Interview with a Botanist

Going bananas with Melanie Baughman

Melanie Baughman

Welcome to the inaugural post in the “Interview with a Botanist” series, where I’ll be introducing you to botanists from a range of fields and the amazing work and research they do. Today we’re meeting Melanie Baughman, a master’s student studying Biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, USA.

Which course are you enjoying the most from your master’s degree?

“Vascular Plant Systematics, which is how I started to learn more about plants based on their leaves, flowers, fruits, habit, etc.”

Do you have a specific research plant?

“Yes! My research is based upon the genus Musa, right now specific species are up in the air because I was supposed to travel to Miami, Florida to gather my species but now I have to see if North Carolina has any species available. But if you don’t know what Musa is, they’re bananas!!!”

“My research with bananas involves me studying the inflorescences before they mature and bloom, to see what type of patterns they have.”

In botany, the term “inflorescence” is used to describe a cluster of flowers on a branch or several branches in an arrangement.

Can you tell me a fun fact about bananas?

“Wild bananas actually have these LARGE hard seeds in them! While our cultivars lack those seeds.”

Banana cut in half to show the large black seeds inside

If you could choose to research any plant right now, what would it be and why?

“I would like to research the species my mentor researched, to see if there was anything he missed but I could find. He also studies bananas but he does a lot of work in the Zingiberales order (he’s also worked on Orchidantha, Heliconiaceae, and Strelitziaceae). They originally studied the floral formation as well but in a wild species of banana, which was different to this other professor who studied a cultivar species. My research is to study both and see if there are initiation patterns that pertain to wild and cultivar species separately.”

Are bananas your favourite plant, or do you have another?

“My favourite plants would have to be pothos because of the variations of leaf colours they have. Right now I have two marble pothos and a neon pothos.”

A pothos plant in a pot

How long have you been interested in botany, and what first got you into it?

“I’ve always been interested in plants because it’s a generational past-time that goes way back to my great-grandmother. During my undergrad I was actually trying to apply to vet school but since I had a low GPA they did not admit me.

Ironically, I was accepted back to the first university I transferred out of, to work on my master’s. The university I graduated from had a botany course to take and when I took it, my interest for plants started growing even more.”

How did you get into botanical illustration and why do you do it?

“I’ve always been an artist ever since I was a kid. Drawing, sketching, painting, pretty much anything I could express myself is something I wanted to do. I recently got into botanical illustrations because I want people to see that there’s diversity besides sunflowers, roses, daisies, lilies, etc. Plant representation is important to me and I feel like people should be educated on the beauty they can find around them.

Melanie has an Instagram for her botanical drawings.

What is the one thing you wish people knew about botany?

“People think they know everything about plants, but they can’t be further away from the truth! Before I started my master’s, I assumed bananas grew on trees. They do not! I am still shocked to this day and I believe more should know the amazing world of plants!”

Another fun banana fact, banana plants are actually herbs, not trees.

What are your plans for a future in botany?

“If my Master’s doesn’t kill me first I would like to pursue a PhD in botany, focusing on the morphology of plants. Since I’m studying bananas now, I would like to expand my research species selection.”

A huge pile of bananas

Thank you to Melanie for joining me for my opening Interview with a Botanist post! It was amazing to learn so much about a species that’s very prominent in our everyday lives, but that we know so little about. If you’d like to find out more about Melanie’s journey in botany, you can also find her on Twitter.

If you’d like to be interviewed for this series, you’re welcome to contact me on Twitter or right here at Fronds with Benefits.

Image credits

Bananas: Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Banana with seeds: MkumaresaMkumaresa / CC BY-SA

Pothos plant: Image by Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay

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