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[Book × Plant]

Korea is Now All About Plants!





By their very nature, books are vessels of knowledge encompassing all fields. Endless topics can be written about depending on the material and message. In the [Book × _____ ] series, experts recommend Korean books in their respective fields that you’ve been curious about but had trouble discovering more about. Now, let’s jump into the infinite world of books through the collaboration of books with various fields.



Childhood dreams inspired by the beauty of plants


My first dream in life was to be a botanist. I was only 6 years old - a kindergartener. It was thanks to my mother, who loved to grow plants, and my father, who loved nature so much that he took me on trips whenever he could. The fact that I grew up in the countryside and was always around plants was also one of the reasons why I wanted to be a botanist. However, my brother, who grew up in the same conditions, was not interested in plants, so maybe it wasn’t such a great destiny. Yet there was one thing that was truly destined - books. My mother bought me a copy of Flora for Kids (Yerimdang) when I was 6 years old, as I spent every spare moment observing or drawing plants. It was hardbound, big like a picture book, and weighed a lot because it was an encyclopedia, with lots of pictures and text. I took it with me on trips and looked at it every day. I still have it to this day, torn and tattered. Because I looked at it so much, I eventually memorized most of the plants in the book, and even now, as a botanist, I can flip through it in my head and find plants at any time.
Until the beginning of the 1990s, there were very few flora books for children in Korea. The book I received as a gift was a very rare publication, the first book for children by a writer who mostly wrote flora for adults. The photos and text were larger than those for adults, and there were some cartoon characters, but it really wasn’t all that different from the adult version. Compared to the wide variety of children’s flora in the market today, it’s a little harder and more formal. As I looked at it every day, I wondered one day: what does the person who wrote this book do? When I asked adults, they told me he was probably a botanist. From then on, my dream was to become a botanist. My dream was to be able to keep observing my favorite plants, and this book showed me a way to make that a reality.


Flora for Kids

Flora for Kids



I started college as a major in natural sciences. I took a broad introductory course in the natural sciences and then chose a real major in my sophomore year. I chose biology as a sophomore because I wanted to study wild plants, and I definitely didn’t want to go into agriculture, forestry, or horticulture. I wanted to study plant taxonomy, and that was something you could do at the master’s level, so I went to a biology department that had a plant taxonomy class, and I started going to labs instead. This was a very strange choice for my friends who were in the same program as me as a freshman. Most of them chose biomedical engineering, which could lead to medical school, or computer science or science education, which were popular - but I chose biology, which was not popular at all. Furthermore, it is typical for undergraduates to spend a week or two in a lab in their senior year to work on their senior thesis, but I went to the plant taxonomy lab every morning as if I were a graduate student. My friends were even more puzzled that I chose a plant taxonomy lab rather than a genetics or molecular biology lab, which were popular within the biology department. They didn’t understand why I was willing to do the hard work of walking in and out of musty specimen rooms, collecting plants, and pressing specimens in the mountains in my hiking boots.
Although I always told myself that I had no regrets because I chose to do what I loved in the best way I could, in reality, I had a lot of doubts. It’s true that I didn’t have anyone’s support until I finished my PhD. My parents respected my choice, but they didn’t really know what exactly I was doing. I felt anxious and challenged. Plants? Who cares about plants? How can you get a job and make money studying them? Shouldn’t you be studying agriculture or horticulture? Where can you use the plants? Why are you studying wildlife? These were the things I was often told. Studying plants for more than 10 years, I was a non-mainstream person in Korean society and academia. I could relate to the few people I met in the lab or at conferences, but they were also worried about their future. In fact, I saw many seniors doing completely unrelated work after their PhD.


Plant lovers


At the end of the PhD program, I could feel a little bit of a change happening in Korea. Before, loving plants was considered a hobby for older people, and it was even seen as a little bit old-fashioned to grow plants or take pictures of them. But, then that changed, and people started to say that they like plants, too. It was kind of like a trend, kind of like coming out, but for me, it was a very welcomed thing. New words were coined, like plant butlers, pet plants, and plant-eriors, and new botanical gardens opened up, both public and private. I was worried that the trend would fade away like a flash in the pan, but it seems like Koreans’ love of plants is here to stay, because at first, I thought it happened out of nowhere, but when I stopped to think about it, it was a natural phenomenon. After the Korean War, Korea developed rapidly, focusing on economic growth and urban construction. And now, we have entered an era of thinking, longing, and appreciating nature.
I thought about what books were hugely popular in the past, when people had little interest in plants - and one popped up right away. A Wildflower’s Letter (Dosol), published over 20 years ago. The book is an essay written by a writer who was unjustly imprisoned in Korea’s then-turbulent society, observing the plants he saw in prison. The plants he encountered were mostly weeds growing in the corners of the prison, which he initially plucked to cure his chronic bronchitis, but later found comfort and enlightenment by observing and growing them. The book is especially heartwarming because it is accompanied by the writer’s relaxing drawings of plants. As a student I would only read floras, but reading this book, I could feel empathy with the writer. Of course, the floras were very interesting to me, but I was happy to read the writer’s feelings and thoughts that weren’t in the floras, and I was glad that someone else felt the same love for plants as I did. However, I think there were more people who related to the simple daily life and hopes of the writer, who was unjustly imprisoned at the time. Of course, there must have been some people who were more interested in plants like me. Anyway, it is a book many Koreans have read, and even if they haven’t read it, most of them know the title. I think it is a very special book, even now, because the writer and the situation he was put into are so unusual, and he tells the story through plants.


