The 25th July 2021 marks 400 years of botanical research and teaching by the University of Oxford.

As a celebration and count-down to this anniversary, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, together with the Oxford University Herbaria and the Department of Plant Sciences, will highlight 400 plants of scientific and cultural significance. One plant will be profiled weekly, and illustrated with images from Oxford University's living and preserved collections.

  • Plant 39: Aristolochia clematitis
  • Plant 38: Allium cepa
  • Plant 37: Galium tricornutum
  • Plant 36: Artemisia annua
  • Plant 35: Rosa canina
  • Plant 34: Nepenthes rajah
  • Plant 33: Dianthus caryophyllus x Dianthus barbatus
  • Plant 32: Taraxacum sp.
  • Plant 31: Victoria cruziana
  • Plant 30: Lathyrus odoratus
  • Plant 29: Heliconia rostrata
  • Plant 28: Senecio squalidus
  • Plant 27: Paulownia tomentosa
  • Plant 26: Urtica dioica
  • Plant 25: Euphorbia characias
  • Plant 24: Heliamphora nutans
  • Plant 23: Laurus nobilis
  • Plant 22: Tulipa sylvestris
  • Plant 21: Pleurococcus sp.
  • Plant 20: Gleditsia triacanthos
  • Plant 19: Tillandsia usneoides
  • Plant 18: Marchantia polymorpha
  • Plant 17: Daphne mezereum
  • Plant 16: Citrus medica
  • Plant 15: Coffea arabica
  • Plant 14: Gossypium species
  • Plant 13: Stachyurus praecox
  • Plant 12: Encephalartos ferox
  • Plant 11: Aloe vera
  • Plant 10: Araucaria angustifolia
  • Plant 9: Isoetes echinospora
  • Plant 8: Hamamelis virginiana
  • Plant 7: Lithops species
  • Plant 6: Sequoiadendron giganteum
  • Plant 5: Commiphora saxicola
  • Plant 4: Buxus sempervirens
  • Plant 3: Picea abies
  • Plant 2: Cinnamomum verum
  • Plant 1: Taxus baccata

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    The data and images available on this site may only be used for scientific purposes. They may not be sold or used for commercial purposes. All images are copyright of the University of Oxford, unless otherwise indicated.

    The specimens at the Oxford herbaria and the living collections of the Oxford Botanic Garden and Oxford University Herbaria are being digitized using BRAHMS.


    Dr Alison Foster (

    Dr Stephen Harris (

    plants400/OBGHA.JPG BANNER03.JPG

    Plant 40

    Zingiber officinale Roscoe (Zingiberaceae)




    In the late 1780s, three sorts of ginger were being grown in the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of which was Zingiber officinale. As Professor John Sibthorp showed his students their leafy shoots he lamented that 'from the Badness of our Stoves [glasshouses] we have Seldom an opportunity of seeing these Plants in Flower'; we now know ginger very rarely flowers in cultivation. Carolus Linnaeus placed the gingers in a group, the Scitaminea, with other monocot spices such as turmeric and galangal, the name of which was considered 'expressive of dainty treats' by Sibthorp.

    The aerial shoots of Zingiber officinale are not true stems, they are pseudostems formed from the tightly overlapping bases of the leaves. These shoots are produced annually from underground stems called rhizomes. The thick, pale brown, hand-like rhizomes have a corky outer layer and a pale yellow, aromatic, fibrous interior; the rhizome is the source of the spice ginger. The flowers, when they are produced, are arranged in cone-shaped spikes and are pale yellow with a purplish lip.

    Zingiber officinale is unknown in the wild and has been propagated asexually from rhizomes for millennia. As the peoples of south and southeast Asia moved they took ginger with them as both flavouring and medicine. Consequently, the sites of the original domestication of ginger, and the distribution of its wild relatives, have been obscured by the ebb and flow of peoples over millennia. Circumstantial evidence, from a wide range of different sources, implies India may the origin of ginger.

    Ginger was an important spice in Europe from as early as the thirteenth century. However, more than one thousand years earlier it was commonly used in Rome, apparently from plantations in north east Africa. Arabian trade routes had moved ginger west from its eastern origins centuries earlier. In the sixteenth century, Iberian empires transported ginger to West Africa and then to Mexico and Jamaica in the Americas; ginger was the first Old World spice to be grown in the New World.

    The phenolic compounds gingerol, gingeridione and shogaol, which give the rhizome its pungency, are also irritants. These irritant properties give us the verb 'to ginger' (enliven) and the slang 'to fig', which was defined by John Badcock, in a 1823 dictionary of sporting slang, as putting ginger 'into the rectum of horses to give them a short-lived vigour'; the horses were apparently 'resentful of the beastly indignity shewn them'!

    Dalby A 2000. Dangerous tastes. The story of spices. The British Museum Press.

    Turner J 2004. Spice. The history of a temptation. Harper Perennial.

    Stephen Harris