I was always fascinated by living things as a kid. I was never happier than when I was planting seeds, watching them grow; prodding something in a rock pool; or watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis in a jar. Science was my favourite subject at school. I would look at a living thing and think how does this work? As a teenager I worked at a marine aquarium, and foraged among the rocks at low tide for unusual sea creatures. At home, my bedroom windowsill was a jungle of jars, pots and botanical oddities that festooned the curtain poles. I would document all these things carefully, painting and illustrating the creatures I encountered and the plants I grew. It was inevitable that I would become a biologist.
I studied botany for my undergraduate degree. Encouraged by my dissertation supervisor, I went on to do a PhD that examined parasitic plants – those that ‘steal’ food from other plants. Working in a lab opened up a new world for me: I was able to probe questions about how plants evolved by examining their DNA. Now, my research is based on the collection of plants we grow here at the Botanic Garden and Arboretum, which contains some 5,000 species. My work centres on processes that shape the evolution of parasitic plants and carnivorous plants in particular. I also research the floras of Biodiversity Hotspots (priority areas for conservation), including the Mediterranean and Japan, where I do field work. Finally, along with scientists from other disciplines, I explore how plants can inspire design in technology – from solar panels to inkjet printing!
Plant scientists have a vital role to play in raising awareness of the importance of plants. We rely on plants for our existence: for the food we eat and the clothes we wear, as well as for our mental health and wellbeing. We’ve never needed plants more than we do now. Yet 2 in 5 species of them are threatened with extinction. And worryingly, their plight goes largely unnoticed – part of a problem referred to metaphorically as Plant Blindness. We can bring plants out of the shadows by astonishing people with extraordinary species and explaining their relevance.
Besides raising awareness of the importance of plants, green spaces like those of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum also offer people valuable opportunities to connect with nature. This has never been more important than it is now. After the lockdown of spring 2020, we saw people flock to our sites (with restrictions in place) to do just this. Wellbeing is increasingly high on our agenda, and we now offer public courses on aromatherapy and yoga at the Botanic Garden and forest bathing at the Arboretum. Do check the ‘what’s on’ page of our website (www.obga.ox.ac.uk) for more information and if you can, come and visit these green oases of calm in the city.
Chris Thorogood: https://www.plants.ox.ac.uk/people/dr-chris-thorogood#/