On Wednesday 26 February, Professor Beverley Glover, Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, came to The Perse to deliver the Lent 2020 Community Lecture, in partnership with The Cambridge Building Society.
When opening her lecture, Professor Glover told the audience that she intended to make the audience look at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in a different light. A popular tourist destination, receiving 330,000+ visitors per year, many people will have been to the Botanic Garden for a ‘nice day out’, perhaps not realising the unique niche it has in helping the world’s problems.
The Cambridge University Botanic Garden houses 8,000 living plants over 40 acres of land. It is home to 60 staff, and assists a global network of researchers from a wide variety of academic disciplines. The site itself is a Grade 2 listed landscape, but is not the site of the first Botanic Gardens in Cambridge!
Cambridge’s original botanic garden was established in 1762 on what is now the New Museums Site. A three-acre site, it was a ‘Physic Garden’ – used to teach medical students about plants and their medicinal uses. This changed in the 1800s, when polymath John Stevens Henslow, both Professor of Minerology and Botany at the University of Cambridge, petitioned for a new, larger, site to be built. He intended that plants should be used for more teaching and research purposes, and that, to understand plants in their own right, they needed more space. The current site was acquired and Henslow set about designing it. Many of the features of the West side of the garden, that Henslow developed, are still there today. The East side of the garden was developed later, thanks to a bequest from Reginald Cory.
Henslow had many questions about the different botanical species, and was very interested in the variations between plants. He wondered why different plants looked different if they were the same type of plant, and how far these variations could be stretched. His fascination with these questions can be seen in the planting of the Garden today, for example the different varieties of Beech tree that line the Garden’s paths, and also in his herbarium samples.
Henslow is famous less for his own work, but for who he taught – Charles Darwin. Henslow and Darwin spent many weekends of botany together and so, when asked to recommend a naturalist to accompany the HMS Beagle, Henslow recommended Darwin. Darwin took many herbarium samples from the HMS Beagle, which he sent back to Henslow, and the Botanic Garden’s current herbarium records contain around 1,000 of Darwin’s herbarium sheets.
The Botanic Garden has contributed to the research of thousands of academics since it was founded. Alongside Henslow and Darwin, it also played a large part in the research of William Bateson, who developed the term ‘genetics’, leading to Cambridge establishing the world’s first Chair of Genetics in 1912.
The goals of the Botanic Garden today continue to champion the Garden’s role in supporting research, training future leaders, and to support learning. This work enables the Cambridge University Botanic Garden to play a role in tackling some of the biggest issues of the modern day.
Professor Glover turned to three of the biggest issues facing the planet – climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the challenges around crop security and food production – before explaining how the Cambridge University Botanic Garden is helping address these challenges.
In terms of climate change, she noted how different temperatures affect plants and their pollinators, using the example of a Madagascan orchid. This species of orchid (A. sesquipedale) has only one pollinator – a moth with a 38cm tongue – that can reach to the end of the plant’s incredibly long nectary. In a climate change scenario, both species will adapt to different temperatures and their needs, meaning they may no longer co-exist. If this were to be the case, and the two species were uncoupled, both would die.
The Garden’s research enables academics to look at a wide range of climate-related issues, for example a number of very vulnerable Alpine species. By conducting research, academics are able to see how the plants work and adapt, and look at how they may exist in future.
Professor Glover also acknowledged the role the Botanic Garden played in recording the highest temperature seen in the UK, when it reached 38.7oc in the garden in July 2019. The Garden’s staff had recorded the maximum, minimum and average temperatures, as well as rainfall levels, daily for 100+ years, enabling it to make a useful contribution to the national picture.
With regards to biodiversity, the Botanic Garden works with projects such as the ‘Darwin Tree of Life’, seeking to sequence the genome of all native UK species. It also acts as a sort of ‘zoo for plants’, with its ex situ conservation work contributing to improving horticultural knowledge about a diverse range of plants. Professor Glover gave the example of the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanium), or “corpse flower”, which has flowered twice at the Garden over the last five years.
Global food security relies on plants, many of which require animal pollination (although the yield loss without pollinators differs between species). Professor Glover’s own research, into how floral traits affect pollinators, helps to address this issue. She explained that by conducting experiments with bees, researchers are able to see which features of plants are most likely to attract pollinators, giving the example of iridescence on plants, which can help make flowers easier to find, thus increasing foraging efficiency.
Researchers have been able to repeat these experiments to test a variety of plant traits, such as flower shape and the sweetness and viscosity of nectar, to find which of the commercial varieties of plants are best for pollinators. This enables farmers to be able to choose their varieties accordingly to optimise crop production.
Professor Glover concluded the lecture by taking questions on topics such as how temperature change affects the species they grow at the Garden, and how they choose which new species to include each year. It was clear to see that the Cambridge University Botanic Garden provides more than just a good day out!
The Perse holds termly Community Lectures, open to all in the community, whether or not they have a link to the School. Information about upcoming lectures can be found here.
Listen to Professor Beverley Glover here.