Research and Botanic Gardens

Learn how botanic gardens help us understand the world we live in.

By Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Birthplace of botanical science in the UK

Oxford Botanic Garden is the United Kingdom’s oldest botanic garden. It was founded as the ‘Oxford Physicke Garden’ in 1621 by Henry Danvers, the first Earl of Danby, for the cultivation of medicinal plants for teaching the University of Oxford’s medical students. The Garden occupies a unique place in British history and its academic location as the birthplace of botanical science in the UK.

A centre for plant science research and teaching

Today Oxford Botanic Garden remains a centre for plant science research and teaching. Its mission is ‘to share the scientific wonder and importance of plants with the world’. Together with its sister site, Harcourt Arboretum, it holds a collection of over 5,000 different types of plant from nearly 300 families. Some are extremely rare in the wild and some exist nowhere else in the world, making the collection internationally important for research and conservation.

Maintaining Victoria cruziana (2019)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

The plants grown at Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum are a living library for teaching and research in plant evolutionary biology. 

Field studies in JapanOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Working together with scientists at the Department of Plant Sciences and other national and international collaborators, botanists at the Garden work on a range of plants including Oxford ragwort, the flora of Japan, and carnivorous and parasitic plants.

Largest flower on Earth by Dr Chris ThorogoodOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Parasitic plants

Parasitic Rafflesia arnoldii produces the largest flower on Earth, measuring up to an incredible 1.5 metres across. This gigantic ‘vampire plant’ steals its nutrients from the roots of tropical vines. Despite its fame for being the world’s largest flower, relatively little is known about the biology of the plant. 

Parasitic plants like Rafflesia are virtually impossible to cultivate in botanic gardens outside of their native range. Scientists at Oxford Botanic Garden carry out research into the evolution of parasitic plants. 

Japanese flora

Japan is a narrow island archipelago with a wide range of climates, from subarctic Hokkaido in the north... subtropical Okinawa in the south, and is home to an exceptionally diverse flora with over 7,000 species. 

Conservation effortsOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum carries out research with partners in Japan and the UK to conserve plants in this exceptionally diverse flora. 

Alnus sieboldiana (2013)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Seed from 400 different plant species has been collected, and thousands of herbarium voucher specimens have been made. 

Plants collected from Japan can be seen growing in the Garden and Arboretum, some of which do not exist elsewhere outside of Japan. 

Pitfall trapsOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Carnivorous plants

Carnivorous plants are the ‘predators’ of the plant kingdom. They evolved in environments where nutrients are scarce, such as waterlogged swamps or rain-leached mountain slopes. They produce array of lures and traps to attract, catch and digest animal prey to supplement their diet.

Sarracenia oreophila in flower (2019)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

 There are nearly 600 different species of them, with traps that range from simple structures such as tightly bound leaf rosettes that retain water, to intricate forms with unique strategies for capturing and killing specific types of prey. 

Darwin, Charles PortraitsLIFE Photo Collection

Darwin was fascinated by these plants. He studied their feeding mechanisms, offering them meat and prodding them. 

The plant that can countOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

 He concluded that the movement of an animal caused the plants to react. 

The Botanic Garden holds a collection of over 100 carnivorous plants.

Nepenthes sanguineaOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Pitcher plants

The leafy traps of Nepenthes pitcher plants evolved where soils are poor to derive nutrients from insects. Insects are attracted to their sugary nectar and fall from the slippery rim into a pool of digestive juices. 

The Cloud Forest (2018)Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

The pitchers are produced in a vast assortment of shapes and sizes and are adapted to extracting nutrients from a number of sources: from insects to leaf litter, and even sometimes animal faeces. Our research at the Garden indicates that this variation in diet has probably played an important role in the evolution of pitcher form among species.    

Nepenthes rajahOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

The Garden holds a large collection of Nepenthes pitcher plants inspired by those that grow Mount Kinabalu in the north of Borneo such as this one, N. rajah

At 4,095 metres, this is the highest mountain in the Malay Archipelago and is a World Heritage Site famous for its numerous endemic orchids and carnivorous Nepenthes pitcher plants.    

A tree shrew toilet by Dr Chris ThorogoodOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Tree shrews sit astride the pitchers of this species to feed on nectar on the inner surface of the lid. Whilst feeding, the tree shrews excrete into the pitcher vessel, which has glands to absorb the valuable nutrients.

Pitcher plants an important resource for research carried out by scientists at Oxford Botanic Garden and the Department of Plant Sciences into the biology and evolution of this fascinating genus. 

NepenthesOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

Botanists at Oxford Botanic Garden work with mathematicians and engineers to explore possible applications of plant surface features in technology. Together, these scientists have created artificial surfaces to explore the capability of trapping, retaining and directing the travel of liquid droplets, inspired by the slippery surfaces of pitcher plants.    

Their findings have revealed a mechanism for developing systems in which the transport of droplets is controlled by ‘energy railings’. Inspired by the pitcher plant, these railings provide a means of transporting and sorting droplets in droplet-based technology and could enable the efficient mass transport of liquids along pre-determined pathways. 

Nepenthes peristomeOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

The scientists’ observations also offer insights into the evolution of pitcher plants, showing that the ‘pitfall’ trapping mechanism of Nepenthes is enhanced by the water-infused grooves on the slippery rim, driving insect prey into the trap in a way that is more tightly controlled than considered previously, by avoiding arbitrary slippage.

New species of Nepenthes pitcher plant are described every year, but many are threatened by habitat destruction in the wild. 

Nepenthes extincta by Dr Chris ThorogoodOxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum

This illustration of a plant described as Nepenthes extincta is based on a single herbarium specimen held in the herbarium Kew; this is probably all that remains of this plant. Now it is a sad emblem of the precarious continued existence of these beautiful plants in their natural habitats. Botanists are in a race against time to discover and conserve new species before they are lost forever.    

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