Plants 400. A celebration and count-down to 400 years of botanical research and teaching by the University of Oxford.

Wed March 14th, 2018

Two hundred and twenty five weeks ago, members of the Department of Plant Sciences and Botanic Garden and Arboretum started writing 400-word profiles of plants. This 400-week-long project culminates in a celebration of four centuries of plant sciences research and teaching in the University of Oxford in July 2021.

The Plants 400 website highlights plants that are of biological and culture interest, drawing on images and specimens contained in the University’s botanical collections. Authors of each profile are encouraged to have their own scientific focus on the week’s species. The only rule is that each entry is precisely 400 words long.

Entries to date have ranged from the blue-green alga Nostoc (Plant 65), growing as a sporadic weed in the Garden’s rockeries, through garden irises (Plant 183) to model plants such as Oxford ragwort (Plant 28) and thale cress (Plant 108). Profiled plants need not be rare or showy but they do have to be associated with good science-based stories.

This week’s entry, greater plantain, is an example of a species found everywhere in Britain but probably overlooked by almost everyone, except to observe that it is an obnoxious weed. The plant’s sticky seeds have aided its dispersal across the planet’s temperate regions, where it has readily become part of local medicines. Yet it was one of the species used in early investigations of phenotypic plasticity, the genetic basis of monstrosities and wind pollination. Plantain also has a prominent place in one of the earliest naturalistic interpretations of a plant community, Albrecht Dürer’s Das große Rasenstück (1503).

Over the coming year, expect to see entries focused on Charles Darwin’s fascination with fruit size in gooseberries, ergotism and rye, the peculiarities of the pereskia cactus, the diversity of pumpkins and the ecology of sequoias.