Friday, 28 September 2012

Braving the elements (in more ways than one)

As gardeners we are all used to dealing with "the elements"on a daily basis - braving whatever the weather throws at us. Never has this been more true than this year. However, at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden we are a positive lot and thought we'd embrace "the elements" - but in a different way altogether.

Following on from a successful collaboration with our colleagues in the Department of Chemistry (the other "Elements") in 2011 to celebrate International Year of Chemistry, we have teamed up once again to deliver a new audio trail entitled "Chemistry at the Garden" which is available free of charge to all our visitors. During the summer, a group of enthusiastic science communicators got together to record the audio trail on location at the Garden. Helped by the very patient Josh from the University podcast team, we told the stories of how plants have provided inspiration for chemistry research both in the past and still today.

The audio trail leads you around the Garden, where, at the appropriate places you trigger the sound by pointing the nib of the audio pen on a specially designed map. You can hear about photosynthesis, how the lotus plant has inspired the development of new materials, what makes the wonderful caramel smell that is wafting across the Botanic Garden on sunny days at this time of year and how the plants at the Garden helped an Oxford chemist win a Nobel prize.
Each of the trail stops lasts just a few minutes and gives you an insight into what motivates the research chemists to pursue their work.

The new audio trail was launched on the 13th September. The weather was kind and all those who came had fun exploring the collections with the audio trail. 

Another fantastic group who have braved "the elements" over the spring and summer are the volunteers who have been working at the Garden alongside our team of botanical horticulturalists. This year we have welcomed almost thirty gardeners and weeders who have enabled us to tame the weeds in the face of one of the wettest summers on record. Their help has been invaluable in keeping our worst weed (Nothoscordum) under control and their never ending enthusiasm to eradicate this beast is much appreciated. On Wednesday this week we said a proper thank you to all our volunteers (whether office based or practical, Garden or Arboretum) as well as all those who have given their time to support the Friends of the Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum over the past year. This occasion was marked  of course by tea and cake (and more cake).

After consuming our bodyweight in cake we finished with a walk around the Botanic Garden, led by Gardens curator Tom Price.

It seemed only appropriate that is was pouring with rain!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Keys at the Sea

The Botanic Garden is a living collection of plants and, like any museum collection, it is important to know exactly what we are looking at. Plants can be identified in a number of ways- often it is enough to see a plant once and be told what it is to establish familiarity for life. Often it is possible to match the living plant to a picture or photograph in a guide. An image search on the internet, however, may provide us with a variety of plants from widely different families, all sharing the same name. It is obvious that identification has to come from an authoritative source. Luckily for botanists and gardeners this source exists in the form of comprehensive floras of native and garden plants. It was to gain experience in using these guides that staff from the Garden team attended a recent course in identifying coastal plants run by the Field Studies Council.
Saltmarsh at Shingle Street, Suffolk

Which Salicornia is which? 
The course took place in Suffolk under the expert tuition of Ros Bennett. Staff from the Botanic Garden joined other students in an effort to identify various coastal plants, mainly using the key from Stace's New Flora of the British Isles. A key of this kind lets the user choose between two descriptions of a plant. The chosen description will lead to another pair of descriptions, and so on, until the plant has been identified to the level of family, genus or species. Often the key features in these descriptions require a hand lens to be visible. The curious naturalist discovers a hidden world of microscopic beauty. 

Many beautiful plants grow in the ever-changing landscape of the salt marshes and shingle. Obviously, many are adapted to the high levels of salt and the regularly inundated mud of estuaries. While these plants may be impossible to grow in Oxford some, such as Sea Lavender (Limonium) and Sea Kale (Crambe maritima) are thriving in the garden.
In any case, learning how to use a flora allows us to identify plants from any habitat and encourages to look at the wonderful variety of detail that makes every plant species unique.