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Killer Plants and the Big Smelly Tree!

Number 21 - December 2000

D. Sanders


‘I fear that many young people are apt to consider botany a very dry study. They are naturally repelled by the long words and many technical terms used in describing plants’ (Brightwen 1913).

Our first impressions of a botanic garden; the journey we make through it, how this is negotiated, who we make this journey with and how we record it, are key factors in constructing our relationship with both the garden and the plants it contains. As a researcher looking at the question: ‘Botanic Gardens: An Environment For Learning?’ (for children aged between 7 and 12), one of my main interests is how children connect with plants: do particular plant groups in botanic gardens make a greater impact than others? If so, is this impact because of cultural factors, fascinating biological features, dissimilarity to the child’s everyday landscape, and/or the botanical interests of garden educators?

The Study

The initial part of my study has been to work with three year groups from three different primary schools in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea:

School 1 (Class A) Year 3 (26 children, 7-8 year olds)
School 2 (Class B) Year 4 (26 children, 8-9 year olds)
School 3 (Class C) Year 5 (23 children, 9-10 year olds)

Classes A and C have visited Chelsea Physic Garden more than twice; Class B has visited once. All the schools are state schools with mixed social and cultural rolls. Following a visit to Chelsea Physic Garden each child in the class worked on post visit(s) recording sheets, which incorporated a wide range of questions focusing on aspects of their visit(s) to the garden and the nurturing of plants at home.This article will consider responses to the questions:

  • Which plants do you remember from your visit(s) to Chelsea Physic Garden?
  • What is your favourite plant? (generally-not site specific)
  • Why?

The children worked on their recording sheets in the classroom, away from the garden, with the support of their class teacher and myself (as non-directive facilitators). The recording sheet encouraged the children to give both written and illustrated responses. From a total of 75 recording sheets distributed, 71 were returned complete, a 94.7% return rate.

The responses given by the 25 children in Class A to the question ‘Which plants do you remember?’ generated ten groups of plants. If the groups are closely examined, different descriptions of the same plants are revealed, for example Phormium tenax was called ‘N.Z. flax’, ‘the flax’ and ‘NZ plant’ by the children. If we amalgamate these descriptions into one group entitled NZ Flax then Class A would have remembered a total number of eight groups of plants ranging from the very specific ‘venus fly trap’, ‘drosera’, to the very general ‘trees’.

The most commonly ‘remembered’ plant group in Class A was ‘cacti’ which was chosen by 8 children. However, for nearly one quarter of Class A their responses to the question 'Which plants do you remember from your visit(s) to Chelsea Physic Garden?' were similar to their responses to the question ‘What is your favourite plant?’ Of the six plant groups which were both ‘remembered’ and a ‘favourite’, ‘rose’ was the most common choice with five children choosing it.

In Class B, the 25 children completing the recording sheet ‘remembered’ 20 groups of plants, 12 more than Class A. These named plant groups ranged from ‘bluebells’ through to more generalist groups such as ‘weeds’, and also included specific popular names such as ‘Elephants ear’. The children also chose to use descriptive terms such as ‘spiky plant' and ‘prickly plant’ (interestingly the youngest group, Class A did not use descriptive terms, but Class C did e.g. ‘The big smelly tree’, Ginkgo biloba). It was found that ‘bluebells’ were ‘remembered’ by 10 children in Class B (40% of the class respondents). Their one and only visit to Chelsea Physic Garden was in late Spring indicating that seasonality could possibly be an important factor in shaping plant perceptions. The programme of study in the garden also seemed to frame the plants that children remembered from the visit (not surprisingly!). Both Classes A and C had significant experiences with carnivorous plants both at school with the garden education staff and in the garden, whilst Class B had them briefly included in a general guided tour in the garden.

Consequently Class B made no mention of carnivorous plants in response to the ‘remembered’ plants question and only 2 children from Class B included ‘the one that eats flies’ as a favourite plant. Hopefully further study will illuminate this relationship in more depth. In Class B, 10 children chose ‘roses’ as their favourite plant (40% of the class respondents). In answering the question why was it their favourite plant, four of the children commented on the colour red.

