The guest speaker for October was Dr Mark Spencer who gave a fascinating glimpse into his experience of working as a forensic botanist. It became clear that forensic botanists are a rare find throughout the UK and the world.
He explained that from being brought up within a rural farming background in Warwickshire, he studied at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. However he realised he did not want to pursue horticulture as a job and moved onto studying Botany culminating in a Doctorate looking at the evolution of fungi. While working at the Natural History Museum where he had become an expert on various aspects of botany, he was approached by a Police department asking whether he could help work out how long a body had been in a canal.
He has now worked alongside numerous police forces and an array of other experts such as soil scientists, experts in the study of pollen and forensic entomologists (study of insects) to assist in missing person searches, assessing how long human remains had been in-situ and linking suspects to crime scenes.
As a forensic botanist, Dr Mark Spencer looks for useful evidence using his knowledge of the rhythm, structure and behaviour of plants within their eco-systems. This can range from observation and interpretation of how vegetation is growing at a scene being investigated, to a microscopic identification of fragments of foliage found on clothing, to looking at the stomach contents and understanding the botany within a person’s digestive tract.
He explained how the roots of plants can help provide understanding of how long ago human activity occurred at the scene. Brambles (Rubus fruticosis) can be very useful tools for estimating how long bodies had been lying in woodlands or hedgerows through the knowledge of how they grow at different stages, when they send out side shoots and number of stems produced. I have a feeling that my walks through Oxleas Woods, which are full of brambles, will never be quite the same again!
Dr Mark Spencer is an experienced and internationally respected botanist. His expertise covers many disciplines including forensic botany, the plants of North-west Europe, invasive species and the history of botanical science. He works globally as a writer, public speaker and television presenter and has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage. He is also Hon. Botany Curator of the Linnean Society of London. Dr Spencer’s website gives a detailed description of his range of expertise.