Botanicult Fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey
By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens
More than fifty years after its premier, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke) remains a favourite film of fans and critics. Consistently placed among the most important films ever made, it features Oscar-winning visual effects, spacecraft designs based on the best technical advice, and a sweeping, enigmatic story about human evolution, the fallibility of technology, and the impossibility of comprehending the universe. The film is set in four acts and the title deliberately references Homer’s Odyssey. In succession we see an alien obelisk guiding early human evolution, conversations on a space station and on the moon about a similar obelisk found buried there, a trip to Jupiter to investigate a much larger obelisk in orbit, and finally an interstellar journey by astronaut David Bowman (played by Keir Dullea) through a giant obelisk, really a portal created by an ancient alien intelligence.
What 2001 is not generally known for is plants, which appear incidentally only at the beginning and the very end of the film. According to Michael Benson in his 2018 book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, there’s a tale about plants and the production of 2001 that isn’t widely known. The opening sequence, “The Dawn of Man,” is set in an African savannah more than a million years ago as our ancestors eked out a living amidst predators and drought. While in early pre-production, Kubrick became fascinated with the shape of Aloidendron dichotomum, the kokerdoom or quiver tree, a tree aloe from the Northern Cape region of South Africa. According to Benson at Kubrick’s direction the production company illegally cut down several of these protected trees and trucked them north to Namibia to photograph them for backgrounds for the film. After causing this destruction the producers did not use the resulting photographs. Instead, the kokerdoom that do appear in the “Dawn of Man” sequence were artificial, created by the art department of MGM Studios in England for use on an outdoor stage there.
The destruction of the kokerdoom was not a unique episode in the making of 2001. Kubrick built elaborate sets and shot entire scenes only to delete them from the final cut. Following production he ordered all props, plans, and models destroyed as he did not want them showing up in other films, as often happened. For him, the only final product was the film itself. Today tree aloes are protected internationally under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species. Kokerdoom are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and are protected in South Africa. The threats facing these unique trees include habitat loss, illegal harvesting, trampling by livestock, and climate change.
Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of COVID-19.