Chemistry at the Garden


The Chemistry Department at the University of Oxford has been working with the Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum since early 2011, on a range of projects to promote public understanding of Chemistry through the use of the living collections.


Alison Foster, Senior Curator Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum  said “The public engagement partnership which we are enjoying with Oxford Chemistry is a great model with which we will engage many other Departments in the University, harnessing the value of the Botanic Garden as an accessible resource for delivering innovative research stories

Professor Tim Softley, Chairman of the Department of Chemistry said: 'The Department of Chemistry is delighted to continue this exciting project with the Botanic Gardens. It gives us a great opportunity to engage with the local public, extend our outreach to local schools, and draw together a broad range of researchers and students to work towards an important goal. Chemistry is all around us, and we see it as our responsibility, as leading scientists to make the subject exciting, relevant, approachable and fun! We are grateful to all our sponsors, including EPSRC and BBSRC, for their support of this project and it’s continuation at future events.

The Project

The collaboration started in 2011, International Year of Chemistry, when an enthusiastic group of undergraduates, Part II students, DPhils, Post-docs and lecturers hosted a poster exhibition from October 2011 through until the end of January 2012.  The posters were designed to tell a story and highlight the main chemistry of plant-derived compounds, give some information about how the chemistry of the compounds has been defined, opportunities for further research and potential knowledge or products which may be realised in the future.

In addition to the poster exhibition three trails around the garden were devised and accompanied by chemical structure models of active compounds where appropriate. The trail topics were: Fragrances, Hyperaccumulators and the Nitrogen Cycle.

There were at least 14,000 visitors to the Botanic Garden during the exhibition (recorded numbers all week during October and weekends only during November to January) who will all have had the opportunity to visit the exhibition.


Comments from the visitors book for the Exhibition included:

Fascinating information and communicated in a simple style for us non chemists. Brilliant!”

Impressed by the molecule beside the jasmine and by 28 other plants noted in my records book. Excellent. I hope the molecule idea catches on and is diversified.

Very interesting, posters were clear and easy to understand.

“A very interesting exhibition and well presented. Found lots of information on plants found in my garden.


Highlights of the exhibition were developed into a permanently available audio trail, again accompanied by chemical structure models of active compounds placed by relevant plants around the Botanic Garden. The audio trail, voiced by DPhil students and staff from Chemistry, as well as the Senior Curator from the Botanic Garden was launched in September 2012. To date, over 400 visitors and 200 post-16 students and teachers have taken the trail and there have been at least 1700 downloads of the trail from iTunesU (search Botanic Garden Chemistry Audio Tour) and the university podcast page (

The audio trail was featured in both local and national press, including an article on BBC online:

More recently, a short film about the audio trail has been made, featuring Dr Ed Anderson and Dr Kylie Vincent from the Department of Chemistry. The film can be viewed here. (Botanic Garden’s Chemicals). This provides a good example to other departments of a highly effective public engagement activity that is also enhancing research and training opportunities for those taking part.  

Following on from the success of the audio trail, a “Summer Science Stroll Series” was devised to allow members of the public direct access to research scientists from the Department of Chemistry in the surroundings of the Botanic Garden. During the summer of 2013 five academics delivered a series of guided walks around the Garden using the plants to explain key aspects of their research.  Dr Richard Cooper, who led one of the summer strolls said  “I really enjoyed the walk, both in preparation and delivering the material - the audience was very thoughtful and engaged and we ended up chatting well after the advertised hour. Researching the talk was extremely useful and some of the ideas and plant-themed stories have been useful for giving talks to visiting school trips in Chemistry”.

Feedback from the attendees was extremely positive:

"While I have some science background, it wasn’t in chemistry so was a little daunted but the talks were pitched at just the right level for me, while others with more technical understanding seemed to derive just as much pleasure. Props and illustrations DID help!"

"Having only done 1 year’ physics/chemistry 56 years ago (plus O level Biology) I really welcome the way that the OBG education programme has, ove the last 10 years, helped me understand and appreciate what scientific research can achieve, and how it sets about it."

"I feel that what I have picked up (in small bits) has helped me read the science sections of public media in a more informed way."

"I have also enjoyed the experience of hearing what Oxford academics (or ex Oxford) are currently involved with – and appreciate the way that they have been careful to try to make what they say accessible to the non-scientist."

"Very memorable cheese and grapes carbon and hydrogen with double bonds made out of cocktail sticks! Loved it!"

"Brilliant – engaging selection of objects and visual aids"

The Future Solar Fuels team from the 2011 poster exhibition and audio trail was selected to run an interactive stand at the highly competitive Royal Society Summer Exhibition 2013, an event which attracts a great deal of media interest and makes a significant contribution to the promotion of science education. The dedicated team of young post-doctoral and post-graduate researchers supported by members of staff from both Chemistry and the Botanic Garden, worked with colleagues from the University of York. In preparation for the event, the team were given advice by colleagues from Physics and Earth Sciences who had exhibited at the previous year’s Summer Science Exhibition. They learned about the pitfalls of live experiments and how to capture the imagination of young visitors and how to seek sponsorship.

As a practice run, the team participated in the Fascination of Plants Day event “Time Travel with Trees”, held in May at the Harcourt Arboretum. This allowed them to fine tune the exhibit, practise their engagement skills and to meet with other researchers within the University interested in public engagement. 

The collaboration continued with an exhibition in 2014 for International Year of Crystallography.