The great botanical countdown

Oxford Plants 400 was created as a countdown to 25th July 2021, marking 400 years of botanical research and teaching at the University of Oxford.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Always keen to promote sites that are planty, educational, informative and entertaining (especially those that are free-to-access!), we’re happy to give a belated mention of Oxford Plants 400. This botanical bonanza is offered as a gift to the world as the UK’s University of Oxford counts down towards the 25th July 2021, which date marks 400 years of botanical research and teaching by that world-renowned seat of higher learning. Sponsored by the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and the Harcourt Arboretum, together with the Oxford University Herbaria and that university’s Department of Plant Sciences, the site aims to highlight 400 plants that have scientific and cultural significance. Profiling one plant per week, it is illustrated with images from Oxford University’s living and preserved collections, and as I penned this piece it was showcasing plant No. 58, Monstera deliciosa, the Swiss cheese plant as it is commonly known in the UK. Previous plants displayed have included cinnamon, coffee, Norway spruce, giant redwood, sugarcane, sugar maple and ash. Additionally, it has included the liverwort, Marchantia, which is being exploited as a model plant at the UK’s University of Cambridge’s OpenPlant Laboratory for synthetic biology (so the listing is not limited to gymnosperms and angiosperms, but embraces so-called lower plants too), and the alga Chara (so it is not even constrained to members of the Plant Kingdom in the narrow sense*). I’ve not found a list that reveals all future plants, so it’s a nice surprise when each week’s new addition is revealed in my Twitter account direct from the project (@Plants400). This is a nice resource with much of plant-and-people relevance – ideal material for educators’ own botany lectures, talks, or their students’ essays, etc. Check it out!

* Although questioned by such workers as Sabina Wodniok et al., it is still widely held that a relative of modern-day Chara is the likely ancestor of the land flora, i.e. the members of the Plant Kingdom, which certainly justifies its inclusion as one of the chosen 400 ‘plants’.

[How one would have liked featured plant No. 1 to have been the larch (genus Larix), which includes trees that demonstrate that not all conifers are evergreen with the eponymously deciduous Larix decidua. Sadly, but understandably (and predictably?), that was probably never going to happen since that reference is to a comedy sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the majority of whose five-man acting cohort were alumni of the University of Cambridge, Oxford’s almost equally august competing seat of higher learning. However, Taxus baccata – the actual No. 1 –  is a conifer, which is not a million miles from Larix! In the interests of balance we’d like to point out that ‘other’ herbaria also exist, e.g. that associated with the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh (Scotland, near England, UK), which is showcased in a short video presentation available on YouTube, and there’s also one at the University of Cambridge – Ed.]

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities. [ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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