuss his career trajectory, not always taking the conventional route and what it is about plants that he finds so compelling.
You have a very multi- faceted career. How did you get to where you are now and what does a typical day look like for you?
When I initially started the blog, I was unemployed, it was winter, I was living at home and working at a grocery store and so I really needed something to energise my brain.
Early on I had realised that even professional environmentalists simply do not connect with plants and that was very upsetting, so that was how the idea for the blog first came about. I decided to start blogging as an exercise in creativity. I needed something to offload my ideas into, and after that the podcast was the next natural step and then everything grew from there.
Nowadays, a typical day starts for me with getting up and checking on my garden and my house plants and seeing how they’re doing and then just starting to write. I usually try to do my ‘fun’ writing in the morning because it gets my brain going. Then I do my grad work and then I’ll schedule an interview with someone, which usually takes about an hour to an hour and a half. I just allow myself to be immersed in plant stuff all day.
What is your creative process for the In Defense of Plants podcast, and do you have any tips for new podcasters?
Obviously, the first thing is to put out something enjoyable! But I would say that consistency really is the key. With the way the internet algorithms work, consistency really fits that metric and so you show up more, you appear regularly, and people know what to expect and where to find you.
Each episode is whatever it is I’m interested in that week and I also make sure to try and keep it diverse. I’ll have an idea and then I’ll read a couple of papers and end up going down these rabbit holes. Or perhaps I’ll try and do something topical, a little contentious, perhaps something that people are misinformed about.
In 2018 you collaborated with Kew Gardens on a book, a creative and engaging introduction to botany. How did that project come about?
I’m always hearing about Kew, through the Discovery Channel and watching David Attenborough and it looks amazing. Rebecca Hilgenhof (previous Nursery Supervisor at Kew Gardens) and I found each other through Instagram and I then interviewed her on my show. She recommended some people to me to connect with, and by that point I’d begun to gain enough notoriety with the podcast that when I did that, there was a recognition and a positive response out there.
Eventually DK the publisher said that they were looking for a variety of people with different skillsets within plant writing and reached out and asked if I was interested, and of course I was immediately like ‘well, yeah!’
What have been some real career highlights for you?
It was a big goal for me to do something like the book before I was 30, so that was a huge highlight. In terms of the podcast, Carlos Magdalena (AKA The Plant Messiah – a botanical horticulturalist at Kew) is a big hero of mine so interviewing him was a huge thing for me, and he was so nice as well, so that was extremely exciting.
What would you say to any early conservation careerists to enthuse them more about plant conservation?
A huge reason why so many organisms are endangered on this planet is due to habitat destruction. And what is habitat? It is plants – they are the fundamental structure of ecosystems.
I’m not trying to say that everyone has to be into plants! But if you’re an early careerist and you’re really passionate about an animal, I would recommend that you think about it’s position in the environment and start making those connections.
Once you start to look at what it eats and where it lives, you will soon realise that no animal operates in a vacuum. If you take the animals and the ecosystems that you love and connect them to the bigger picture, the better a conservationist you will be.
So many people are so passionate about conservation and the environment, yet there is this collective disinterest when it comes to plants. Why do you think that is?
I’ve realised that when people talk about the environment, they are generally talking about animals or the human environment. So, I started researching plants to try and bring myself up to where I wanted to be knowledge-wise and I soon found that there is almost nothing out there on their ecology. They are just thought of as medicine and food, as if they are not even living organisms – they’re just considered tools. And it made me realise that most people have unfortunately been given a very poor introduction to plants.
But when you go looking for the answers to these questions about plants, you unlock all these incredible doors. They have been on this planet longer than most other organisms have. They don’t have brains, they don’t have a central processing centre, they don’t have nerves, they can’t get up and run.
You look at a dog or a big cat and you can empathise on some level, you can understand when you see fear in their eyes, but plants are just doing things so differently. You can look at one and think, ‘This thing could kill me and yet it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.’
Sometimes it can seem like conservation is impenetrable if you do not have the right qualifications. Have you any advice for anyone without an academic background trying to get into botany/plant conservation? What would you advise as a starting step?
I would absolutely say you do not need to put yourself into a ton of debt going through university to become a great botanist. Some of the best botanists I have ever met did not go to college.
The beauty of the internet and libraries is that it means there is so much accessible information out there. Grab a field guide, learn some basic plant ID skills, graduate to a key and get to know the plants in your back yard!! Then join clubs and local groups and start talking to people. You unlock so much knowledge and passion just from talking to people.
I would also say it’s important to volunteer. If you can help out in a lab or perhaps help someone do some field work, they are really great ways to get your hands dirty. Growing plants also helps you understand them better and it generates new ideas and questions.
I do feel like there is a disconnect between application and theory and people can get caught up in an academic culture which can be very sterilising for creativity and passion. That physical contact with plants is really fascinating and important. I’ve occasionally heard grad students being very dismissive about applied ecology and that is very frustrating because ultimately, that is what conservation is!