Roots to Seeds: new exhibition celebrates four centuries of Oxford botany work

Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford
Free admission, no booking required

Roots to Seeds (18 May – 24 October 2021) is a new exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries that reveals the highs and lows of botany at the University of Oxford, and highlights the continued relevance of this study in the modern world, as Oxford Botanic Garden celebrates its 400th anniversary.

The first major exhibition to trace the history of plant sciences in Oxford, Roots to Seeds will highlight the evolution of its study from the early 17th century, through the growth of collecting across the world during the Age of Exploration, to the revolution of botany as an intellectually respectable subject in the 17th century, concluding with the positive impact of botanical research on the world today. The exhibition creates a dialogue between rare books, manuscripts and specimens to show our changing knowledge about plants and how we have used them for our own purposes.

Visitors can trace the development of this study through a range of items on display: from a stunning 12th-century illustration of the Mandrake plant, to the ‘Bobart the Elder Herbarium’, the first catalogue of plants in Oxford Botanic Garden, and the foundation of the University’s botanical collections. Preserved specimens of diverse plants and flowers from across four centuries will be shown alongside beautiful and illuminating sketches and drawings of plants, including a night flowering cactus by Robert Thornton.

Roots to Seeds will tell fascinating stories of nature and of human achievement, while celebrating the beauty of plants. Together with seventeenth-century herbals, elegant garden plans, and plant models, items from the archives will help to tell the story of botanical science in Oxford and the intrepid botanists who devoted themselves to the essential study of plants. The exhibition also looks forward to the future of plant science, including contributions from the University’s current students and researchers who are focusing on the key areas where plant science will make a significant contribution to global security, from food production to medicine.

Exhibition Curator and Druce Curator of Oxford University Herbaria, Professor Stephen A Harris said:

Plants are essential to all aspects of our lives – from the air that we breathe through our food and medicine to how we choose to live our lives. Starting with the origin of Oxford’s Physic Garden in 1621, Roots to Seeds focuses on four centuries of contributions made by researchers and teachers in the University to the global, scientific story of plant biology. Moreover, this episodic story challenges assumptions about plants and how we have acquired our knowledge of them.

Over 300 rare books and specimens have been drawn from the collections of the Sherardian Library and Oxford University Herbaria, the oldest scientific collection of plant specimens in the United Kingdom. Books, manuscripts, botanical illustrations, dried specimens and scientific models, many of which have never been on public display before, are featured in the exhibition.

Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian at the Bodleian Libraries, said:

Roots to Seeds is a bold and ambitious exhibition that reflects on our history in this field and looks to our future. This exhibition weaves together compelling stories, objects and images over 400 years. We want people to see beyond the usual when it comes to plants and get a better understanding of the plants that surround them and why they are so vital to all life on Earth.

Roots to Seeds is accompanied by an engaging book from exhibition curator Stephen A Harris, which profiles the botanists and collections which have helped to transform our understanding of the biology of plants over the past four centuries, focusing on plant classification, experimental botany, building botanical collections, agriculture and forestry, and botanical education.

Notes to editors

For further information, images or a preview of the exhibition, please contact:

Liam Challenger, Press & Communications Manager at the Bodleian Libraries
+44 (0) 1865 277627

About Oxford Botanic Garden

Oxford Botanic Garden was founded as the Oxford Physicke Garden in 1621 by the Earl of Danby for the cultivation of medicinal plants for the University’s medical students. The Garden occupies a unique place in history and academic location as the birthplace of botanical science in the UK. Today the Garden remains a centre for plant science research, conservation and education. This year Oxford Botanic Garden – the United Kingdom’s oldest – is celebrating its 400th anniversary.

Department of Plant Sciences

The Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford forms part of the University's Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division. The Department is one of the leading UK university departments dedicated to research and teaching in plant biology and possesses world-class strengths across the breadth of modern plant science. Current research activity is unified under three themes: Biochemistry and Systems Biology, Cell and Developmental Biology, and Ecology, Evolution and Systematics. The Department houses the Oxford University Herbaria that consists of The Fielding-Druce Herbarium and the Daubeny Herbarium, with the collections totalling over 800,000 specimens. In addition, the department has close research and teaching links with the University's Oxford Botanic Garden.

About the Bodleian Libraries

The Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford is the largest university library system in the United Kingdom. It includes the principal University library – the Bodleian Library – which has been a legal deposit library for 400 years; as well as 27 libraries across Oxford including major research libraries and faculty, department and institute libraries. Together, the Libraries hold more than 13 million printed items, over 80,000 e-journals and outstanding special collections including rare books and manuscripts, classical papyri, maps, music, art and printed ephemera. Members of the public can explore the collections via the Bodleian’s online image portal, Digital Bodleian, or by visiting the exhibition galleries in the Bodleian’s Weston Library. For more information, visit