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Interview: Dr Stephen Harris

The biting cold air clouds my breath as I trudge down the High Street. Half-melted snow, which fell during the night, has thoroughly permeated my socks, my chapped lips are as painful as a stained-glass window and, to compound this misery, my frozen fingers have just fallen off.

But the picturesque scene that greets me upon entering the Botanic Garden is recompense enough for my troubles. A white carpet of snow, undisturbed and perfect, has been laid across the grass. Skeletal trees dapple the sunlight. Magdalen’s bells ring out stridently.

Dr Stephen Harris, acting director of the Botanic Garden, shakes me warmly by the hand. Snow crunches and squeaks beneath our feet as we wander around and he begins to tell me about the Garden’s history.

The result of a £5000 donation by Sir Henry Danvers, who would later become the first Earl of Danby, the Botanic Garden officially opened on 16th July 1621, Harris tells me. A Latin inscription, carved into Nicholas Stone’s spectacular gateway, commemorates Danvers’ generosity, and records that the gift was made for “the glory of God and the greatest honour of King Charles I”.

The land itself, used as a Jewish burial ground in medieval times, was rented from Magdelen College and the four walls that were built to enclose the Garden have remained virtually unchanged since their completion in the 1630s.

According to the original plans, which remain in the University Archives, these walls were to be “well fair and sufficient as All Souls’ College walls, Magdalen College Tower, or any of the fairest buildings in Oxford both for truth and beauty”.

“The soil quality had to be improved at first”, Harris explains, “so thousands of cartloads of dung from the city and from the colleges was dumped here in order to create a really good soil.”

I ask Harris how closely linked the University and the Garden are, beyond the much-appreciated contribution of tonnes and tonnes of manure.

“The garden itself is a department of the University, and it also has very close ties with the Department of Plant Sciences,” Harris gestures towards the buildings that make up the North Wall”, which actually occupied these buildings until 1953, so there is a very intimate connection there.”

Since its foundation, the Garden has grown (pardon the pun). It now comprises the original Walled Garden; the Lower Garden, an area outside the wall bordered by the river Cherwell; a series of glasshouses which emulate a variety of worldwide climates; and the Harcourt Arboretum, a 130-acre site a few miles outside the city, containing hundreds of different tree species.

We pause by a tall, thick-trunked tree. Its bark has a reddish hue that is gloriously vibrant in the low, winter sunlight. Harris’ knowledge and enthusiasm is evident as he tells me about it.

“This is a species called Dawn Redwood. It’s one of these trees that is considered to be a living fossil and it was first discovered in China in 1946. This actual tree was raised from one of the very first seeds that came into the UK.”

There seems to be something historically significant about almost every plant. We pause again by the entrance to the lower garden, an area outside the walls not included in the original plans, where an impressive Yew tree stands guard.

“This is the oldest tree in the garden”, Harris informs me. “It was planted by the first keeper of the Garden, a German named Jacob Bobart, in 1645. It’s actually mentioned in a catalogue written by Bobart in 1648.”

The yew tree, like many other plants in the Garden, serves not only a botanical purpose, but a medicinal one as well.

“Back in the 17th and 18th Century, the only effective sources of medicine were plants”, Harris explains. “That’s still true today to some extent, because in many ways, plants can synthesise very complex chemicals much, much easier than we can.”

“There is a chemical isolated from Yew trees that is very important in treating cancer, for example. Belladona and Mandrake provide very important anaesthetics. We have a whole series of beds with these medicinal plants in.”

We approach these beds and I am mildly surprised when I notice the presence of a certain green-leaved herb.

“We do grow cannabis in the gardens”, Harris laughs, “but not that cannabis. Ours has no THC in it. We still need a home office licence for it, though.”

The Garden also plays an important role in conservation.

“First and foremost, the Garden helps the conservation agenda through educating people”, Stephen explains, “but we do have some plants here that are really rather rare. We’re particularly heavily involved with the protection of two local species, a little violet and a small bedstraw. We think about conservation on a local, a national, and an international level.”

Harris admits that for most, the Garden is primarily a place of relaxation.

“It’s an open space which is generally quiet and peaceful, and is a very pleasant place to spend time. We’re not seeing it at its best now, but in the Spring and Summer, it is genuinely stunning.”

“It’s amazing to think that this garden has been here for nearly 400 years. We’re standing in a space where generations and generations of students and academics have moved and walked and discussed.”

“Linnaeus, Humboldt, Darwin, Tolkein, Carroll – they have all worked within these four walls. This is such an amazing space that I suspect quite a few students don’t know is here.”

As we shake hands and head towards the exit, I am forcibly reminded of Sebastian’s comment in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It seems beautifully pertinent.

“Oh, Charles, what a lot you have to learn! There’s a beautiful arch there and more different kinds of ivy than I knew existed. I don’t know where I should be without the Botanical gardens.”

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