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BBC Radio 4 and Kew Gardens join forces to explore the history of plant science

This summer BBC Radio 4 is to broadcast a major new series that will explore our changing relationship with plants, from Carl Linnaeus and the birth of modern botany in the 18th century right through to the modern day. Created in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and presented by Kew’s Director of Science, Professor Kathy Willis, Plants: From Roots To Riches will feature unprecedented access to the rich heritage and ongoing work of scientists at one of the world’s oldest botanical institutions.

The 25-part series will begin by delving into Kew’s archive and its world-class collections – including the Herbarium of over seven million preserved plant specimens – to tell the story of how modern botany was born around the time of Kew’s establishment in 1759. It will go on to examine how subsequent changes in scientific, economic and social preoccupations have influenced our attitudes to plants – as tools to exploit for food, fuel and industry, as objects of beauty, and as an essential global resource that must be conserved.

Professor Kathy Willis will talk to a range of experts including researchers working at the cutting edge of plant science today and to historians who argue that Linnaeus’ system of plant classification established the roots of botany as we know it and revolutionised the economics and movement of plant species and their riches across the globe, and how they are referred to. The series will mix interviews recorded on location at Kew Gardens with narration and historical analysis.

Dr Jim Endersby, Reader in the History of Science at the University of Sussex, will feature throughout the series as a guide to the evolving relationship between people, plants and botanical possibilities.

Professor Kathy Willis, Director of Science, RBG Kew says:

'It is an absolute privilege to be able to take this journey of discovery and tell the story of people and plants over the past 250 years. Britain’s botanical heritage is incredibly rich in compelling, memorable tales of adventure and discovery, politics and conflict, breathtaking beauty and, ultimately, our dependency on plants.

'I hope this series will encourage listeners to look at plants in a new light. Our future depends on us adapting in order to live in better balance with the natural world, and plants have some of the answers to help us do that and address global challenges that we are faced with on a daily basis.'

Gwyneth Williams, Controller, Radio 4 adds:

'This series will mix the latest scientific thinking with historical analysis to capture some of the fascination and magic of plants and our changing relationship with them down the ages.

'I’m delighted to be working with Kew Gardens on this project, and to have someone with Kathy’s expertise, authority and enthusiasm guiding us through this most captivating of subjects.'

The series will open with Kew’s oldest resident, the palm-like cycad, Encephalartos altensteinii, that was brought to the Royal Gardens in 1775. It belongs to a group of plants with incredible longevity, stretching back around 280 million years, surviving multiple climate changes, outliving the dinosaurs and predating most mammals. Its arrival at Kew coincided with the establishment of a system of plant naming that continues to dominate plant science today.

Among the other extraordinary stories told in the series is how the race between Kew and Chatsworth House to flower the first giant Amazonian water-lily led to new possibilities in glasshouse design and, ultimately, to the construction of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the greatest glasshouse ever built.

Another story is related to Kew’s pivotal role in the development of the rubber trade, acting as an international clearing house transporting rubber seeds from South America via Kew to Southeast Asia, where the rubber trade took off.

The series will conclude by looking to the future and considering the role of plants in providing the earth’s Natural Capital, from food, water and fuel to ecosystem services like climate regulation and provision of cultural services.

Every episode of Plants: From Roots To Riches will be available to download. All episodes will be kept online forever, creating a rich and unique resource charting the birth of modern botany through to the modern day. The BBC website will include behind-the-scenes features, galleries, gardening and plant programme collections, and links to enable users to discover more about our changing relationship with plants. Links to episodes will also be available on the Kew Gardens website.

The series will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 21st July. A book with the same title will accompany the series.


Notes to Editors

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and RBG Kew’s country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract over 1.5m visits every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. Kew receives approximately half its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Further funding needed to support Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.; @kewgardens