Plants400: Celebrating a Renaissance for Plant Sciences

DPhil student Andrew Wood writes about the importance of Oxford's Botanic Gardens and Arboretum ahead of their 400th Anniversary on 25th July.

I have just started a DPhil on the future of agriculture, a project which I am very excited about immersing myself into. However, as with any large project, before I can start working on the future I am endeavouring to learn from the past. This historical start will ground my research in the findings of others, allowing my ideas to flourish in the context of previous investigation. This history is formidable, fascinating, and surprisingly timely: this year Plant Sciences in Oxford are celebrating their 400th anniversary.

To commemorate this major achievement, Plants400, an inter-departmental team of plant scientists and experts, have written and posted 400 weekly blog posts leading up to the official birthday: 25th July. Through them, the University of Oxford herbarium has been showcasing 400 of its thousands of specimens, as well as highlighting the critical importance of plants in the modern world.

The 400 highlighted plants have a range of uses, from timber (both hardwoods like oak - Plant 163: Quercus ilex and softwoods like Scots pine - Plant 161: Pinus sylvestris), to medicine (snowdrops are used to make the Alzheimer’s drug galantamine - Plant 117: Galanthus nivalis), and edible crops. Edible crops are a particularly diverse group within the 400. Fruit are a major subset of this edible group - from universal species like grapes (Plant 302: Vitis species) which are grown and consumed on every inhabited continent, to rarities like prickly pear (Plant 395: Opuntia species). The latter is a refreshing delicacy in the Americas and Mediterranean, and known to many from the “Bear Necessities”, a song from the Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Staples of the modern diet also make the Plants400 list, the average UK person drinks 2 cups of coffee every day (Plant 15: Coffea arabica), and 11kg of chocolate per year (Plant 66: Theobroma cacao). The list contains herbs  and spices which are grown in very different environments, (e.g. thyme - Plant 306: Thymus species and cinnamon - Plant 2: Cinnamomum verum, native to the Mediterranean and the Indian subcontinent respectively) but which can now be found in chef’s cupboards the world over.

The extraordinary contribution of plants to our lives is a demonstration of our planet’s greatest assets, but also of our own vulnerabilities in the face of a changing world. The presence of so many of these plants in our collections not only showcase the prowess of Oxford’s scholarly efforts on plants, but they also demonstrate just how much we rely on plants for our future.

Research suggests that coffee will be particularly hard hit by climate change with declines of up to 50% in the coming decades. Cocoa is similarly threatened by climate change, with temperature rises and droughts leading to predicted production declines.

But the Plants400 list is not just about focusing the here and now, it is also about the plants of the future. Sweet potatoes (Plant 199: Ipomea species) are an underutilised crop which were recently designated “future-fit” by the United Nations in their Future Smart Report because of their high nutritional density and climate resilience. Similarly, Plant Sciences in Oxford is also looking at tackling the biggest problems of the future. Future-focused research extends from my own work developing understanding of the future of crop systems to using nature based solutions to design climate-change resilient agroecological techniques, to a multitude of ways to improve pollinator services and breed future-proof trees.

It is a very exciting time to be embarking on a DPhil at University of Oxford. The first plant scientists 400 years ago could never have dreamed about the advances which are occurring daily in this wonderful and fast-paced field of study. The renaissance of the Plant Sciences in Oxford is occurring at a time when studying plants is crucially necessary to tackle some of the largest challenges our species has ever faced. The collaborative and interdisciplinary approach which underpins modern plant scientists stands on the shoulders of the successes of the past 400 years. As my DPhil research seeks to develop this comprehension of plants and our planet, I look to the past in order to work towards a brighter future.