by Katie Tomlinson & Claire Stoker
The British Society for Plant Pathology‘s Leafy Murder Mystery event took place on the 17th and 18th May in Stoke Park Woods, Bristol for Fascination of Plants Day. The aim of this event was to celebrate the importance of plants, introduce plant pathogens and insects, and demonstrate the damage they cause to woodland plants. It was also a great opportunity for us to test out our new resources so that BSPP members can make use of them soon!
The run up
To promote the event we used Facebook and Twitter (#LeafyMurder) and put posters up in local schools, libraries, youth clubs, action groups and allotments. To give our event a special twist we also filmed some promo YouTube videos: BSPP Outreach videos! These videos star Steve England a local naturalist and introduce plant murder clues from the Leafy Murder Mystery trail we’ve developed. Steve and myself were also interviewed on Bristol Community Radio and featured in the Bristol Evening Post.
Day 1: Friday 17th May School’s day
The day kicked off with an introductory talk, asking: ‘why do you think plants are important?’ and, ‘do you think plants get sick?’ The children were excited about becoming ‘plant detectives’, as we told them they’d be spotting signs of plant attackers (pathogens and insects).
Leafy Murder Mystery Trail
Steve England and Dr Andy Bailey (University of Bristol) led the children on the trail, making plant pathology fun by presenting plant murder clues in an entertaining way. One great clue was a huge Horse Chestnut Tree suffering from Bleeding Canker. Steve explained ‘this tree has caught a cold! What happens when you have a cold?’ The response: ‘SNOT!’ Steve replied that it’s similar to what this tree has. The children then got to see how much damage plant pathogens can do by squeezing juices out of wet saw dust, from what was once a large strong tree but is now a plant murder victim! Along the trail the children collected more plant murder clues to look at under microscopes in the afternoon.
‘Steve told us how trees have snot. Then he told us how a fungus kills trees and how it lights fire.‘ – Primary School Student
The Bug Hunt was led by Pete Dawson who explained how important insects are and also how they spread plant diseases. Pete was very dynamic and excellent with the children, who were transfixed by his knowledge! The children used nets and pouters to collect their own bugs. They were a little shy at first but it wasn’t long before one of them managed to suck up a slug into a pouter!
‘The favourite thing I learnt was that a green fly has a needle in it’s mouth.’ – Primary School Student
After lunch the children got a chance to try out our new activities:
Here the children became reporters, writing newspaper articles on what plant attacks they’d seen in the woods. We set up video interviews and had a tree where the children wrote what nature means to them. Here’s a report from one of the school students!
The children were then introduced to what plant viruses and fungi are and the damage they do. They made models of Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV) and Bean Rust fungus based on the new Plant Pathogen Fact Files we’ve developed. Their models were very creative and showed spores and hyphae, capsid proteins and RNA. Here’s a great example.
Plant Doctor Zone
Children matched up photos of human and plant diseases and wrote down/drew symptoms of plants suffering from TMV and Bean Rust. We guided the children through the stages of these diseases. The most amazing thing about this zone was the example of cabbage club root Andy had brought from his lab – it was huge!
The children looked at their clues from the morning under microscopes and drew their findings. Leaf miner moths were a big hit! We explained how wasps parasitize miner moths and the children were fascinated. Steve had even brought in examples of fungi he had previously collected, including a huge bracket fungus that was very heavy!
At the end of the day prizes were awarded for the best pathogen model and each child received plant detective certificate.
‘It was a really fun trip and learnt a lot’ – Primary School Student
‘They really had a fantastic day and learnt loads – very well organised and varied activities kept them engaged the whole way through.’ – Teacher
Day 2 – Saturday 18th May (Public day)
The second day was open to the public and our promotion really paid off. We had over 50 people turn up. We repeated all the above activities with two Leafy Murder Mystery walks and one Bug Hunt. Thankfully we had lots of extra expertise from Dr Andy Bailey (University of Bristol) and Dr Peter Spencer-Philips (University West of England). Andy and Peter were brilliant at adding in fascinating science for older children and adults. People really enjoyed it and asked some very intelligent questions showing the science was not too difficult for them.
‘Great day in Stoke Park today for the leafy murder mystery, thank you to Katie Tomlinson and Steve England and co for organising.’ – Visitor
‘It was a great couple of days, I really enjoyed it and I hope you are delighted by how it went – you should be.’– Dr Andy Bailey
‘Lots of enthusiasm, expertise and friendly team. School kids got very animated!‘ – Volunteer
The resources we’ve developed worked really well! University of Bristol volunteers even took our Tobacco Mosaic Virus and Bean Rust infected plants and information sheets for another event at Bristol Botanic Garden, attended by around 120 people. Plants were shown under an infrared camera and the pathogens in the leaves could be well visualised, as the leaves that were fully Bean Rust infected appeared cooler. This was great recycling of our resources!
So far we’ve received fantastic feedback! Here’s a review from the Bristol Nature History Consortium: ‘Steve England and Katie Tomlinson prove anyone can be a successful plant detective!‘