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Roots to Seeds – Book Review

Compelling chronicle of the history of botany and plant sciences in Oxford, celebrating the enduring value of botanical gardens to humanity. Reviewer Petra Hoyer Millar is a garden writer and blogger.

Roots to Seeds: 400 Years of Oxford Botany 
by Stephen A Harris
Bodleian Libraries, £40
ISBN 978-1851245611

Marking the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Oxford Botanic Garden, Roots to Seeds records four centuries of diverse heritage of botanical sciences at the University of Oxford, unmasking the rich collections at the Botanic Garden and Arboretum, Oxford University Herbaria and Bodleian Libraries.

Stephen A Harris (Druce Curator of Oxford University Herbaria) charts the episodic botanical milestones, from Robert Morison’s plant classification in 1680s and Johann Dillenius’s taxonomy of lower plants in 1700s, through Charles Daubeny’s enrichment of botany with chemistry and geology, and Darwin’s evolutionary biology, to present-day genetics and plant conservation.

Central to the book are the extensive botanical collections, assembled by intrepid collectors. Harris introduces the audacious characters involved, their methods of collecting, the science they carried out, and their legacies.

The inception of the Oxford Botanic Garden, unique in terms of its history and academic location, is especially intriguing. Set in a flood-prone meadow, the original Physic Garden was a place for medicinal inspiration, but over time scientific interest shifted to plants themselves, giving birth to the discipline of botany. The new Botanic Garden encouraged experimentation with plants, laid the foundations for taxonomy and emboldened collectors to travel to brave new worlds in search of plant diversity.

Roots to Seeds is a reflection of the achievements and knowledge of humanity, culminating in this case in a vast suppository of information for botanical study. Harris’s brilliant book celebrates the value of botanic gardens as places of academic research and pleasure, crucially underlying that vital link to the natural world. Botanic gardens are markers of civilisation and culture, and thereby catalysts for a better world.