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Evening tour of Oxford Botanic Garden

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SCI member Alison Foster is a glasshouse horticulturalist, working full-time as part of a team of three in the University of Oxford Botanic Garden glasshouses. With a background as a chemist, she also has a special interest in pharmaceutically important plants. SCI's Horticulture Group conductedan evening tour of the gardens in June 2010 and here Alison tells us more about her work.

What do you like best about working at the Botanic Garden?
AF: The amazing range of plants is fantastic and inspiring to be around on a daily basis, as are my colleagues. Talking to our visitors about what we do is also very rewarding.

What exciting or unexpected discoveries have you made?
AF: I learn something new almost every day – seeing the ground-level aspidistra flowers for the first time, eating 'home-grown' bananas, having to be a surrogate beetle pollinating the Victoria cruziana water lily – these have all been wonderful experiences. I'm certainly not the first person to do any of these things, but they were all new to me.

What is your favourite plant/ area of the garden and why?
AF: That's a really hard question to answer. I love the diversity of the glasshouses, but I think if pushed, my favourite plant through the year is the Katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, which is in the walled garden. It is the first tree into leaf, with beautiful heart-shaped leaves, initially red then turning green and the first to colour in the autumn. As it turns yellow and red, a wonderful caramel smell wafts out – fantastic. I am also extremely excited about the new developing pharmaceutical plants area – construction of this is now underway.

How far has your knowledge of chemistry helped you?
AF: Studying chemistry has been enormously helpful. I love to find out about what natural products particular plants make, and how they may help the plant to be better adapted to their environment or survive predator attack. My knowledge of chemistry enables me to understand what I read and then explain it to visitors or colleagues in less technical language. I have done several guided tours where I talk about some of the interesting chemistry-related stories, and the feedback is great. Learning about chemistry that is happening in plants is a really good way of introducing the subject to people and showing that chemistry is not all bad!

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