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
  • @iburrell

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.