Roots to seeds: 400 years of Oxford botany by Stephen A Harris 2021. Bodleian Library
Botanic gardens are important resources, both for plants and people. For example they have a major role in helping humanity manage the challenge of conserving the world’s floral diversity (e.g. here, and here) (Ross Mounce et al., Nature Plants 3: 795–802, 2017; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-017-0019-3; Gao Chen and Weibang Sun, Plant Diversity 40: 181-188, 2018; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pld.2018.07.006), and helping us cope with the consequences of climate change (Richard B. Primack and Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, New Phytologist 182: 303-313, 2009; https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8137.2009.02800.x). There is therefore considerable and understandable pride in being able to claim to house the world’s oldest university botanical garden, which honour arguably goes to Padua University* in Italy (Susan Hallett, CMAJ 175(2): 177, 2006; doi: 10.1503/cmaj.060649). But, so much for world Number 1s. What’s equally important – particularly if you can’t be a World First, and you’re in the United Kingdom – is the rivalry between the old universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and their claims to various ‘Firsts’. Although both esteemed sites of higher learning and advanced study have botanic gardens, that at Oxford is arguably the oldest and reaches its 400th birthday in 2021. Such an important date in the botanical calendar is worthy of celebration – not only in the UK’s botanical calendar, but also more globally, which is what Stephen Harris does in Roots to seeds [which book is here appraised].
Overview of the book
Like many old and long-established botanic gardens Oxford’s began life as a so-called physic** garden, where plants of medicinal value were grown to support the study of medicine at the university. From such utilitarian beginnings the site has flourished in the intervening four centuries to be the botanic gardens we know and enjoy today (and which still maintains an important collection of plants of medicinal value within its borders). Oxford’s Botanic Garden was formally established on 25th July 1621 – at 2 pm, on a Sunday. And the first botany lecture was delivered there on Monday 5th September 1670, by Britain’s first Professor of Botany, Robert Morison. However, Roots to seeds is not just an account of Oxford Botanic Garden – which Harris has already covered specifically in Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum***. Rather, it is a broad celebration of the study of botany at Oxford University – including its botanic garden – and by Oxford-trained alumni and academics globally. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of mention of the botanic garden because it was at that site that plant studies officially began in Oxford. And – importantly – the garden was the site of botanical teaching and research at Oxford University for 330 years. Although there was a parting of the ways in 1951 when the Department of Botany was rehoused at South Parks Road, the botanic garden (at Rose Lane, Oxford, near Magdalen College) remained, and remains, an important resource for botanical teaching and research at the university. For a topic with four centuries of history there is a lot that could be said. Harris has therefore had to be selective in the information he shares and the book is not claimed to be comprehensive. However, over approximately 200 pages, Roots to seeds manages to cover a broad range of topics in its seven chapters. With chapter sub-titles**** such as: Naming and Classifying, Experimental Botany, and Applied Botany, the book appears to be a pretty comprehensive summary of many of the main branches of plant science recognised today.
There’s lots of information about plants,
Although the book contains much text about plants generally, each chapter contains a 2-page profile of a specific plant – e.g. mandrake, hemp, and Oxford ragwort – which has a particular relevance to the book’s Oxford botany story. In style, these items are reminiscent of Oxford Plants 400*****, an educational and informative series of pen portraits of prominent plants (which appeared weekly for the 400 weeks leading up to 25th July, 2021). Gratifyingly, there doesn’t appear to be too much overlap between the information presented for the seven plants showcased in Roots to seeds and their entries, also penned by Harris, in Oxford Plants 400 – e.g. mandrake, hemp, and Oxford ragwort. Plus, the Roots to seeds accounts have the major benefit of much better integration of sources within the text [see also]. Somewhat surprising, and in contrast to the six other profiles, is the paucity of sources stated for carrot, which has only one source cited for that entry in Roots to seeds (and which also contrasts with the several listed on Oxford Plants 400 for Harris’ account of the same plant).
but it’s not just about the plants.
