Research at the University of Manchester Botanical Experimental Grounds

Early history

The University of Manchester’s Botanical Experimental Grounds were first set up c.1909 in the grounds of Ashburne Hall, Fallowfield (now a hall of residence). The pioneer of this venture was Professor F E Weiss, who held the George Harrison Chair of Botany between 1892 and 1930.

The land on which the Grounds currently stand belonged to Sir Joseph Whitworth, inventor of the ‘Whitworth rifle’ and ‘Whitworth thread’. Between 1851 and 1887, they were part of his country residence known as The Firs. On his death it was bequeathed to the University, who let it to C P Scott, first editor of the Manchester Guardian (later to become the Guardian newspaper). Around the beginning of the century, the Grounds were leased out and used as a commercial fruit and vegetable nursery. Produce was then sold in the family greengrocery shop in an adjoining lane.

Before the First World War, belladonna was harvested from plants growing wild in Southern Europe, most notably Croatia and Slovenia. Native sources of Atropa belladonna were all but depleted when the plant was over-harvested for the production of atropine, a potential nerve-agent antidote. During the War, however, the drugs obtained from A.  belladonna and Hyoscyamus niger, henbane, became so scarce that the Experimental Grounds were used to help in the production of these plants.

Later, in the early 1920s, the University was approached by the Empire Cotton Growing Corporation to investigate a bacterial disease causing problems on its crops in the Sudan. With Manchester and most of Lancashire being heavily involved with the textile industry, local trade was being affected as a result. Descendants of those plants are still growing here among the plant collections.

Current research

Today, the Grounds fall under the auspices of the School of Biological Sciences and are in full use. A wide range of research projects are undertaken in several areas of science.

Biochemistry and biotechnology

Professor M J Emes (Director of the Experimental Grounds) is leading the largest and longest running experimental work in this area. His research has bought in grants that currently total more than £1 million. For the past 11 years, he and his team have been investigating various aspects of starch biosynthesis in higher plants, in particular cereals. The starch biosynthesis pathway in developing spring wheat (Triticum aestivum) is being studied by examining the regulation of soluble and membrane-bound proteins, which may affect both the amount and type of starches produced by cereal crops. The amount of plant material required for this study has recently increased by 50%, and five further researchers have been employed, bringing the current total up to seven.


Ecological research has become more prevalent in recent years, material being supplied for studies of the effects of acid rain on flora and fauna. The Grounds host a fully computerised CO2 facility; four cubicles may be individually programmed for lighting, heating and humidity, and differing concentrations of carbon dioxide; plants may than be subjected to individual régimes, and the effects monitored thereafter.

The presence of heavy metals in various soils is another area of research currently under review. The Department runs an MSc course in Pollution and Environmental Control, which makes use of the Grounds. Investigations carried out in collaboration with Proctor & Gamble plc revealed that reed beds are able to remove detergents from effluent streams, at concentrations commonly found in waterways.

Another area of study is the effects of the environment on spore production, genotype and sporogenesis in bracken (Pteridium sp.). Herbicide toxicity to non-target species is also under investigation.


One of our largest houses is currently being used to reconstruct the experiments carried out by Gregor Johann Mendel (1822–84). An Austrian monk with a scientific education and a keen interest in botany, he began his genetic experiments on peas in 1856 in the monastery garden at Brunn, Moravia. His work provided the basis for our understanding of the mechanisms of inheritance and is now the subject of a television series being produced by Channel 4. Filming is currently in progress. The series is entitled Scientific Discoveries that Changed the World and also considers Galileo, Newton, Curie, Einstein and Faraday.

Associated with this area, the Grounds also have controlled facilities for the maintenance of transgenic plants and are fully compliant with UK and EC legislation on the handling of genetically modified organisms. The material grown is used for academic research only and includes potato, tobacco (used as a model species), oil-seed rape and Lotus japonica.

Biological control

Important investigations have been carried out on the biological control of mealy bug by its natural enemies Cryptolaemus montrouzieri and Leptomastix on a range of host plants. This proved to be such a successful exercise that we have now introduced these predators into our plant collections. Hopefully, it will help us to minimise the use of pesticides in areas that contain a wide diversity of plant material.

Thurston Heaton