‘There’s huge potential here,’ says Simon Hiscock as he plans to transform Britain’s oldest garden of its kind.
Giant water lily, Victoria cruziana, at the Oxford Botanic Garden
By Olivia Gordon
Professor Simon Hiscock’s first memory of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, where he took over as director in the summer of 2015, is of being taught how to graft fruit trees here as an undergraduate studying botany. In the years since then, botany (now known as plant sciences) fell off the list of Oxford’s undergraduate degrees, and teaching and research at the Garden declined. But Hiscock (Worcester, 1982), a specialist in evolutionary genetics and plant reproductive biology, is determined, he says, to ‘bring science back to the Garden and push the message about the importance of plants for all life on this planet’.
Oxford’s botanic garden (and arboretum at Nuneham Courtney), he explains, ‘has been somewhat sidelined for a number of years, and needs to be brought back into the fold of science at Oxford. The synergies with plant science in the form of teaching, research and public engagement need to be brought to the fore.’
The situation at Oxford is not unique. The last few decades have seen universities run down or close their botanic gardens to save money; Hiscock was part of a team that saved Bristol University’s botanical collections and gave them a new home with a focus on science. Having accomplished this as the director of the Bristol Botanic Garden, he heard about the vacancy of the directorship at Oxford. Despite never having had ambitions to return to his alma mater, Hiscock saw a unique opportunity ‘to transform the oldest botanic garden in the country and raise it to the standard one would expect for a world-class 21st-century university botanic garden’.
The Botanic Garden’s Danby Gate
The fact that this is a university botanic garden is important, he stresses. ‘We can’t compare it to Kew or Edinburgh — the mission here is slightly different. Being a university garden, I would argue it has to be all about science — all the collections need to tell scientific stories about plants.’ He wants to create a garden like the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, ‘where there’s amazing science going on’.
Botany was first developed as an academic subject in Oxford at the Botanic Garden where the Department of Botany was situated until the 1950s when it moved to South Parks Road. Now Hiscock plans to bring research back to the site with new laboratories and undergraduate and postgraduate teaching space for research projects, for example for work on microscopy and plant genome sequencing.
Hiscock’s team is currently working on a range of branded merchandise, from tea towels to mugs and umbrellas, featuring artwork of plants from Oxford’s herbaria. The Oxford Herbaria, housed in Oxford’s plant science department, is a library of dried pressed plant specimens which date back to the mid-1600s, making it one of the oldest surviving herbaria in Britain. The first specimens were collected by the first keeper of the botanic garden, known then as the Hortus Praefectus, and are ‘incredible’, Hiscock says, containing now extinct species and rarities from all over the world.
The Garden has been doing work with schools for years, but in the future there will be even more at the Garden to excite children of all ages (who, Hiscock says, suffer ‘some of the most boring plant biology’ in the national curriculum). It has just started running an innovative Forest Schools programme for local schoolchildren at Harcourt Arboretum.
There will be more effort to engage the general public too — with gardening courses and interpretation material explaining the importance of specific plants and the science behind the collections — so people walking around understand what they’re looking at and why it matters, not only the name of the plant. Last year saw the first new display, called ‘Plants that Changed the World’, and currently a literary trail is being constructed, with a sculpture of the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland the first thing seen (Lewis Carroll and the real-life model for Alice were regular visitors to the garden). There are now seasonal family-friendly festivals running year-round at the Garden and Arboretum — the first, an apple day and autumn fair, held at Harcourt Arboretum in the autumn, attracted thousands of people.
Hiscock hopes to ride the wave of interest in gardening, the environment and traditional crafts and aims to collaborate with many of the other ecological and environmental research projects and organizations movements at Oxford. He says: ‘There’s huge potential here.’
All images courtesy of the Oxford University Botanic Garden.