As befits its botanical title, Roots to seeds contains a lot about plants. But, the book is as much about the people associated with Oxford University as the plants themselves. And placing the people in their proper plant context makes Roots to seeds a valuable addition to the plants-and-people literature. That is underlined by the book’s Timeline which extends from 1621 (as you’d expect!) to 2015 (when the present Director of the Oxford Botanic Garden & Harcourt Arboretum [OBGHA] – Prof. Simon Hiscock – was appointed), and which is very people-focussed******. Providing a little more ‘flesh’ on some of those chronological ‘bones’, short biographical accounts of 20 of these notable figures in Oxford botany are to be found at the ends of the chapters. These are well-crafted accounts summarising the individual’s contribution to or connection with plant studies at the university, and also provide some insights into the foibles of botanists of old. For example, it is interesting to read that “His first reaction to hearing about a rare plant in the British Isles was to go and collect it” (p. 102). This is a reference to the plant collecting style of George Claridge Druce, a biodiversity-depleting practice that was as frowned upon then [“A collecting companion who witnessed Druce harvesting armfuls of rare orchids in Cambridgeshire was reported to have required forcible restraint to prevent him hitting the old botanical reaper” (p. 102)] as it should be today. Furthermore, and finally, we can extend our alliterative appreciation of the book’s coverage from plants, and people to pictures; Roots to seeds is beautifully illustrated throughout, which allows you to put a face to a name or a plant to a binomial.
And it has important things to say about science.
One of the most interesting chapters for me was the first one which provided important background and context to the origins and nature of botanical knowledge – something it’s always good to be reminded of as we get more and more specialised and wrapped up in the minutiae of our own often narrow botanical specialisms. Amongst that section are also some great quotes relating to what science is, and the context in which it should be interpreted: “Science is a cultural activity that helps us to make sense of the natural world. Stories told about plants, such as those that surround the mandrake, are not science unless they survive rigorous objective testing. Scientific ideas are also moderated by the societies in which they emerge, and by reactions to those ideas; technologies, philosophies and prejudices may constrain scientists. Our understanding of science is therefore limited by where, when and how we live” (p. 13). And Harris offers a pretty good definition of the scientific method: “By the mid-twentieth century, ideas of how science should be done shifted yet again. The value of the objective testing of hypotheses crystallized in the concept of ‘falsifiability’. A theory about the world must produce hypotheses that are capable of being tested – and falsified. A theory is accepted until hypotheses arising from it are rejected. Today, scientists work in many different ways, but central to what they do is the precept that through an interactive process of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, evaluation and retesting the natural world can be understood. Science is fluid, constantly evolving and changing our view of the world as new facts are accommodated within existing ideas or ideas that are unsupported by facts are jettisoned” (p. 20). And, by way of a ‘shout-out’ to one of the fundamental fact-acquiring activities of botany, Harris has some words about fieldwork in Chapter 3 ‘Collectors and Collecting’: “Botanical fieldwork is exciting, sometimes dramatic, but often stressful: and it is the completion of routine tasks that makes it successful. The most essential are collecting the specimens, pressing them and ensuring that they are properly dried” (p. 95).
Oxford’s botanical reach is far and wide
The scope of Roots to seeds is impressive, with coverage of botanical fields of study such as taxonomy and classification, physiology, anatomy, biodiversity, molecular biology, and ecology. But, and acknowledging that plant knowledge is of limited use if it’s not shared, Harris accordingly highlights the all-important role of botanical teaching in the last chapter ‘Teaching’. Whilst it’s important to practise plant science (and there’s plenty about that in the rest of the book), one of the most important things you can do is to train the next generation to go out into the fantastically phytodiverse planet of ours and make new discoveries. Having a worldwide perspective of his subject, Harris doesn’t just consider botany at Oxford, but provides lots of commentary about the importance of the role of botany on a global scale. As one who has tried to teach others about plant biology, this chapter is a particularly welcome recognition of the role that botanical education plays – whether at Oxford, or elsewhere. Although the Oxford Botanic Garden and the associated university are matters of considerable local and national pride, the influence of ‘Oxford botany’ and its practitioners extends around the globe, and Harris appropriately places it within that global context. Having read this section, it’s quite eye-opening to know that the fingerprints of Oxford-trained or Oxford-based botanists are almost everywhere in botanical history and knowledge. And that chapter also provides one of the most interesting insights of the whole book, that the length of a lecture in botany should be calculated in proportion to the number of plants growing in the Garden(!).
This is a work of great scholarship,
Roots to seeds is an impressive piece of scholarship, with great attention to detail. In particular, there is very good integration of sources within the text – which is always good to see – and emphasises the academic rigour that has gone into the book. As is becoming typical in such books, within-text super-scripted numbers refer the reader to a listing of numbered Notes by chapter at the back of the book. Those Notes – 457 of them – refer the reader to the numerous sources listed in the 7.5 pages of 3-column References.
that’s also a delight to read.