With Class C (23 year 5 children) 20 groups of plants are featured in the ‘remembered section’. As with Class A, carnivorous plants feature strongly both as the broad group ‘carnivorous plants’ and as separate species, 12 children mentioned ‘venus fly trap’, 4 children mentioned ‘pitcher plant’ and 2 mentioned ‘sundew’. ‘Cacti’ also featured highly with one third (8 children) of the class respondents mentioning them as ‘remembered’, but significantly ‘cacti’ were not included in the favourite group. Carnivorous plants also had a high profile in the favourite plant group (‘venus fly trap’ were chosen by 9 children, ‘pitcher plant’ by 2 and ‘sundew’ by 2).

Roses are Red

The one plant group that was common to both the ‘remembered’ and ‘favourite’ sections through all year groups was ‘roses’. Interestingly, the Physic Garden has no designated area for roses. Indeed, rosa spp. make up only 0.8% of the living collection. Nevertheless, ‘roses’ had a higher numerical profile in the group ‘favourite’ with 17 children choosing them through the three year groups, a third (22.6%) of the total number of children in the study. If we look at ‘roses’ as a ‘favourite’ plant choice, distinct differences between the classes emerge:

  • 5 children in the Year 3 (Class A) group chose ‘roses’
  • 10 children in the Year 4 (Class B) group (the group with the least experience in the botanic garden)
  • 2 children in the Year 5 (Class C) group (the group with the most experience in the botanic garden).

Overall, ‘roses’ have a much higher profile in the ‘favourite’ group than the ‘remembered’. Does this mean that ‘roses’ are seen as domestic rather than botanic garden specimens? One child commented ‘Because it reminds me of my family’ as his reason why ‘roses’ were his favourite plants.

Many of the children helping with my research do not have access to a private garden, but I would suggest that their connection with roses does not simply come from a ‘being in the garden’ experience, but could be a cultural link with nursery rhymes and fairy tales, for example were the 4 children that equated roses with the colour red influenced by the nursery rhyme ‘Roses are red, violets are blue....'? Was the Year 5 girl who described the rose as ‘a dangerous beauty’ drawing on fairy tales? Was the East End boy who yelled ‘cowboys’ one day in the Cacti conservatory, making a connection with movies that he had watched?

Learning to Look

In the book Private Life of Plants, David Attenborough makes the comment:
‘For most of the time their lives remain a secret to us, hidden private events. The reason is merely a difference of time. Plants live on a different time-scale from ours…we only need to learn to look’ (Attenborough 1995).

In facilitating learning to look, do botanic garden educators inspire children to remember certain plants? If we are using the framework of the guided tour as a basis for the childrens' experiences, what impact does tiredness and time have on which plants excite them? If carnivorous plants are an early part of the tour, will this make a greater or lesser impact than if they are at the end?

Is Gender a Factor in ‘Favourite’ and ‘Remembered’ Plant Choice?

If we look at the responses of Class C to the ‘favourite’ plant question, 12 boys out of a possible 14 chose a carnivorous plant; whereas the 9 girls chose 7 different plant groups. When asked why they liked their favourite plant, six of the boys commented either on the function of the trap or mechanism e.g. ‘…because its a killer’ ‘…because of the way it catches flies’.

In this class only one girl chose a carnivorous plant, ‘the sundew’, as her favourite. In her response she used a combination of function: ‘…because it is amazing how they trap flies’ and mechanism: ‘…because it is sticky’. Gender differences were substantially less marked in the Year 3 group (Class A). This class contains substantially more boys than girls, a ratio of 19:7. In explaining their reasoning for their favourite plant choice, 4 of the girls commented on colour and shape. Interestingly with this class, carnivorous plants did not have a high profile as favourite plants (especially since this class had a carnivorous ‘hands-on’ study day in their school).

Given that gender difference became more substantially marked in the oldest class, can we infer that gender and interest in plant groups is an age-based relationship? I would be loathe to do this from such a small localised sample, but intend to pursue these three key questions with a larger group; both in number and geographical spread.


In a letter to the Journal of Biological Education in 1990, David R. Hershey made the comment ‘Plants are generally easier to handle in a classroom situation than animals since they do not bite, run away or produce odours’. From my initial study it seems that it is precisely those active, odorous characteristics that excite children; long live ‘Killer Plants’ and ‘The Big Smelly Tree’!