Garden audio trail reveals ginger and lotus secrets

Visitors to the University of Oxford Botanic Garden are being invited to take an audio tour with a difference and hear about the chemistry that gives plants their flavours, colours and medicinal properties.

The tour, launched on 13 September, features recordings of students and lecturers at Oxford University’s Department of Chemistry talking about what fascinates them about plants.

As they walk around the Botanic Garden visitors can trigger recordings relevant to the plants around them; hearing, for example, that:

The way that lotus leaves use microscopic ‘cushions’ of air to repel raindrops is being mimicked to create self-cleaning roof tiles and window glass. [Listen to audio file 6 – see below]

Ginger gets its many distinctive flavours from a cocktail of molecules, most importantly phenols: water lost during cooking ‘remixes’ this cocktail to change the taste. [audio file 7]

The snowdrop is still harvested for galantamine, a drug used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It is estimated that 80% of the world’s population still rely on plants for some aspect of their primary healthcare. [audio file 13]

Strawberries, plums and red cabbage get their bright colours from anthocyanins, Nature’s most commonly-used pigments, that can change colour depending on the plant’s chemical environment – try adding lemon juice to red cabbage and see this pigment change from purple to red. [audio file 10]

Sir Robert Robinson [1886-1975], Waynflete Professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, won the 1947 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for solving the chemical structure of morphine – a pain-relieving alkaloid derived from poppies. [audio file 4]

Dr Alison Foster, Senior Curator of the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, said: ‘I'm really excited to be launching this audio trail with the Department of Chemistry. It is a fantastic way for the research scientists to engage with the public about chemistry and to help change people's attitudes to chemicals for the better. This trail will show everyone how important chemistry is and how relevant it is to all aspects of our daily lives.’

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 EPSRC for their support of this project.'

There are 20 recordings in all covering other topics including; why plants are green [audio file 18], ancient pigments [audio file 17], and the chemistry behind a tree that smells of caramel [audio file 14]. Some images of plants from the tour can be viewed in the slideshow above and their numbers correspond to the links to audio files below.

[1] Introduction – Alison Foster

[2] A few words about chemicals – Alison Foster 

[3] Take care with the word organic – Alison Foster

[4] Sir Robert Robinson – Ed Anderson

[5] Energy from the sun – Alison Parkin

[6] New materials - lotus leaves – James McCullagh

[7] The many tastes of ginger – Ed Anderson

[8] The chemistry of decaffeination – Gem Toes

[9] The hottest plant – Ed Anderson

[10] Colourful vegetables – Elizabeth Rayment

[11] The machine inside plants – Alison Parkin

[12] Healing medicines or poisonous plants – Diane Lim

[13] New medicines from plants – Alison Foster

[14] The caramel tree – James McCullagh

[15] Nitrogen uptake – Kylie Vincent

[16] Nitrogen fixation – Kylie Vincent

[17] Ancient pigments – James McCullagh

[18] Why are plants green? – Alison Parkin

[19] Plants in extreme environments – Alison Parkin

[20] Pigments from plants – Alison Foster