5 November 2015

A mission to show how plants play a vital role in our everyday lives, motivates the Head of Education at London’s oldest botanic garden

“Take a plant like bamboo, there are musical instruments made out of it, you can eat it, build a house with it or make your socks from it,” says Michael Holland.

Ever since a school field trip to Wales, Michael has been fascinated by “the profound interdependency between natural things”. In 1990 he came to study Ecology at Lancaster University, one of the first places in the world to offer this degree.

The “amazing environments and landscapes” around the University not only offered fantastic locations for field study but also plentiful subjects for Michael’s passion for photographing the natural world. A year studying abroad in Oregon, where he took courses in horseriding and dance alongside more mainstream subjects, expanded Michael’s view of education further.

Twenty years later Michael is applying that inventive approach to his role as Head of Education at the Chelsea Physic Garden, founded in 1673 as as the Apothecaries’ Garden to provide training in the medicinal use of plants.

Today’s adult and children’s education programme, which Michael runs, covers subjects ranging from botanical drawing to the role of plants in solving crime, using experts from many fields including artists, aviators, animators and forensic biologists.

“Our starting point is nature. We might look at flight, how birds fly and how seeds fly and follow on with a kite-making workshop,” said Michael, who quickly became enthused by the study of ethno-botany, the relationship between people and plants.

“Any outdoor space can be a really effective classroom and cross-curricular resource for science, maths, communication, art, design and history making it as fun and memorable as possible.

One of the most memorable projects which Michael started is called ‘Shelf Life’: a collection of plants growing in the packaging of the products which contain them. A tomato plant grows in a tin of canned tomatoes, and a juniper bush in a gin bottle. ‘Shelf Life’ won a Royal Horticultural Society Silver Gilt medal at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2004.

The Garden is signed up to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which highlights the importance of plants and aims to ensure their conservation. Michael believes we must all value the riches offered by nature.

“We shouldn’t take for granted what we have in our lives, we need to understand where things come from, and that not everything comes from sustainable resources. We need to respect the natural world and look after it so it can continue to provide for us in the future.”