A Wildflower’s Letter

A Wildflower’s Letter



Unlike back then, many books on plants are now being published in Korea. Many are imported and translated, and books related to plants are being published in various fields: gardening, growing pot plants, general books on botany, flower arranging, plant drawing, children’s books, plants and humanities, plants and art, and so on. I am particularly pleased about the general books written by scholars who study plants like me. In the past, academic books and floras written by botanists were published steadily, but very few general books were published. You might think that scholars were too busy with their academic activities to publish them, but it was probably due to the social atmosphere that was not interested in plants. You might also be concerned that books written by scholars are difficult to read because the content may be somewhat difficult or hard. However, when I look at new books these days, I’m delighted to see that there are a lot of friendly and interesting botanists out there, and that botany can be approachable and friendly. It is good that books written by botanists have specialized knowledge in their field of study, but also convey a unique perspective and enthusiasm that can only come from someone who has been around plants for a long time.
I recently enjoyed reading Universe Called Plants (Sigongsa), a book by a botanist who specialized in systems biology. Systems biology is a discipline that looks at elements at the genetic, molecular, and cellular levels to find relationships between them and analyze their interactions from an integrated perspective. The writer studied the effects of protein structure on plant growth as a graduate student and is currently working in the UK on how plant cells recognize pathogen signals. I studied the taxonomy, phylogeny, and conservation of plants as a graduate student and am now expanding my research into plant ecology at a lab in the US. I found it interesting to read something by a writer who is similar and yet different from me - in terms of age, being a female scientist, studying abroad, and working in a lab. On the one hand, I learned a lot about how another botanist from a different field than mine wrote about science in a way that anyone can understand, gave examples, and applied her field of research in her daily life. I realized that even though we call the field botany, the details of our research are very different. I wish more scientists would write about their research. For that reason, I’m grateful that a book like this was published.


Universe Called Plants

Universe Called Plants



Consolation from plants: Plant Counseling Center


I naturally became curious about the public’s sudden interest in plants - why they are interested in them, how much they know about them, and what they are experiencing. I had been in the lab for a long time, never worked in a company, and most of the people I knew were botany majors. Lab life is usually mixed with daily life, from morning to evening, sometimes without any concept of time. After such a life, I suddenly became curious about the outside world. Then, in 2018, I spent a year in the US lab where I am currently working, and I was impressed by the activities of the senior researcher, who was the most prolific researcher in the lab and was also very passionate about public education. I realized that I would like to do something similar in Korea when I have the chance.
When I returned to Korea in 2019, I opened a free counseling center where people could talk about plants. I met with various people once or twice a month and counseled them. Although it was a counseling center, there was no special place or anything professional about it. I just wanted to know what people were thinking and feeling about plants, and help them if I could. People shared their thoughts and experiences about their plants, not just about growing them. Unlike what I expected as a botany major, where I would just pass on knowledge, I had an amazing experience. And I didn’t want those amazing moments and stories to disappear, so I decided to write them down, and published the book Neighborhood Plant Counseling Center (Bright), a collection of stories from two and a half years. Most of the course - running the counseling center and publishing the book - took place during COVID-19. It was a period of precious memories - a time when we needed to comfort each other and especially think deeply about the environment. Now, after the pandemic, I’m back at my lab in the US. I’m still getting news about plants from Korea. I wonder how far the Korean love of plants will grow. I’m glad I studied botany because there are more people who can share their love of plants every day.


Neighborhood Plant Counseling Center

Neighborhood Plant Counseling Center



Written by Shin Hye-Woo (Botanist)



Shin Hye-Woo (Botanist)

#Plant#Flora#A Wildflower’s Letter#Neighborhood Plant Counseling Center
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