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Seeking Partnerships to Teach Biodiversity: A Story Based Approach To Teaching

Number 19 - December 1999

T. Walker & L. Allen




Résumé en Français

Resumen en Español

Biodiversity has been at the heart of the Education Programme at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden since the programme was first established in the early 1990s. As the Education Programme has developed and evolved so has the way in which we teach biodiversity.

This evolution has led us to adopt a story-based approach which avoids bombarding visitors with buzz words and statistics that have only a limited relevance to their everyday lives. Our approach is to show them through stories just how relevant biodiversity is to the lives we lead, and how our actions can affect the world’s biodiversity. Regardless of whether the botanic garden visitor is 4 years of age or 94, we have found our approach to be very effective.

There are however four key ingredients:

  1. The stories must be relevant to peoples' lives.
  2. The audience must be able to relate to the stories.
  3. The stories must have a clear message.
  4. A living plant must always be used to illustrate the story.

Included here is a small selection of our favourite stories - all of which illustrate why biodiversity is important by showing people how useful plants are in our every day lives.

A Story for Younger Children: A Cure for Koalas

Every young child loves the sight of a koala. It is commonly believed by children and adults that koalas only ever eat the leaves of the Eucalyptus tree. However, occasionally they are observed eating the leaves of the tea tree Melaleuca alternifolia. The oil from this plant is one of the most efficient medicinal cures produced by a plant. It has been suggested that when the koala is feeling unwell it eats the leaves of the tea tree because it knows that it will feel better afterwards.

A Story for Teenagers: Cocoa Cures Love Sickness

When you suffer from being love sick there is a chemical in your brain called aphenylethylamine that falls to dangerously low levels. One of the few ways of topping up this natural amphetamine is to eat lots of chocolate made from the cocoa pods of Theobroma cacao. This helps to explain the craving to eat chocolate when experiencing love sickness - or it could just be a good excuse to eat more chocolate!

A Story for New Parents: Protecting Your Child

The coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea and Echinacea angustifolia are native to North America and the roots were very widely used in the traditional medicine of the Plains Region. The original inspiration that Echinacea had medicinal properties came from observing rattlesnakes. It is said that if you irritate and tease a rattlesnake for a long time two things may happen: one possibility is that it bites you; the other is that it bites itself.

If the latter occurs, the snake will skulk off and hide under a rock; but not before it has sucked at the root of an Echinacea plant. The North American Indians used Echinacea applied as a poultice to cure snakebites, and discovered that it improved the rate at which the wound healed and reduced the chance of further infection. This knowledge was passed onto the early settlers and Echinacea was patented as a medicine in 1870. Research carried out under scientific conditions has now shown that Echinacea can stimulate the production of the white blood cells that are so important in our bodie's natural defence against infection.

Few medicinal herbs have risen in popularity in the way that Echinacea has over the past 50 years. It is believed to have antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties and is still being used in some forms of Aids therapy.

A Story for Women: Cures for Cancer

In North America several Indigenous tribes have for many decades used the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia to treat skin cancer. In 1979 it was discovered that the pacific yew could also treat breast cancer. Unfortunately, to treat one patient you need to remove the bark of an entire tree. It is very obvious that one would very quickly destroy all of the pacific yews if all patients had this course of treatment.

Following on from years of research it is now known that the leaves of Taxus baccata, the English yew, can be synthesised for the production of taxotere for the treatment of breast cancer. Our oldest tree here in the Oxford Botanic Garden is an English yew tree, yet when the yew trees were planted in the Oxford Physic Garden in 1648 they were intended as ornamental plants. It is only today, over 350 years later, that the value of the yew tree is becoming apparent.

A Story for Grandparents: Maintaining the Perfect Body

If the tissues and cells in our bodies are to remain healthy and function correctly, they must be enclosed by membranes that are fluid, flexible and permeable to the correct substances. The membranes require a supply of essential fatty acids to remain healthy. If you are eating a balanced diet that contains these essential fatty acids then you should be fine - if your physiology is perfect.

However, the essential fatty acids in your diet must be altered slightly, before they can be used in the construction and maintenance of healthy membranes, and this is where the problem may begin. The enzyme that carries out this alteration to the fatty acid may not function properly as you grow older, drink alcohol or become more stressed. The enzyme changes the essential fatty acid in your diet into gamma linolenic acid, or GLA. If you supplement your diet with GLA then you are bypassing the slovenly enzyme.

All that is needed is a source of GLA. Fortunately it is present in large quantities in the seeds of the evening primrose, Oenothera biennis. The plant fills its seeds with GLA as an energy supply to give the new seedling a good start in life. The easiest way to produce GLA of the correct quality is to grow fields of evening primrose and to squeeze the oil from the seeds, which is then used as an ingredient in a variety of herbal products available from the chemist.

Looking for Partners

These few examples illustrate just how powerful and effective stories can be in demonstrating how important the maintenance of biodiversity is to our continued survival.

We are convinced that we are not the only people working with biodiversity stories. In the continued tradition of botanic garden collaboration, we are looking for partnership organisations, from botanic gardens around the world, who are interested in contributing biodiversity stories and working with us, with the long term aim of developing a publication to ensure the future of our oral and aural tradition.

Cherche Partenariat Pour Enseigner la Biodiversité



Le Jardin Botanique de l'Université d'Oxford met en place un programme éducatif sur la biodiversité, basé sur le récit ‘d'histoires de plantes’. Le personnel du jardin a trouvé très efficace cette façon d'illustrer combien la biodiversité fait partie de nos vies ordinaires. Désormais, le personnel cherche à établir des partenariats avec les jardins botaniques du monde entier pour partager des ‘histoires végétales’ et faire un livre afin d'assurer la conservation des traditions orales. Les histoires actuellement racontées au jardin concernent des plantes comme Melaleuca alternifolia, Theobroma cacoa et Echinacea purpurea.

En Busca de Socios Para Enseñar la Biodiversidad.



La enseñanza de la biodiversidad usando un enfoque basado en la historia es un componente vital del Programa de Educación del Jardín Botánico la Universidad de Oxford. El personal del jardín ha encontrado en esto una forma muy efectiva de mostrar a los visitantes en que forma la biodiversidad es una parte esencial de la vida cotidiana. Ahora el personal está intentando establecer relaciones con jardines botánicos de todo el mundo con el objeto de compartir historias de plantas y de producir una publicación que asegure que la tradición oral y auditiva no se pierda. Algunas de las historias que hoy en día se cuentan en el jardín hablan de plantas tales coma la Melaleuca alternifolia, la Theobroma cacoa y la Echinacea purpurea.