Plants: From Roots to Riches: Radio 4 airs epic series on plants

I am determined to prove botany is not the ‘Cinderella of science’, says Kew Gardens expert

Media Editor

Studying plants for a living may not sound as vital as endeavours in other fields of science. But having landed an epic 25-part radio series on her lifelong passion, one of the country’s leading botanists is determined to prove that flora are worthy of serious study.

“Plant science and botany is always the Cinderella of science, it’s always viewed as the boring part. It doesn’t deserve that reputation but we need to show why,” says Professor Kathy Willis, director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, west London.

Professor Willis makes her radio debut as the host of Plants: From Roots to Riches on BBC Radio 4 later this month. It is hoped the mammoth project will highlight the collections at Kew as successfully as the landmark Neil MacGregor series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, raised awareness of artefacts at the British Museum, where he is director.

The series, which has been two years in preparation and is a visual digital project as well as an audio one, will range from the plant-hunters of the 17th century to modern conservation techniques. Subjects will include the plant life discovered at Botany Bay, the Irish potato famine, the orchid hunters and the growth of the British rubber industry.

Professor Willis arrived at Kew only eight months ago from Oxford University and said making the series had given her insight into the Royal Botanic Gardens.  “Endeavour had Kew botanists on it,” she says, speaking of the ship captained by James Cook on his 18th-century voyage. “Botany Bay was named by a Kew botanist. Even now, every week lorries arrive with plants collected in the field.” The series highlights the mostly untold story of early female plant scientists, including Beatrix Potter, the children’s writer and “mycologist” – a student of fungi.

“She was one of the first people to draw and identify the pathogen that caused the potato blight. She wrote some very funny comments about the then keeper of the Herbarium looking like he had been squashed between two pieces of blotting paper himself,” says Professor Willis.

Even the presenter, who is also a professor of long-term ecology at Oxford, has learned much in the making of the series, including the fact that we drink only one species of coffee, despite there being more than 120 species.

“I think we have about 60 species in the Herbarium at Kew. There’s a huge number of wild coffee species in Madagascar and some were collected by the Victorians. You have these beautiful glass jars and it’s like an Aladdin’s Cave. There are all these coffee beans in there, some small and thin and some very large.”

Each episode – running in a 1.45pm weekday slot ahead of The Archers for five weeks from 21 July – will reflect on how plant science can help in addressing “the global challenges of climate change, population growth, food shortages and fuel,” she says.

The first episode will introduce the audience to Encephalartos Altensteinii, a giant Cycad palm which was delivered to the Royal Botanic Gardens in 1775 and has now reached a height of 4m.

“Cycads have been around for almost 280 million years,” she tells listeners. “This means they survived multiple climate changes, outlived the dinosaurs and predate most mammals.” In an era of the man-made greenhouse effect, perhaps humankind could learn from this series.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments