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Botanicult Fiction: E.T.(B.): The Extra-Terrestrial (Botanist)

August 6, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens.

In a California forest not far from Los Angeles, a gentle hand comes down to the forest floor and touches the needles of a seedling conifer. Digging into the soil, the fingers pry loose the young plant, intent on taking it away. Very far away, it turns out, as those hands belong to an extraterrestrial being, an alien, one of several on an expedition to Earth to collect live plant specimens. A glimpse inside their spacecraft shows a collection of various (extremely) exotic plants from other worlds, too. The hands belonged to E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, who was given no personal name in the 1982 Stephen Spielberg film. Shortly after we see plants being collected, the alien party is scarred by government agents and flee in confusion, stranding one of them on Earth.

Nearly lost throughout the remainder of the film* is the fact that E.T. was on earth to collect plants. We are only brought back to this when little Gertie, played by Drew Barrymore, gives E.T. a potted plant to take home with them. This is, tragically, a lost opportunity to explore interstellar botany. Why would an extra-terrestrial civilization want earthly plants badly enough to travel (likely) light years to find them? Are Earth plants unique? If so, how? What other wonders are in their collection? Is there a curator at a galactic botanical garden on their home world eagerly awaiting new specimens?

I suppose being a biologist has ruined some of my appreciation for science fiction films, although in general this is my favourite genre. For example, if you look carefully at many of the anatomical features E.T. displays in the film you can make a strong case that they’re from Earth. Almost forty years ago I argued they were in fact related to turtles. You can say the same for many movie aliens too. Not that they’re all turtles, but that they display so many characteristics of terrestrial species that finding a convincing extra-terrestrial organism in film is a rarity, at least for me.

What a plant from another planet might look like is a truly interesting question. The way we understand relationships of descent among organisms on Planet Earth in fact precludes formally calling anything from another world a “plant.” There may be sessile, photosynthetic species on other worlds, and they might even be green (although that’s unlikely for other reasons), but if they’re not descended from a common ancestor with the rest of the plants, well, to botanical purists they’re not plants! Plants are Eukaryotes, all descended from a common Earthly ancestor that lived a very long time ago. The first complex photosynthetic plants on Earth arose about a billion years ago, and plants first made it to land around 450 million years ago.

None of that should take away from the delightful thought that if aliens are roving the galaxy, perhaps it’s because they are curious scientists collecting plant specimens, and not ravenous beasts bent on conquest or sucking out our brains. And, thinking about them gives us a chance to ask interesting questions about just what life out there might be like.

* – Although E.T.’s botanizing wasn’t explored further in the original film, in other media it come full circle. In 2002 a novel, “E.T.: The Book of the Green Planet,” by William Kotzwinkle, continued E.T.’s story back to his home world, and the same year a computer game, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and the Cosmic Garden” (released for GameBoy Color) put the player in charge of the garden aboard E.T.’s spaceship

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 self isolation

Drew Barrymore as Gertie and E.T.
Drew Barrymore as Gertie and E.T. in a frame from the 1982 film. E.T. was designed by Carlo Rambaldi, for which he won the Best Visual Effects Oscar in 1983. E.T. The Extraterrestrial is owned by Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment. Its use here is for the purposes of this review and is in no way meant to infringe copyright.

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