The first Plant Doctor stand causes a stir!

15 Jul 2013

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Future Plant Doctors in training!
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Claire setting up the Plant Doctor stand
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Sian Deller, Andy Bailey and University of Bristol volunteer get ready for a hard day outreaching!

Bristol Festival of Nature

On June 14th - 16th the BSPP Outreach team showcased the Plant Doctor stand at the Bristol Festival of Nature; Britain’s biggest free natural history event! This event gives people a chance to learn about the natural world and was a perfect opportunity to reach thousands of adults and children. We were part of the University of Bristol tent, which received around 190 school children on the Friday and 6680 visitors over the weekend!

What was on the stand?

We decided to go for a Plant Doctor angle, as this gets across the idea of diagnosing and treating sick plants. We designed posters explaining what plant pathology is and why it’s important. We created a poster about honey fungus, with commissioned illustrations to show the purpose of the different parts of the honey fungus.  We also had a microscope hooked up to a live-screen so people could take samples from plants and analyse them up-close. We even had some bark boring beetle larvae to look at!

The Activities:

Become a Plant Doctor

This activity was new and developed specifically for science festivals and workshops. Here children get the chance to train as Plant Doctors. They are given Plant Doctor lab coats and handbooks, to guide them through their training. We introduced them to the concept that just like people, plants get sick too, what infects them, and why it’s important to diagnose and treat plants. The children were then ready to diagnose their plant patients.

The 3 plant patients were: 

  • A bean plant infected with bean rust fungus (courtesy of Dr Andy Bailey, University of Bristol)
  • A tobacco plant infected with tobacco mosaic virus (courtesy of Dr Andy Bailey, University of Bristol)
  • Bean pods infected with Pseudomonas syringae (courtesy of Prof. Dawn Arnold and Dr Helen Neale, University of the West of England) 

Children wrote down the patients’ symptoms in their handbooks, looked at samples under the microscope, identified the cause of infection (either fungal, bacterial or viral), and drew diagrams to show the difference between healthy plants and sick plants. At the end of these steps the children graduated as qualified Plant Doctors!

Build your own Plant Pathogen

This activity was great for younger children; they were told about a particular plant pathogen and then used crafts to show its structure and purpose. For instance how Pseudomonas bacteria use flagella to swim towards plants in the soil. Children could then make their own fantasy ‘Deadliest Plant Pathogen’!

Plant Attacker Game

Here people had to match up the right pathogen to the part of the tree it infects. We used a large tree image with velcro strips on the roots, bark and leaves of the tree to attach the various images. Claire had created 6 pathogen characters; 2 fungi, 2 bacteria and 2 fungal spores and gave them names relating to their mode of infection (e.g Pseudomonas syringae was named ‘Icy Ian’ - due to its ability to create icicles). We wrote key points about the pathogen on the back of each character. The children then had to match up the pathogen to where it would be most likely to infect the tree.

Amazing Helpers!

We were lucky to have fantastic help on our stand throughout the festival from the University of Bristol volunteers, who were second year Biology students taking a Science Communication module. These students were excellent; they were enthusiastic, extremely quick learners and came up with some very creative analogies for explaining plant pathogens! Some even ran the Plant Doctor activity dressed as surgeons!

We were also extremely lucky to have local naturalist Steve England, Dr Andy Bailey and Dr Diane Hird (University of Bristol) and Dr Sian Deller (BSPP Industrial Liason Officer), who were great at lending their expert knowledge and engaging adults, as well as children. Thanks also to Dr Andy Bailey, Prof Dawn Arnold and Dr Helen Neale for providing us with infected plants.


We were extremely pleased with the feedback our stand received and the outcomes of our activities.

At the end of the Plant Doctor game I often asked the children: ‘So, after all this are you thinking of becoming a Plant Doctor when you’re older?’ and more often than not the response was, ‘YES’! One nine year old even said, ‘I’m bringing my sister here tomorrow so she can become a Plant Doctor too’!

What’s Next?

We hope to take this stand to several science festivals and have already received interest from people wanting us to take part in their events. The activities worked well and with a few small alterations the stand could be made EVEN better! We will be evaluating what worked well and what could be improved. All the resources used will be available on the BSPP site shortly! Please get in contact if you’re interested in using them at an event near you!