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Dr William Milliken

Kew scientist and modern-day plant hunter

Dr William Milliken, one of Britain's foremost ethnobotanists, is Head of the Tropical America Programme at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and a Research Associate of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. He is a world expert on plants and their uses, and divides his attentions between biodiversity issues and venturing into rarely explored corners of the world to collect specimens for research purposes. When not at Kew or adventuring in the Amazon you’ll find this modern day plant hunter on his farm outside Edinburgh surrounded by a menagerie of animals.

Expedition to the Amazon

Your three favourite flowers?

Meadowsweet, Butterwort and Yellow Iris. All beautiful and all useful.

Tell us about your childhood garden?

Small but well cared for, and full of lovely trees that were brought by my parents from holidays overseas. Probably illegal, now! My mother used to go out at night with scissors, to cut the slugs that were destroying her precious flowers. There was honeysuckle growing up to my window, and our cat used to climb up during the night and sleep on my bed. I wanted my own private garden, so I dug a small patch on the railway border (beyond the hedge) and planted vegetables. The railway line was a biodiversity corridor, and at night I heard the vixen foxes screaming at night.

Who or what inspired your career choice?

It was by accident, to be honest. I wanted to work with biodiversity and began researching otters and seals on a small island off Ireland, but then heard about an expedition to the Amazon (organised by the Royal Geographical Society). They invited me to join the botany team for some reason, and during the expedition I met Indigenous Ye’kwana people. They had amazing knowledge of plant use, which set my career choice – plants, people and sustainability.

What is a typical day in the life of William?

When I’m not working on research projects at Kew, I manage a small farm. Lambing, feeding the pigs in the mud, cutting down diseased ash trees, promoting biodiversity and attempting endless projects that have not been (and may never be) finished!

No garden is complete without …

Fruit-bushes, particularly blackcurrants. In my allotment in Edinburgh there was a large Jostaberry bush, and the fruits were delicious.

Something we’d find:

· On your bedside table: A cup of Earl Grey tea.

· In your flower arrangement: Native wildflowers, collected locally.

· In your garden shed: Less chaos - I haven’t got there yet!

The flaw you wish you didn’t have?

Not asking for assistance.

What would you be in another life?

A photojournalist

Guiding principles?

Attempt to consider - and address - the impact on future generations. More so than ever before.

Who is a botanical hero?

Richard Spruce. He was a remarkable naturalist in the mid-19th century who spent 15 years travelling in South America. A botanist, geographer, explorer, linguist, and sociological observer, he spent a long time travelling in the Amazon collecting new species and documenting their uses, among other things.

What is the one flower or plant you’d never plant in your garden, but don’t detest when you see others plant it?

Skunk Cabbage. It is beautiful, but also non-native, and every year I dig it up with a spade in a failed attempt to kill it.

If there was a fire, and you could only keep one book on botany, what would it be?

The Oxford Book of Wild Flowers. My mother used it often to identify plants, and then gave me her book in her will.


View of glasshouse at Kew


· Book (fiction): John Le Carré.

· Film: The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la peur).

· Painting: Henri Rousseau – Tiger in a Tropical Storm.

· Smell: Crushed Meadowsweet (it’s a bit like Germolene!).

· Meal: I’m not sure. I eat pretty much anything and enjoy it.

· Travel Destination: Antarctica (by sail …).

· A cause near and dear to me: My family.

· Place to go for inspiration: The west coast of Scotland, in a storm. Waves crashing on the shore, and the wild blowing so hard that that you must lean into it to stay balanced.

· A great walk near where you live: On the farm, beside Cob Brook. Or, travelling a little further, along Firle Beacon in the South downs. We sometimes go there in the autumn, to gather damsons.

· Thing to collect obsessively: Indigenous artefacts, particularly baskets and bows/arrows. I have so many already, and there’s not enough room to keep them in the house.

· Museum: Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford. I haven’t been there for ages, but I remember opening drawers and discovering exciting objects, by chance.

· Favourite person to follow on Instagram: I’m not really an Instagram person. But I like the images by Carolyne Mazur, particularly corrugated iron. I love this weathered material.

· Garden in the UK: Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. I spent a long time working there, and it almost feels like my own garden.

· Garden anywhere else: I’m not sure, to be honest. I think you need to go there first before you can decide if you like it.

Dr William Milliken
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