But, not only is Roots to seeds academically-rigorous, it’s also well-written with the wit and nice phrasing that are characteristic hallmarks of Harris’ style [see also Sunflowers, and What have plants ever done for us?]. Furthermore, Harris’ honesty is refreshing and he ‘tells it as it is’; for example, “Oxford’s success at both the generation of botanical knowledge and its dispersal over four centuries has been very patchy” (p. 194), and “In the past 400 years botany at Oxford has perhaps not lived up to expectations for reasons that range from infrastructure, through funding, to the appointments made” (p. 218). Harris is a great chronicler of his subject, and a knowledgeable guide to the history, plants and people that comprise Oxford botany, All of this makes Roots to seeds an engaging text that delivers a satisfying read for a diverse audience – not just die-hard botanists.
Roots to seeds by Stephen Harris is a beautiful book which unapologetically celebrates four centuries of botanical studies at Oxford to tie-in with the 400th anniversary of that university’s botanic garden garden (and the accompanying exhibition about the book at the Bodleian library). It’s also an important book in reminding us all of the global importance of botany and the scientific study of plants. This book was a delight to read and appraise and is suitable for any- and everybody who would like to know a little more about plants and people.
* “Officially, the oldest university botanical garden is the Orto botanico di Pisa, which was founded in 1544; however, that garden was relocated twice and has only occupied its current, and now-permanent, location since 1591”.
** From ‘physic’, defined as: “the art or practice of healing disease, the practice or profession of medicine”.
*** Lest those who own/have read Stephen Harris’ book Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum be concerned that Roots to seeds is effectively a revamped version of that tome, fear not. Yes, at its heart Roots to seeds has a focus on Oxford’s Botanic Garden. But, that’s inevitable because it’s the site where Oxford botany and plant science interest officially began in 1621, and was the location where it was practised until 1951. But, Roots to seeds goes beyond the constraints of the plants within botanic garden in considering the botanical personalities who developed plant studies at Oxford, and extends far beyond the confines of the botanic garden’s walls in considering the global impact of Oxford’s botanical research and researchers. Although described as “a brief history”, Harris’ Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum [OBGHA] is a detailed history of the university’s botanic garden and Harcourt Arboretum (which latter site is given less prominence in Roots to seeds). It therefore has a more constrained focus than Roots to seeds – but is equally a meticulously researched and well-written scholarly work. Although readers of Roots to seeds will recognise tales of several of that book’s personalities, and a number of its illustrations, in Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum, the two books serve quite different purposes, and probably audiences. The pair should not be seen as two versions of the same story, but as two different stories, which complement each other. I’m happy to recommend Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum to those who want to know more specifically about the OBGHA.
**** Although each of the chapters deals with a different botanical theme, the reason why each has a plant organ as its main title – e.g. Chapter 1 ‘Root’, 2 ‘Stem’, and 5 ‘Flower’ – is lost on this reader.
***** Although, by the time this blog item is published, all 400 plant entries should be freely available on-line, it would be nice to see the 400 assembled into a single collection. Are there plans to collate and publish them as a book?
****** Given the importance of the role of botanic gardens as a teaching resource, it is somewhat surprising that the appointment in 2017 of Dr Chris Thorogood to the staff of the Oxford Botanic Garden was not included in the Timeline of the book published in 2021. Currently, Deputy Director of, and Head of Science at, the Botanic Garden, one understands that he was originally appointed to the post of Head of Science and Public Engagement there. That public engagement emphasis underlines the fact that enhancing the public’s appreciation of botanic gardens, plants and botany is an important aspect of plant science education. Access to plant knowledge is not just for the university’s undergraduates, it should be made available for all, to enhance the general public’s botanical literacy (whose contributions via taxes and other routes help to finance university plant science…). One hopes that a public engagement remit is still part of the Oxford Botanic Garden’s mission. Another plant-person point, and for a sense of satisfying completeness within the book, it would have been nice to know who succeeded Professor Liam Dolan as the sixteenth Sherardian Professor of Botany at the university after his appointment to that post ended in 2020 – as we are told in the Timeline on p. 11. But, maybe that information was not known at the time of the book’s completion prior to publication..?