'Plants have always been very important to mankind'. 2022 The Year of Botany

The Senate of the Republic of Poland has passed a resolution to declare 2022 as the Year of Botany. It is a good opportunity to further appreciate the importance of plants in science, economy, art or culture. I talk with dr hab. Krzysztof Banaś, prof. UG from the Department of Plant Ecology of the Faculty of Biology of the University of Gdańsk about, among others, how much they contribute to our everyday life and what we know thanks to botany and scientific research conducted by botanists.

Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska: - On the gov.pl website I read that by establishing 2022 as the Year of Botany '(...) the Chamber wants to honour Polish botanists and their achievements, as well as to appreciate the civilisational significance of this field of science'. Please say something more about this 'civilisational' significance of botany. What impact does it have on our lives?

Dr hab. Krzysztof Banaś, prof. UG: - Botany (from Greek i.e. plant, greenery) is one of the basic pillars of biological sciences and pursues mainly cognitive objectives. The object of botanists' research is broadly understood plants, their structure, functioning, communities built by them and their connection with the abiotic environment. In the beginning, it was mainly plant taxonomy connected with naming and describing new species, and then their classification, or systematics. Nowadays, botany comprises many sections, that link plants to other branches of biological sciences, such as plant anatomy, morphology, histology, cytology, embryology, physiology, biochemistry, plant genetics, palaeobotany, palynology and plant ecology. Botanical knowledge is strongly linked to many applied sciences such as agriculture, horticulture, forestry, environmental protection, biotechnology and medicine.

- I have the impression that in the rush of everyday life we forget about the importance of plants, whereas they are extremely useful.

- Plants have always been very important to man, providing food in the first place, but also medicine, material for clothing and fuel, and they have been used to build houses and to make many useful objects and tools, including weapons.

Nowadays, society is increasingly isolated from the natural environment, including plants. Natural raw materials extracted from plants have been replaced by synthetic substances, and processed plant products of all kinds are generally associated only with factories and not with the natural environment. In the light of current climate change, however, we have once again started to pay attention to plants, which shape our living environment, above all by producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They thus influence the climate of our planet, but also our immediate environment - the city in which we live. Although these urban plants seem completely ordinary, they play an extremely useful role, especially trees - they improve urban air quality and soften the harshness of the city's concrete. In the rush of urban life, we usually don't even notice them, we only notice them when they disappear from our surroundings.

- You are the originator of the World Carnivorous Plants Day, which falls on the first Wednesday of May, and you are also the creator of the faculty's paludarium, where we can admire carnivorous plants from the mountains of South America. So plants are not only beautiful, but they can also be deadly...

- Yes, this applies to carnivorous plants, but also poisonous ones. Several plant species have certainly changed the course of human history, due to the use of extracts from these plants by poisoners - assassins. The castor bean (Ricinus communis) is considered to be the most poisonous plant in the world, containing among others ricin, one seed can kill a man in two days due to its alkaloid content - a known and used poison in ancient Egypt. Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and cowbane (Cicuta virosa), which are also common in Poland, were used in ancient Greece for executions; an extract from these plants was given to Socrates, among others. The seeds of the "suicide tree" (Cerbera odollam) were eaten during the so-called "judgment of God", the manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella), which has small green apples, is in the Guinness Book of Records as the most dangerous tree, even the rain running down the leaves causes skin irritation, and the smoke when burning wood in a bonfire can cause blindness.

Many of the potted plants grown in homes are poisonous, such as the Nerium oleander (Nerium oleander) and the Dieffenbachia.

- The resolution I mentioned recalls Polish researchers, such as Michał Hieronim Leszczyc-Sumiński, who was the first to describe the developmental cycle of ferns, Antoni Rehman, the pioneer of plant research in South Africa, and Edward Strasburger, the founder of modern plant cytology. Were there any outstanding scientists in this field in Pomerania as well? When did botany start to develop in Tricity?

- Botany started to develop in TriCity in 1967 when biology was reactivated within the structures of the Pedagogical University and the Faculty of Biology and Earth Sciences was created. A Department of Botany was then created, whose scientific and didactic team was organised by dr hab. Hanna Piotrowska. Among the first employees of the Department were mgr Maria Herbich, mgr Jadwiga Stasiak, and two fifth-year students - Jacek Herbich and Ryszard Markowski. At the same time two other botanical departments were developing: Department of Plant Cytology (established in 1972, directed by assistant professor Karol Bijok) and Department of Plant Physiology (1970, managed by dr hab. Teresa Kentzer). In 1972 the Department of Botany was renamed into the Department of Plant Ecology, which in 1982 was transformed into the Department of Plant Ecology and Nature Protection, which Professor Piotrowska headed until her retirement in 1995. The Faculty of Biology honoured her with the Jacob Theodor Klein Medal - a botanist from Gdańsk, who became famous for, among other things, coffee cultivation and was considered one of the most eminent systematists before Linnaeus.

