Oxford Team wins Botanical University Challenge

Oxford University Biology students won this year’s Botanical University Challenge (BUC) in a team they called ‘Bad Birches’. They will be the first team to receive a new BUC trophy, crafted from nine different tree species in the proportions they occur in a British bluebell wood1 and awarded in honour of the late Professor Howard (Sid) Thomas, who was the Emeritus Professor of Biology at the University of Aberystwyth. The trophy was turned and inlayed by woodworker Michael Warren.

BUC is an annual contest of botanical knowledge, founded in 2015 by Professor John Warren, Emeritus Vice Chancellor from the Papua New Guinea University of Natural Resources and Environment, Dr Jonathan Mitchley, Associate Professor in Field Botany at the University of Reading, and Paul Ashton, Professor of Botany at Edge Hill University. Its aim is to promote the importance of plant awareness and knowledge, and specifically to encourage plant awareness in students, highlighting the urgency of educating future generations in botany and plant science to meet global needs.

The contest is open to both undergraduate and postgraduate students, and this year’s contest was the largest ever, with 25 teams from across Britain and Ireland taking part. Besides Oxford, teams representing the University of Cambridge, Trinity College, Dublin, and The Eden Project took part in the semi-finals and finals on Wednesday 5 July. As the University of Nottingham’s team won last year, the contest took place at the University’s main campus.

DPhil and MBiol students Ollie Spacey, Lucy Morley, Ellen Baker, Reuben Nebbett-Blades and Mayur Prag represented Oxford, fielding questions on sundews, the appropriate botanical terms for different types of fruits, Latin epithets for habitats, and types of inflorescence. In the final, the Oxford team faced Cambridge, and were posed questions by Dr Colin Clubbe, Senior Research Leader at Kew, Dr Amanda Rasmussen, Assistant Professor in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham, and Dr Henry Ford, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. The final was a closely run contest between the two teams, with Oxford pulling ahead to clinch the title.

BUC aims to bring together students studying botany, biology, and associated subjects, or with a particular interest in plants. After the contest, students enjoyed the first ever Botany Festival, where they took part in poster sessions, plant swaps, book giveaways, career workshops and discussion sessions. Students visited the University of Nottingham’s Hounsfield Facility to learn about how they use X-Ray Computed Tomography in rhizosphere research to look at microscopic root-soil interactions, and enjoyed a botany walk organised by the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI). The event came to a close with a guest lecture on root growth from Malcolm Bennet, Professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Nottingham. BUC 2023 was supported by the Gatsby Foundation, New Phytologist Foundation, British Ecological Society, Field Studies Council, and the BSBI, and was organised by the BUC team with support from Dr Susannah Lydon, Assistant Professor in Plant Science at the University of Nottingham.

Dr Chris Thorogood, Deputy Director and Head of Science at Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum, has been involved with BUC as a panellist and judge, and this year helped to judge the Get Creative art competition which saw students submit fine art, photographs and multimedia entries on various botanical themes. Chris spoke to the BUC team about his recent publication, Chasing Plants, in an interview which you can read on the BUC website here. You can watch the competition on the BUC YouTube channel here, and you can play along at home by downloading an answer sheet.

Congratulations to the University of Oxford team and we look forward to BUC 2024.


1British NVC community W10 Quercus robur – Pteridium aquilinum – Rubus fruticosus woodland.

Photos courtesy of Botanical University Challenge and Max Richardson.