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Economic botany on Radio 4

Mark Nesbitt
23 July 2014
Blog team: 

Curator of Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, Mark Nesbitt, explains how the collection has been a rich source of stories for the new BBC series Plants: Roots to Riches.

Plants from Roots to Riches, Radio 4 logo

Botanists often complain that although plants are the basis of all life – and the source of much pleasure to us humans – the study of plants is sorely neglected. We wince every time someone quotes Ernest Rutherford’s famous (or notorious) dictum 'All science is either physics or stamp collecting', with the suspicion that he may have had botany in mind for the latter role. There is no doubt that the study of plants and fungi is heavily dependent on collections, whether it be the 7 million pressed plants in Kew’s Herbarium or the 1.25 million fungi in its Fungarium. But it is arguable that botanists could do more to show that their research is as ready to deal with big questions as any other branch of science.

This is the driving force behind a major new series from BBC Radio 4, Plants: From Roots to Riches, that runs over 25 episodes from 21 July to 24 August 2014. This tells the story of major botanical discoveries over the 250 years of Kew’s existence. Some of these discoveries took place at Kew; others are illustrated using Kew’s living and preserved collections. Some stories are well-known – the transfer of cinchona and rubber, the influence of Linnaeus on plant names. Others, such as the unravelling of polyploidy (multiple chromosome sets) or the identification of the cause of Dutch Elm Disease, are far less so.

Luckily for me, as curator of Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, useful plants play a major role in these discoveries, and I have had plenty of opportunity to be involved in the series. These days radio production is very streamlined, and most of the script, interviewing and production has been done by a team of just two very approachable BBC staff, embedded in an office at Kew, making it easy to put forward ideas. Kew’s Head of Science, Prof. Kathy Willis, has developed the science content and is the presenter, while Dr Jim Endersby at Sussex University is the consultant for history.

Photo of Kew’s first Museum of Economic Botany

Kew’s first Museum of Economic Botany, 1847-1960

There were five stories I wanted to be in the series, and they all appear. Episode 3 ‘Pressed Plants and Possibilities’ (23 July 2014) covers the development of the Kew Herbarium and the world’s first Museum of Economic Botany, and features Caroline Cornish talking in the evocative spaces of the original Museum building (now Kew’s School of Horticulture).

In episode 5, ‘Lumping and Splitting’,(25 July), I show some of the Māori taonga (treasures) sent from New Zealand to Kew by William Colenso, as part of complex exchanges of knowledge and artefacts between, on the one hand, the Māori of Hawkes Bay and Colenso, and on the other, between Colenso and Sir Joseph Hooker at Kew.

Photo of Māori bottle gourd

Bottle gourd carved by Māori and sent to Kew by William Colenso, 1853.

Two of Kew’s plant transfers are covered: episode 7, on ‘Tapping into Rubber’ (29 July), and cinchona (the source of quinine, for treating malaria) in episode 15, ‘Plants from medicines’ (8 August). I am hoping that these programmes (which I have not heard before broadcast) will convey the nuances of these histories, once presented as triumphalist narratives of progress, and now often a vehicle for the projection of concerns about important contemporary issues such as biopiracy into the past.

The BBC programmes make use of Kew’s Archives, which offer remarkably direct insights into the motivations and actions of those involved. A key – and overlooked – figure in the story of quinine is John Eliot Howard, Quaker pharmaceutical manufacturer and botanist. I’m very pleased that the programme highlights how he brought together developments in botany and analytical chemistry to identify the most potent species of cinchona.

Photo of cinchona bark

Cinchona bark analysed by John Eliot Howard

Episode 14 on ‘Genetic diversity’ (7 August) covers two of my botanical heroes, Nikolai Vavilov and John Percival. Vavilov is deservedly famous for his plant collecting trips around the world, gathering seeds of crops and their wild relatives for seed-banking and plant-breeding. Tragically killed during the Stalinist purges of the 1940s, Vavilov’s vision inspired the founders of today’s global network of seedbanks, including Kew’s Millennium Seedbank.

John Percival was the first professor of agricultural botany at the University of Reading, where I studied in the 1980s and first encountered his work. Nearly 100 years ago Percival built up a global collection of 3,000 wheats, grown on at the university farm, and published what is still the standard monograph on wheat (The wheat plant, 1921). In the programme we use the collection of 1,300 wheat ears bought from Percival by Kew in the 1930s, and which form an eloquent witness to the extraordinary (but vanishing) diversity of this staple crop.

Cover of From Roots to Riches

The book of the series

As well as contributing to the radio programmes, I have also had a hand in fact-checking the book of the series, due out in mid-August. This has taken me well out of my comfort zone, into the history of orchid-hunting, photosynthesis and genetics among much else, and taken me into the deeper recesses of Kew’s Library. I learnt that there are not many popular books on the history of botany (setting aside the ever popular subjects of plant exploration and illustration), with the notable exception of Jim Endersby’s excellent A guinea pig's history of biology, and I believe that the book will be as important as the radio series in raising the profile of plant science among a wider public.

- Mark -

Plants: from roots to riches is broadcast each weekday on radio 4 at 13.45 from 21 July to 24 August 2014, and is then available as a download from the programme website. The series will be broadcast again in the autumn, on Radio 4 and the BBC World Service.

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