Professor Piotrowska's enormous support for her young colleagues resulted in the development of various fields of botanical research at the University of Gdańsk and also in the establishment of new scientific and didactic units. In 1999 two units were created from the former Department of Plant Ecology and Nature Protection, which were headed by Professor Piotrowska's colleagues: The Department of Plant Ecology, headed by prof. dr hab. Józef Szmeja, and the Department of Plant Taxonomy and Nature Conservation, headed by prof. dr hab. Dariusz Szlachetko.

- Currently, there are four botanical departments within the structure of the Faculty of Biology of the University of Gdańsk?

- Yes, four departments and numerous laboratories, that very well reflect the current topics and directions of botanical research conducted at the Faculty. The first is the Department of Plant Ecology, which is headed by dr hab. Krzysztof Banaś, prof. UG. There are two laboratories: the Freshwater Ecology Laboratory and the Paleoecology and Archaeobotany Laboratory (headed by dr hab. Monika Badura, prof. UG). The second is the Department of Plant Taxonomy and Nature Conservation, headed by prof. dr hab. Martin Kukwa. There are four laboratories: Plant Symbiosis Laboratory (headed by dr hab. Marc-Andre Selosse), Geobotany and Nature Conservation Laboratory (headed by dr hab. Piotr Rutkowski), Lichenology and Experimental Mycology Laboratory (headed by prof. dr hab. Martin Kukwa), and Plant Taxonomy Laboratory (headed by prof. dr hab. Dariusz Szlachetko). The next is the Department of Plant Cytology and Embryology, headed by dr hab. Małgorzata Kozieradzka-Kiszkurno, prof. UG. The fourth department is the Department of Plant Physiology and Biotechnology, headed by dr hab. Anna Aksmann, prof. UG.

- 2022 has been declared the Year of Botany to mark the 100th anniversary of the Polish Botanical Society. What should we know about the PBS? Who can become its member?

- The Polish Botanical Society, established in April 1922, gathers not only scientists, but above all plant enthusiasts, and currently has about a thousand members. National conventions of the Society's members are held every three years.

It is worth noting that the 100th anniversary of the PBS coincides with the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Gdańsk Branch, founded in 1952 on the initiative of prof. dr Tadeusz Sulma, who held the position of chairman until 1975. Subsequent terms of office were held by prof. dr Karol Bijok, prof. dr hab. Hanna Piotrowska and prof. dr hab. Małgorzata Latałowa, and since 2000 prof. dr hab. Jacek Herbich has been the chairman.

Initially, the centre of botanical life was the Botany Department of the GUT. In 1955 the seat of the Branch was moved to the Department of Pharmaceutical Botany of the Medical Academy in Gdańsk, and in 1977 to the Faculty of Biology and Earth Sciences (now Faculty of Biology) of the University of Gdańsk. Since 2012, the headquarters of the Gdańsk Branch of the PBS is located in the building of the Faculty of Biology on the university campus, at ul. Wita Stwosza in Gdańsk Oliwa.

The scientific discipline that has been and still is most numerously represented in the Gdańsk Branch is widely understood geobotany. But as time went by, pharmacists, plant physiologists and cytologists, lichenologists and palaeobotanists joined the ranks of the Branch.

The main activities of the Gdańsk Branch are scientific meetings, which are open to everyone. For many years these were meetings where single papers were presented. Since 2017, taking into account changing needs, the Board has been organising once a year Saturday meetings of several hours, with 1-2 main papers and several 15-minute communications. Additional talks or field trips are also organised as opportunities arise.

The Gdańsk Branch has organised three major PBS Congresses - the 29th in 1955, the 39th in 1969, and the 51st in 1998. The latter was held under the motto 'Botany at the threshold of the 21st century'. An important element of this meeting was the field sessions, which reflected the research interests of the OG members. Among others Wolin was visited, where issues concerning the contemporary flora and natural past of the place, reconstructed based on palaeoecological and archaeobotanical studies, were presented, as well as Kashubian Lake District - where research on lobelia lakes and peat bogs was presented.

- Thank you for the interview.


Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska/Press Office of University of Gdańsk