Dr Stephen Harris Publishes New Book - Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum: A Brief History

A major highlight of writing this book was the sheer enthusiasm of the staff at the Botanic Garden and Arboretum for knowing more about the history of the place and how it related to the collections in the Department of Plant Sciences."

Dr Stephen Harris, Druce Curator of the Oxford University Herbaria, has written a new book titled Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum: A Brief History 

We had the opportunity to ask Dr Harris a few questions about the inspiration, process and highlights of writing this newest addition to his published work. 


What gave rise to the inspiration for this book?

When I was Acting-Director of the Botanic Garden and Arboretum in 2015 I was approached by Samuel Fanous, Head of Bodleian Publishing, to consider writing a short introduction to the Botanic Garden and Arboretum. I was aware of the wealth of relevant material in Oxford University Herbaria and thought it would be an interesting challenge to try and bring my interests in living and dead plants and culture together. The nearly 400-year history of the Botanic Garden seemed a way of doing this. I also wanted to make images that are rarely seen outside of the collections accessible to people, and to give some sense of the wealth of material available across the University’s collections.


How did you conduct your research? Where did you start?

I started from what I knew about the Herbaria, especially the collections of the first two gardeners in charge of the seventeenth-century garden, both called Jacob Bobart. It was then a matter of immersing myself, but not drowning, in the archive of documents associated with the early history of the Garden. I starting followed trails from there, e.g., science, management structures, accounts, politics. Frequently, the archives were silent with material having never been kept, lost or in some cases destroyed. However, I have been amazed at the quality and quantity of material available for research. Gradually I discovered links among the collections I had not considered before. I also discovered lots of quirky anecdotes, but any stories that entered the book had to be backed up by documentary evidence.


Do you have a process you like to follow when writing a book?

I tend to start with an idea or an event and then work from there. In this case the idea was that the Botanic Garden was specifically established for the cultivation of medicinal plants. Was this true? How could I find out? I could go some way to answering this by taking advantage of seventeenth-century species lists for the Garden and herbarium specimens collected by the Bobarts. If the Garden was not about the cultivation of medicinal plants, what were the Bobarts doing? How did the Bobart’s legacy play out in the next generation of gardeners and professors. The questions kept coming and eventually there was a book manuscript.


What was your highlight in writing Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum: A Brief History?

This is a difficult question to answer. One highlight was thinking about things I had not considered in detail before. For example, the different subjects that interested the Bobarts in the late-seventeenth century and how these map onto current interests in the Department of Plant Sciences. I found it fascinating looking at the highs and lows of the Garden’s fortunes and how this was reflected in the Account books (which go back to 1734). However, a major highlight of writing this book was the sheer enthusiasm of the staff at the Botanic Garden and Arboretum for knowing more about the history of the place and how it related to the collections in the Department of Plant Sciences. After all, it is only since the 1950s  the Garden and Plant Sciences have been separate.


What do you hope your readers will get out of this book?

I hope that people go away with a sense of how the Botanic Garden and Arboretum has been shaped by social, political and intellectual conditions over nearly four centuries.


In the author’s note you mentioned that you have a ‘fascination (perhaps obsession) with the past, present, and future of the University’s botanical collections’ – where did this fascination come from?

I have always been fascinated by natural history collections and books generally, but my interest and enthusiasm for the University’s collections has grown over the past 22 years of working in the Herbaria. The wealth of botanical material available in the University’s collections is staggering. The originators of these collections had no idea of how these collections can be used today. As a steward of one of these collections I believe it is my responsibility to hand the collection on in a better state than when I received it. Part of that is by making the collections available as widely as possible for teaching, research and public engagement, and ensuring that they remain actively engaged with other collections nationally and internationally.


Where and when will the book be available?  

The book will be published in April 2017 and will be available in most bookshops, including the Botanic Garden and Arboretum, price £14.99.


Do you have any other projects on the horizon?

I have just finished writing a book on the biology and cultural history of the sunflower family, and have also finished a biography of the Scottish plant collector George Gardner. I am starting a book on the Treasures of Oxford University Herbaria; the manuscript is due by the end of the year.

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